One of the recurring themes of All the Lights On, Michelle Hensley’s excellent history of her Ten Thousand Things theater company, is the thrill of creating theater for crowds who haven’t been trained in “proper” audience conduct. Whereas regular theatergoers tend to sit politely and react only to obvious laugh lines or especially dramatic incidents, Ten Thousand Things’ crowds are more likely to have outspoken, honest reactions to the things they see on stage. That’s not desirable for every show, obviously, but in Hensley’s experience it’s rewarding and educational for the company and helps them to craft future productions that speak to the audiences they’re trying to reach.
Open Eye Figure Theater’s annual Driveway Tour doesn’t have quite the same audience profile or mission statement as Ten Thousand Things, but the effect is similar. By bringing puppet shows to unconventional venues like parks, libraries, private yards and, yes, driveways, the company attracts audiences who might not otherwise not have regular access to or interest in live theater. More specifically, they attract kids who might not be inclined to see live theater, and more importantly, they implicitly grant those kids the freedom to enjoy the show on their own terms.
It might not seem all that remarkable for a children’s theater production to cater to kids. After all, any time you go see a kids’ show, you expect to encounter a certain degree of chaos in the crowd. Still, as a child owner of five years and counting, I’ve noticed a particular decorum in traditional theater venues, even amongst the youngest set. While I’ve witnessed plenty of hubbub in the seats, most of the kids I’ve seen at the Children’s Theater, all-ages Fringe shows and even Open Eye’s flagship theater are clearly well on their way to learning to be respectful, respectable audience members.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that - trying to soldier through a show in the face of the full destructive force of a room full of unfettered five-year-olds sounds like a special kind of hell. Still, it’s heartening to see a production that not only allows kids to be kids, but actively encourages it. That’s the nature of the Open Eye Driveway Tour, a series whose dedication to fun belies the genuine craft behind it.
Absurd and silly
To be clear, Open Eye’s Katie Tomatie is nobody’s idea of groundbreaking theater. It’s a brief, intentionally ragged puppet show that puts at least as much thought into skeleton-themed puns as it does into plot or character development. Ostensibly the story of a tomato-loving little girl whose slothful summer vacation is disrupted when she accidentally digs up an adventure-seeking skeleton, it’s a loose conglomeration of absurdist scenes and silliness for the sake of silliness. Nothing makes a whole lot of sense, nor is it meant to.
The whole endeavor is possessed of an addled, high-speed lunacy that brings to mind a classic Pee-Wee’s Playhouse episode. The puppets themselves are obviously well-made - they rather have to be to survive the Driveway Tour’s multi-venue traveling schedule - but they’re also designed to look rough and homemade, in keeping with the tone of the endeavor. The puppeteer-actors deliver every story, song and bit of wordplay with enthusiastic authority, the result of dozens of stagings over the course of a summer.
A little of this brand of manic goofiness goes a long way for most adults, especially when it’s 90 degrees out and you’re sitting in direct sunlight in a stranger’s Lyn-Lake lawn. I’ll confess that with little narrative to grab onto, my mind started to wander midway through Katie Tomatie. Fortunately, I had a yard full of kids to snap me back to attention. The children in attendance ranged from bediapered infants to late adolescents, and most of them were unquestionably engaged.
They chimed in on all of the audience-participation cues, laughed and groaned out loud when the puns started flying and squealed out warnings any time our heroes flirted with danger. Some kids roamed around the crowd in search of better vantage points, others snuggled into sweaty laps, still others danced in the grass whether or not a musical cue was happening. It was the mildest form of anarchy, and it only enhanced the surreal happenings on Open Eye’s portable puppet stage.
Obviously I can’t guess at how much of Katie Tomatie or the Driveway Tour experience will stick with the target audience. My own five-year-old was as into the action as anybody, particularly when our skeleton hero found himself menaced by a gigantic fish, but in our subsequent conversations the show has taken a back seat to the watermelon slices and Oreos served afterwards.
But regardless of the impact of this particular production, the kids in attendance at Sunday’s performance came away with the notion of live theater as something fun and comfortable, not as yet another occasion to sit still, keep quiet and let the grown-ups do their thing. Lord knows there’s more than enough of that in life as it is.