Puppet venue finds new home in Minneapolis

MINNEAPOLIS — With its first dedicated performing space, Minneapolis’ Open Eye Theater is looking to put puppetry on the Midwest legit map.

“There’s a strong puppetry culture here,” says company co-chief Susan Haas. “But it’s not so sophisticated. We want to raise the caliber of the work to the level of Cal Arts and New York.

Open Eye’s new home is a roughly century-old building renovated by Haas and partner Michael Sommers to serve as the theater’s first stable home. Their living quarters also double as Sommers’ puppetry shop, filled with masks, books and puppets dangling from racks.

“I don’t consider us exclusively a puppet theater,” explains Sommers, recipient of a 2007 $50,000 unrestricted fellowship from arts foundation United States Artists. “We’re a theater that uses puppetry vocabulary, image-based stuff. With this space, we’ve arrived at the right relationship between the size of the audience and the scale of the work.”

In addition to puppeteering, Sommers has worked for a quarter-century as an actor and director, and on the U. of Minnesota faculty. Up to now, auds have had to travel to different venues across the city to view his innovative work.

Open Eye has just completed a run of “A Prelude to Faust,” a work by Sommers combining puppetry with live action and a four-piece orchestra, and mixing elements from both Marlowe and Goethe’s versions of the Faust myth.

In addition to their main stage work, Open Eye’s “Driveway Tour” is a roaming summer puppet perf staged by invitation in the Twin Cities. The tour has played about 200 performances in the last five years, with auds totaling 16,000.

“It’s a way of making theater economically accessible,” Sommers says. “We pass the hat, so we can virtually do it for free.”

The new performance space can hold as many as 152 people, or scale back to less than 100 to maintain sight lines for a densely visual show such as “Faust.” Sommers and Haas also plan a program called Open Studio, designed to bring outside artists into Open Eye.

Following its annual “Christmas Pageant” at Pantages Theater in Minneapolis Dec. 17, Open Eye’s next show will be “Eleanor’s Cabinet” in January, an all-ages work based on the poetry of English writer Eleanor Farjeon; then “Dancing With the Contagion,” a piece drawing on outsider art.

In recent years, Sommers has utilized everything from opaque projectors to hand-turned scrolls of paper to tell his idiosyncratic stories. He describes his means of putting forth his often high-flown ideas as “lowbrow technology.”

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