One of my all-time favorite summertime traditions is starting up again: Open Eye Figure Theatre has just begun its beloved Driveway Tour, for which the company of puppeteers, led by Michael Sommers and Susan Haas, takes its show on the road. With a charming, cleverly designed mobile puppet theater in tow, the traveling players deploy a small army of handmade, papier-mâché characters to enact an assortment of slyly funny, enchanting tales in ordinary backyards across the Twin Cities.
This is truly grassroots arts programming: prospective hosts offer an outdoor space and invite the troupe to come and put on a show; they alert the neighbors and spread the word on social media to gather an audience. The theater company also puts a list of Driveway Tour dates/times/venues on their website for folks looking to catch a specific show. Then, on the appointed day, audience members set out blankets and lawn chairs in a neighbor’s yard — lemonade and cookies often make an appearance — and a bevy of excited kids and their grown-ups settle in for a deeply engaging 45 minutes or so of low-fi ingenuity and pure storytelling magic. All of which is performed free, every event open to all comers.
Fueled by buckets of talent and well-deserved community enthusiasm, the Driveway Tour has grown exponentially in the more than 10 years Open Eye has been offering it. And no wonder: the shows are intimate, utterly delightful, and there’s no economic barrier to participation. One backyard show at a time, the Driveway Tour has developed real reach: thus far, they’ve put on 500-some performances for more than 40,000 area residents – in tony suburbs, homeless shelters, working class neighborhoods, parks and community centers all across the metro.
And word keeps spreading: the demand for neighborhood Driveway Tour shows has never been higher. (Speaking of which, the company is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to help fund their efforts to meet that rising demand; if you’re a fan of the program, now’s an awfully good time to show some support. )
There’s a strong lineup for this summer’s programming: The Driveway Tour is reviving a favorite from several years back, “The Adventures of Juan Bobo.” Other shows include the story of a young boy whose bathtub fantasies turn a toy cow into “The Amazing Cow Boat” and the sassy “Adventures of Katie Tomatie.” You may even catch sight of the bike-driven puppet show, “The Two-Wheel Tour.”
For dates, times and locations of this summer’s Driveway Tour shows, including a number of performances in neighborhoods around St. Paul, visit: www.openeyetheatre.org/sites. (Bonus link: my own family’s home movie of a Driveway Tour show we saw a couple of summers ago.)