He greeted a visitor, shook his hand, then disappeared in the lobby of the Children's Theatre.
Suddenly, he reappeared — but from behind his guest, mischievous and smiling.
That simple act of play and rudimentary magic by director and adapter Greg Banks harked to his background as a street performer. It also ties into what has made Banks a celebrated and beloved director of shows in the Twin Cities for the past 16 years, including the entertainingly virtuosic "Snow White" that he adapted and staged for CTC.
"He's a joy to be around," said Children's Theatre artistic director Peter Brosius. "He's so full of wit and life and principle."
Banks will be 67 in November — a pensioner in his native England — but you would hardly know it based on his youthful appearance, his verve and vibrancy. A playfulness characterizes interactions with him, as if life is a rehearsal room, and he is trying to figure out how best to stage it.
"I like to muck about," Banks said. "As adults, we get really locked in our roles and see ourselves as the thing we are. But once that changes, our lives fall apart. A sense of play helps us to stay fresh, to be inventive and to cope."
In the Twin Cities, he's staged such enthralling shows as "Antigone," done in a visceral promenade production that cost headlining actor Sonja Parks two teeth. (She lost them in an accident during a particularly active scene.)
He also directed evocative and less dangerous adaptations of "Huck Finn," "Pinocchio" and "The Hobbit." He won an Ivey Award for his emotionally and physically palpable "Romeo and Juliet."
Banks' work "lets the audiences be as smart as they are," Brosius said. He is a master at "taking these theatrical classics, giving them a new life and finding their hearts."
Reducing epics to their core
Brosius recalled that he first saw Banks' work in a touring production of a show at the Flint Hills Family Festival at the Ordway Center.
"I said, 'We've got to have him.' "
What they got was someone who is like a master chef operating in the theater. He knows how to reduce stories to their essences. In fact, it's his knack for taking epic tales and telling them with a few actors and a minimum of fuss that has endeared him to audiences. "The Hobbit" was told with just five actors conjuring dwarves, goblins and assorted monsters.
In "The Hobbit," which is perhaps the most episodic show he has done, you meet one bunch after another "of people who want to kill you and eat you," he said. "I wasn't attached to any particular thing in the story. I was just thinking, what bits do we need to build up these relationships, then move on."
"Huck Finn" had three actors. And "Snow White," just two compelling performers — Joy Dolo and Dean Holt.
"Originally, we were going to have this epic cast of three, and the question was, what is the other actor doing?" Brosius said. "If you don't have seven dwarves, then two playing them doesn't make a difference. At that point, the play is all about virtuosity."
"He doesn't have an ego in the sense of how dare you question my poetic words," said Holt, who has performed in most of Banks' shows in the Twin Cities. "Working without the luxury of full costumes, you have to be malleable to jump from one character to the next. You're exposed as an actor but in a wonderful way that challenges you to really conjure the story."
Banks is celebrated for his work for youth and families, but he comes from another type of background. He used to perform shows in bars and streets and nontraditional spaces throughout England.
"Writing for audiences in bars or children is not that different," Banks said. "You choose slightly different subject matter and you don't swear when you're performing for kids. But you don't shy away from serious topics."
In "Snow White," the princess' mother has died, which is first invoked in a sympathetic way. But later, Snow White's evil stepmom uses that fact against her, a meanness that stings.
Banks said that if a child has recently lost a parent, he hopes that an adult will comfort that youngster. But he does not think people should shy away from hard subjects for young people.
"We ask kids to laugh, why can't we ask them to cry?" Banks said. "Otherwise, we're just hovering above real things, not actually dealing with them."
Banks' own background is as interesting as any of the characters he directs onstage. He grew up in an old mill town in the Cotswolds, picturesque villages of rolling hills and farms 90 miles west of London.
He studied theater at Dartington College of Arts near where he grew up and co-founded an itinerant company called Dr Fosters Travelling Theatre, which took devised shows to rural audiences in England in the 1980s. The company, made up of schoolmates, was supposed to last for a year. They toured for 12.
At this stage in his career, he could be running a theater. He certainly has been approached about taking the reins of playhouses on both sides of the Atlantic. But he knows himself.
"I've really been naughty in my life," he said about not wanting to settle into so-called adult roles. "I haven't taken on the responsibility of running a theater because I'd be rubbish at it. Some people are brilliant at picking plays or talking to people about raising money. Not me."
Besides, Banks continued, he is far too candid, but in the wrong way.
"Often when I meet artistic directors at theaters, you're supposed to be selling yourself," Banks said. "But I'd say, 'I did this show one time and it was really bad,' or I tell a story about when I was a street theater performer playing a dog eating pizza on the pavement."
Banks fathered two girls. His eldest daughter died of spinal cancer at 31. His second daughter, now in her 30s, is married and expecting. He is keen to be a grandfather. He also is father to two stepchildren from his wife, actor Zara Ramm, who is making her Royal Shakespeare Theatre debut this season.
The brood lives in the tiny village where he grew up. When he leaves the Twin Cities, it's back to the country and to their husbandry.
"I've been here mixing with people and going to bars in Minneapolis, and I'm seen as someone really important," he said. "But when I get home, I'll have to mend a shed in the backyard and take care of the chickens."
"Yes, when I go home it's me going, 'Hi, chickens.' "
And they will be another audience for him to surprise with an idea or two.