by Jaime Kleiman
August 7, 2004
Michael Sommers, an artist/puppeteer of rare gifts, talks to Jaime Kleiman about his work.
When most people think of puppetry, they probably think of “Sesame Street.” Or maybe they think of shadow puppets, sock puppets, or paper bag figures made with Elmer’s glue, markers, and plastic googly eyes. The hippest puppets today are performing on Broadway in Avenue Q, the Tony Award-winning musical that features trash-talking, politically incorrect puppets singing songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “If You Were Gay.” If anything, the success of Avenue Q spells out what professional puppeteers already know – puppets aren’t just for kids.
Puppetry has very old traditions. In Eastern Europe, puppetry is considered a fine art form; in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, for example, there are puppet operas, festivals, schools, and permanent puppet theatres. The United States’ Jim Henson Foundation (founded by the “Muppets” creator) awards grant money to “promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States.” The Foundation’s website states: “Puppetry is an ancient and beautiful art form that communicates across cultures, generations and artistic disciplines. As such, it has the ability to reach audiences like no other art form. However, while puppetry is considered legitimate theater for adults and families in other countries, in America it is often relegated to birthday party fare.”
While it’s true that puppet shows can be silly, childlike, and entertaining, they can also be affecting, touching us on a deeper level. Like people, puppets can be macabre, profound, profane, poetic, playful, dark, beautiful, wondrous, weird, mystical, uncomfortable, realistic, and funny. One of the best ways to witness the inimitable scope and breadth of puppetry is to attend the plays of Michael Sommers, who, with his partner Susan Hass, runs Open Eye Figure Theatre, one of the most inventive and compelling theatre companies in Minneapolis.
“We have a three-pronged mission,” says Sommers, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette on the roof of his studio on Chicago and Lake Street. “First is socio-political: community outreach, which also includes audience building for us. Second is [making] ‘arty high brow’ [shows]. Third, we’re populist…all the work comes from classical forms and tradition, but we’re trying to reexamine classical ideas…how do we make the arts accessible, especially in Minneapolis?”
This populist mission is best represented by Open Eye’s Driveway Tours, the now annual traveling puppet shows created specifically to bring theatre to people and neighborhoods most likely to never see theatre. The shows are designed to be accessible to a broad range of people, from ardent avant-gardists to marginalized neighborhoods whose inhabitants rarely get to see a live play.
A recent recipient of the McKnight Theater Fellowship, Sommers specializes in mixing high art with plebian accessibility. The Driveway Tours, which were inspired by a marionette show in a Yucatan, Mexico theatre, help spread Sommers’ philosophy that theatre is vital to community and character building. The idea is that a simple, profound event can be created easily and cheaply, with little more than an audience and a couple performers. Open Eye asks for no payment upfront, and will bring the show anywhere, provided there is a guaranteed audience of fifty people (they will play to an audience as large as 150). The host of the Tour provides space, refreshments, and helps advertise. Open Eye’s actual costs for each performance is $350, and they ask for donations at the end of each show.
This year’s play, “The Adventures of Katie Tomatie,” is, according to its creator, “Pretty standard stuff.” For Sommers, whose past work has included the visual poem Elijah’s Wake, and a recontextualizing of Faust for the Henson International Puppet Festival, this work is child’s play. Still, it takes the finesse of an experienced performer like Sommers to make it work: one character, for example, has three different bodies to account for his varied movements. The story begins with a spunky little girl, Katie, hanging out on a lazy summer day. Bored with “doing nothing,” she puts her green thumb to work digging a hole for a tomato plant. Of course, since this is a play – and a puppet show – it doesn’t go as planned. Katie digs up a skeleton, who in turn takes her on an adventure. And off they go, into the mad beautiful world of Katie’s (and Sommers’) imagination. “Katie Tomatie” is the second Driveway Tour production for the company, now in its fifth year. “The whole event is successful when it’s second to community building,” states Sommers, looking eager to get back to his shop.
Last year’s Driveway play, “The Adventures of Juan Bobo,” was seen by 3,000 people throughout 40 productions, and was performed in both Spanish and English. Sommers deadpans, “This year, we’re only doing 20 shows. We want to have a vacation.” He then rattles off a few of his upcoming projects, which include a collaboration with choreographer Laurie Van Wieren and playwright Kira Obolensky called “The Flatworks” this fall, and “a new big show in the spring” which he describes as a “one-person duet,” a meditation on the contradiction of living alone onstage.
Yet Sommers doesn’t consider himself a puppeteer. “It’s a vocabulary,” he says, which was formed mainly out of economic necessity. “Years ago, my studio was in my basement, so everything had to be small.” Figure theatre, he says, can incite an arcane emotion in people that actor’s theatre cannot. “The form is the synthesis of everything, and it’s secondary to the event. My job is to compel, not to tell. I want to leave people with an infection that they carry around.” To paraphrase Sommers: even if you don’t like what you see, he hopes his images will stay with you, burrowing into your subconscious like a virus. Of course, “Katie Tomatie” is more fun than psychology, more adventure story than Sartre. We can safely assume that this particular infection’s side effects will be more like hiccups – caused by laughter, of course.
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