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Michael Sommers performing a puppet show with fire.

Michael Sommers with his fire-breathing hell-mouth--a contraption he designed for A Prelude to Faust at the Open Eye Figure Theatre.

Behind the scenes and on stage

U faculty member and local artist Michael Sommers named 2007 USA Ford Fellow

By Pauline Oo

December 14, 2007; updated Dec. 18

It all started with a grandfather who had a penchant for making things and telling mesmerizing tales. Then came a tiny basement that Michael Sommers used for building and storing all the gizmos that sprouted from his imagination. Today, 30 years later, the University of Minnesota assistant professor is one of the Twin Cities' most versatile and ingenious theater artists--he writes, performs, and directs, as well as designs and manipulates puppets. Sommers recently landed a $50,000 grant from the United States Artists (USA) organization for his work over the years.

"I look at [the 2007 USA Ford Fellowship] as this really exquisite punctuation mark in my work," he says. "It's definitely not a period, but more like a question mark, exclamation mark, and comma."

The USA Fellows program honors artists working in eight artistic disciplines and at all stages of their careers. Sommers was one of 53 artists selected from a pool of almost 350 nominated applicants. Other recipients include choreographer Bill T. Jones, visual artist Ann Hamilton, and jazz pianist Jason Moran.

Sommers, who earned the fellowship for his "dark symbolism and vaudevillian energy" says he will invest the unrestricted grant in his craft.

"I'm going to use it to find a way to keep investigating, to do research, to travel a little bit, to buy some tools, and to find out what the new direction of my work is," he says. "I'm at a point in my life where it's like, 'Oh, I should be painting, understanding technology, or doing this, this, this, and this. But instead, I have tunnel vision. I want to concern myself with one thing. This fellowship is really going to allow me to focus. And whatever that [focus] is, I don't know. That's the exciting thing."

Michael Sommers and Sue Haas
Sommers and his wife and business partner Sue Haas received news of the fellowship in September--the day they opened at their new theater location. (Photo courtesy of Open Eye Theatre)

Sommers, who founded the Open Eye Figure Theatre in south Minneapolis with his wife and creative partner Sue Haas, started his teaching career on the U's Twin Cities campus in 2002 as an adjunct professor in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, and was invited to join the newly formed Interdisciplinary Program in Collaborative Arts last year.

"My favorite part about teaching is supporting the idea of students and having their thinking manifest and seeing their thinking grow," he says. "I like opening those weird little windows and covered doors that all of these young people have [and hearing them say], 'Holy cow, I never thought of that or I never imagined that was possible.'"

Sommers's work on stage is often a marriage of actors' theater and puppet theater. Thus far, Sommers has collaborated with University of Minnesota students on Articulations: An Evening of Student Puppetry (2003), Mississippi Panorama (2006), and Master and Margarita (2006) with Luverne Seifert from the theatre arts and dance department. In spring 2008, Sommers will initiate The Woyzeck Project, a six-week intensive workshop with students and instructors from a variety of University departments. (Woyzeck, a stage play written by Georg B?chner, is one of the most performed and influential plays in the German theatre repertory.) "We're going to work with 40 students from dance, visual arts, theater, and German studies--both graduate and undergraduate--and we're going to make a spine or a shape for something that's going to be produced the following year on the Mainstage." explains Sommers. "There'll be a public showing of just whatever we have in March. It'll be over two nights at Norris [Hall] gym on the East Bank. Hopefully, it's going to be a big mess of mistakes and ideas--good ideas and bad ideas."

Long live the artist...

United States Artists, a new organization dedicated to supporting America's finest living artists, was founded in 2006 in response to an Urban Institute study that found that while 96 percent of Americans appreciate the arts, only 27 percent believe that artists contribute to the good of society. The study also noted that the median reported income for artists was only $5,000, and that more than half of the two million artists in the United States pay for their own health insurance. See "Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structures for U.S. Artists".

In February 2006, the "Artists' Centers: Evolution and Impact on Artists, Neighborhoods, and Economies" study from the U's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs showed that Minnesota's strong creative economy owes much of its success to the large number of gathering spaces for artists in the state. Read "Centers for the artist."

So, after half a lifetime of working hard in the theater business, why does the 52-year-old Sommers still do what he does? What keeps him going?

"It's the only thing I know how to do," he says. "And I think what keeps me going is my work is such a mystery. It proposes bigger questions that I don't have the answers for, and that excites me."

On Monday (December 17), Sommers played Lucifer in his annual holiday show--which started in his garage 17 years ago--at Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. The one-night performance of The Holiday Pageant, which retold the Christian nativity story through the eyes of a fallen angel, also starred Kevin Kling, Sarah Agnew, Luverne Seifert, and Amy Matthews.

To learn more about Sommers or his theater and its 2008 offerings (Eleanor's Cabinet in February and Dancing With a Contagium in the spring), see Open Eye Figure Theatre.

Further reading Puppetry cabaret showcases student creations A play on the lawn
University Theatre presents The Master and Margarita outdoors