University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Strings Attached

Theater professor Michael Sommers animates the inanimate.

Michael Sommers
Photo by Patrick O'Leary

Mommy and daddy are off to Napa!" That’s the first of many moments when the adults crack up during Molly And the Magic Boot, a performance where a little girl is left at her grandma’s farm only to realize—the horror!—that she’s forgotten the charger for her electronic devices in the car that is now joyously speeding toward California wine country.

The kids in the audience recognize Molly’s predicament as a nightmare come to life. The adults understand that her devastation is also a send-up of the plugged-in culture they hate but helped create.

What’s unusual about this scene isn’t the dual-audience appeal—that formula has made Pixar billions. Rather, it’s the fact that this all-too-human scenario is being performed not by actors but by puppets who bounce across a stage that’s no bigger than a television set. A papier-mâché computer boasts about his whizbang fabulousness, until he, a tablet, and a cardboard iPod start to lose their juice. “No power,” he moans, his keyboard flapping up and down like a mouth.  “Shutting down. Lights . . . fading.”

Welcome to the Driveway Tour, a free and freewheeling summer series of puppet shows put on in Twin Cities parks and yards by Open Eye Figure Theatre, a nationally acclaimed company led by U Theatre Arts and Dance Associate Professor Michael Sommers and his wife, Susan Haas. “I love the idea that with puppetry you can take people into miniature worlds and explore gigantic ideas,” says Sommers, gesturing toward Open Eye’s intimate mainstage in its 90-seat theater in south Minneapolis. “Puppets aren’t real—they’re papier mâché and cloth. So they can live and die and come back to life right in front of you.”

Founded in 2000, Open Eye’s whimsical but also deeply emotional and challenging works—many are created only for grown-ups—are part of a lively puppetry scene that’s taken hold in the Twin Cities. The community got its start in 1973, when In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre brought its massive folk-art puppets to theaters and the streets of Minneapolis’s Powderhorn neighborhood. The company’s public workshops, which reach peak capacity every year before the MayDay Parade and Festival, have exposed several generations of Twin Citians to the basics of puppet making and maneuvering.

It’s a tight-knit community, where everybody seems to know everybody. “Puppeteers in general aren’t competitive with each other like I’ve seen in other art forms,” says Liz Schachterle (B.A. ’07), who goes by the stage name Liz Howls. “There is an older generation that’s really supportive because they want to see the form continue. And there are resources. If I’m doing a show and I need something, there is a network of people who are eager to jump in and make it happen.”

“In the Heart of the Beast and Open Eye have created a synergy and a place where people can not just watch puppetry, but do it as well,” says Gülgün Kayim, the director of arts, culture, and the creative economy for the City of Minneapolis. “The richness that brings to our community is huge.” Today, you can see the influence of both companies throughout the Twin Cities in theaters and events that include the BareBones Halloween Outdoor Puppet Extravaganza along the Mississippi River, the Art Sled Rally in Powderhorn Park, and artist Christopher Lutter-Gardella’s stories-tall moose and wolf, which lurk above the crowds at events like the Holidazzle Village in Loring Park and Northern Spark.

Sommers started his artistic life as a set designer, a pursuit he began in his small-town Wisconsin high school when he realized that “getting goo all over my pants, [which were] from the Sears catalog, appealed to me.” After he and Haas moved to the Twin Cities, he worked in theater, primarily for the then-upstart Theatre de la Jeune Lune, where he did everything from creating sets to performing supporting roles to scrubbing toilets.

As his career progressed, Sommers was drawn to puppetry as a way to tell narratives that rely more on gestures than text—to animate the inanimate. In Open Eye’s oeuvre, chairs float, plates magically slide across tables, and burlap sacks have sad smiles. The aesthetic veers from retro and sweet to downright creepy.

While his work draws on Eastern European puppetry traditions, Sommers is self taught. But he sees teaching others as central to carrying on the traditions he and Haas have nurtured at Open Eye. “Michael and Susan have been huge influences in my work,” says Schachterle. After graduating from the U, she spent time refurbishing puppets for the Driveway Tour, an experience she describes as a revelation. “The puppets were falling apart and I’d remake them in Michael’s hand,” she explains. “It taught me so much about specific things, like how to carve feet or how to make a foot land better by putting a weight in the toe.”

Schachterle went on to work with other “puppet nerds,” eventually creating the Full Moon Puppet Show, a monthly cabaret/puppetry slam that she transported around town in a Burley trailer pulled behind her bike. Full Moon is now on hiatus, but occasionally makes an appearance on Open Eye’s roster.

Theater graduate Justin Spooner (B.A. ‘11) is carrying on Open Eye’s mission both through his work as a puppeteer and as a high school teacher at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists. “Michael has a low-tech aesthetic that’s about using what’s available and around you,” he says. In a class he teaches about “object theater,” Spooner brings in a box of junk—anything from books to Silly Putty—and asks his students to arrange the items according to how smart they are. “I’m teaching them how they can turn objects into characters,” he says. “A white mug from a diner has a personality that’s different than a white tea cup.” 

It’s a lesson that would delight his former teacher. “Why are we bothering wiggling around pieces of wood attached to string at a time when you can create anything on CGI?” Sommers asks, pushing his fingers through a flash of white hair that seems to have a life of its own. He doesn’t answer the question. But he doesn’t need to. His work is the best answer there is.

Elizabeth Foy Larsen (M.F.A. ‘02), author of 111 Places in the Twin Cities That You Must Not Miss, edits and writes for a host of local and national publications. She is Minnesota Alumni’s new senior editor.

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