On a sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-June, 20 adults and 11 children filled Carrie Marsh’s backyard in St. Paul. The friends and neighbors had come to see “Ms. Marvel’s Sandbox Circus,” a new puppet show created by Minneapolis-based Open Eye Figure Theatre.
Marsh and her husband, David, sent out invitations, set out chairs and prepared drinks and snacks. Then the truck arrived, carrying performers, scenery and Open Eye’s dazzling signature puppets.
During the 30-minute performance, Ms. Marvel (who, for inquiring minds, is a cat) transformed her sandbox into a circus with the help of fellow thespians with the monikers Acrobatic Ants, Daredevil Squirrel, Caterpillar Catapult and the Earthworm Orchestra. Three puppeteers, accompanied by an accordion player, moved into the audience to give children a close-up view — and a little unexpected water splashing.
All in good fun, of course, with an opportunity to touch the puppets and ask questions when the show ended.
For 17 summers, the driveway tour has been roving through the Twin Cities to perform free puppet shows in backyards, front yards and parks. The tour, with the tagline, “theater in your neighborhood,” has reached nearly 100,000 people.
The outdoor puppetry shows are among several creative offerings from independent theater artists, and husband-wife team, Michael Sommers and Susan Haas; they created Open Eye in 2000 (openeyetheatre.org).
Aside from the roaming shows, Open Eye features onstage performances, workshops and residency programs. A large portion of its funding comes through grants from the McKnight Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board and Metropolitan Regional Arts Council.
And they always pass the hat at outdoor performances.
Sommers was working as a freelance director and designer when he decided to start his own troupe. He and Haas began with single puppet performances, moving for seven years from one space to another because they didn’t have their own building. They now operate out of a restored 110-year-old historic storefront in south Minneapolis.
Early in 2001, Sommers and Haas traveled to Mexico and Yucatán with their three young children, where they entertained in small villages with a traveling puppet show.
They easily overcame language barriers, Haas said, “because [puppetry] is such a visual form.” They geared up to launch a driveway puppet tour in the Twin Cities.
Then 9/11 happened, Sommers said, and “everybody just closed down.”
“People just weren’t going out,” Haas said. “So we decided, ‘If you won’t come to us, we’ll bring theater to you.’ ”
The couple began offering free driveway puppet performances throughout Minneapolis, including at a homeless shelter. Before “Ms. Marvel,” they created “The Adventures of Katie Tomatie,” about a little girl who gets a big surprise when she digs too deeply in her garden, and “The Adventures of Juan Bobo,” inspired by Puerto Rican folk tales.
Marsh hosted her first puppet show in 2018, also with about 30 people in attendance. Puppetry, she said, “is a wonderful way to engage people of all ages. Last year, our friend’s mother, who was over age 80 with mobility issues, came and really loved it.”
One neighbor commented after this year’s show how great it was that the kids were so enthralled — with no technology in sight.
Afterward, David enticed guests to stick around for a backyard barbecue — another opportunity to meet neighbors and build community. Community-building is crucial to the theater company’s mission, Haas said.
“People stay long after we pack up and go,” she said. “The goodwill of the program is left in the community.”
For upcoming performances of the Driveway Tour: openeyetheatre.org/driveway-tour-show-locations-2019
Aleksandra Koksharova is a freelance journalist from Russia who spent two weeks working at the Star Tribune through the nonprofit International Center for Journalists.