Michael Sommers and Open Eye Figure Theatre: leaving a legacy

I first discovered Open Eye Figure Theatre at the end of last year, when their show The Learning Fairy got rave reviews.  Luckily, we got tickets.  Luckily, because we fell in love!  The performance was pure magic; it was a show for kids that adults could love even more, with catchy songs, a brightly-colored universe, and characters with so much heart my eyes welled up.  The Open Eye space is tiny, and half of my joy came from experiencing the delight of the people around me.  Open Eye is led by Michael Sommers and Susan Haas, and was founded in 2000.  Here, Michael (with a couple comments-in-passing from Susan) talks about the influence of their space on the work they make, the importance of legacy, and about finding your artistic niche.   

from The Learning Fairy (photo courtesy of Open Eye)

L:  You were founded in 2000, but you’ve been in this space just 5 years?

M: We made the decision to get a space, because we were itinerant before.  We were going out and setting up lights and hauling chairs and building risers for 3 years.  And it wore us out.  We talked about the pros and cons of having a space, and we just decided to do it: we’re going to have a home.

S:  This space was designed very intentionally to this scale.  In our culture we have so little opportunity to connect with one another.  The experience brought on by this size makes it very special for everyone.  Somehow it becomes more like a social activity than a play for the audience members.

M: Having the space has been great.  With every production I do I just fall in love with it more and more.  We build everything here in our shop, other than the big stuff, and everything is just the right size.  With everything I make, I consider how the space works, what it can do, and how it can live.  And, having your own space you can do what you want and when you want.  For this process (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), we were able to start rehearsals with the lighting designer, composer, and puppets in the room from day one.

L: Tell us about the work that Open Eye does.

M: We have three things that we primarily do: our main stage work, our all-ages shows, and our Driveway Tour.  We’ve been doing the Driveway Tour for 10 years, and have played to 30,000 people in backyards all over the Twin Cities.

[Note: The Driveway Tour takes original, family-friendly puppet theatre to neighborhoods all over the Twin Cities, and is also a training program for college students who want to learn about puppeteering.]

S: We take the relationship that our audiences have in our small space, and send little tiny satellites into people’s communities to create that same relationship there.  It’s really about the building of community.  They’re also great shows, and it’s a fantastic training program for us.  These puppeteers gain such skill from doing it- it’s like bootcamp.  The hosts that bring us to their neighborhoods are really so appreciative.  We’ll be packing up to leave, and everyone in the audience will be thanking their host.  And, all of that good will is staying in the neighborhood.

M: For a lot of people, it’s their first theatre experience.  And, traditionally booth puppet shows are an itinerant form, so there’s this weird theatre history lesson on what the form can do.

L: I know that mentorship is a big part of Open Eye’s mission.

M: A strong mentorship program is really important to me.  Historically, puppetry was passed from one generation to the next.  We formed Open Eye so that I could get money to do my weird stuff, but my legacy isn’t going to be about me.  The kids [college students] who learned puppetry by doing the Driveway Tour are now puppeteering The Sorcerer’s ApprenticeKyle Loven, who plays the boy in the Sorcerer, was an intern from Augsburg College.  He was here for 3 years, and now is touring the world with his solo shows.  The students we mentor do everything from administrative work to building puppets.  They learn to make the puppet from zero, and then they get to operate it, so they have this ownership.  When I die, I know I can be really proud that Open Eye has become a place where people can come and learn, and then take what they want and use it.

from The Sorcerer's Apprentice (photo courtesy of Open Eye)

L: Unlike The Learning Fairy, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a piece of traditional puppet theatre, complete with a live orchestra.  What was the process of bringing it together like?

M: I was really fortunate with this production to make a really strong creative team.  The show is about the idea of master and apprentice, and I was able to bring in virtual masters, like the scenic painter, the puppet engineer, and the lighting designer.  For The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we get to have this weird little orchestra- a mirimba, a viola, bass clarinet, clarinet, trombone.  I knew that these were the voices, and then Eric [Jenson, the composer] knew to go in that direction and I liked the ideas he came up with.  Puppets are really hard to light.  Michael Murnane lights all of my shows.  He’s really good, but he’s also taken 5 years to understand the space, the problems of the space, and how you light that scale.  Now I just totally trust him and let him do his work.  That comes with working with people over and over again.

With my work, I’m trying to get down to the essence- figuring out what is really needed.  The show starts telling you.   With The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we played with all kinds of trickery, but then figured out how to distill the idea down.  All you need is a stool.  We don’t need 10 sets.  We don’t need video.  And that’s all just discovered while working the space.

L: What are you secrets to survival?  What have you learned along the way?

M: We’re really good at using what’s in front of us, you know?  We don’t have a lot of money.  For The Learning Fairy, we decided to make the whole set out of cardboard.  Or, if we have a gallon of purple paint, we use it.  We know how to use resources and how to find the right people who understand that.  A big part of our learning had to do with the dance between art and business.  This is a business.  In this market, we had to figure out what our niche is: what we are and what we aren’t.  We’ve fought to stay small, and we’ve fought to make the work we believe in.  And now the word is slowly leaking out.

I had to learn to let go if I wanted to make things work.  I really like that I’m not performing anymore, because I can really see and make choices from outside.  I had to learn that collaborating allows me to do what I’m really good at, as opposed to doing everything.  I’m the Artist-In-Residence, and  Susan is the Managing-Artistic- Producing whatever.  It’s basically her vision.  If it wasn’t for her, I would still be above Chicago and Lake making crazy little things that could pee.

Last summer, we were broke.  So then we ask, how are we going to improve so that next summer we aren’t in the same position?  We’re really good at paying people well for an organization our size.  Susan says that this place is an artist-driven place.  We try to take care of people.  And, it builds a family, and the artists are excited to work here, so they do their best work.

The Driveway Your (photo courtesy of Open Eye)

L:  Has working in Minnesota been helpful for you?

M: Yes, I’ve had incredible opportunities here.  I got a Bush Enduring Visions Award, and funding to study Hans Christian Anderson in Denmark.  My career has been an education- I’ve kept learning as I’ve built these bonds in the community with other artists.  I was a freelance theatre person, and then I turned 50 and I got a job for the first time.  I teach at the University where my work is my research.  It’s fantastic.  It’s all worked out in some strange way.

I keep making theatre because I love the fact that you have this experience together, and then it’s gone.  My goal with the work is to create an infection.  You know, you go out for a dinner somewhere, and the next day you burp it up and remember how great it was? I really feel that our work sticks- whether you agree with it, or like it or dislike it.  People carry an image or the experience for the rest of their lives.  And that’s why I think it’s important to make all-ages work.

When I was in my 20’s, I was kind of ego-driven, and I elbowed my way forward going ‘look at me!’.  I thought I’d be a major league player.  And then I started making my work, and now I’m old and I really don’t care.  Now I’m on a farm team.  And I really love it-  it’s just right.  This is incredible what we have.  I’m oddly flabbergasted that people are coming to see it.

You, too, can see it.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has been extended through March 11.  You can get tickets here.  


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