As humans have done for millennia, Bradley Greenwald celebrates the winter solstice in his show “The Longest Night.”
Greenwald curated a mix of songs and poems focusing on various elements of winter. With pianist Sonja Thompson, he sings the works of composers ranging from Leonard Cohen to J.S. Bach and Sting. He also performs poetry from authors such as Margaret Atwood and Joseph Campbell. The show premiered last year at the Open Eye Figure Theatre, where its five performances sold out, prompting the company to add a sixth. This year, it will run for 11 nights.
“[The program] doesn’t exist in any way to spite the holidays,” Greenwald said. “It’s not a snarky kind of thing; it’s more meant to invite you to embrace whatever tradition you have.”
Greenwald organized his program into three parts: winter, the holidays and the return of the sun. Within each category, he captures different perspectives.
For instance, during the winter portion, one of his poems laments on the season with the words of Ezra Pound — “So ’gainst the winter’s balm, sing goddamn, damn.”
On the other hand, Greenwald reworked several haikus about seasonal affective disorder into a song, which makes light of the bitterness of winter rather than wallowing in it.
“I did have people say that that’s exactly how they feel in the winter once the SAD kicks in, that kind of desperation that almost makes you want to laugh because it’s just so deep and intense,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald’s work also supports the main goal of the Open Eye Figure Theatre, which is to give professional artists an avenue for new work.
The theater’s founders, producing artistic director Susan Haas and artist-in-residence Michael Sommers, offered Greenwald a spot in their winter season last year.
“[Greenwald] is always in demand as a performer,” Haas said. “So, what I was interested in was what he would like to do.”
Haas said one of her favorite parts of the show was Dar Williams’ “The Christians and the Pagans,” which tells the story of Christian and Pagan family members celebrating together because of the show’s “idea of love and tolerance and accepting differences between people.”
“Perhaps because of the rhetoric around the holidays … I think that’s made people a little gun-shy about being celebratory,” Greenwald said. “Part of the purpose of the program is to invite people to embrace the plurality of holidays.”
Greenwald said he recites a list of more than 40 winter celebrations to give audiences an idea of the variety and number of celebrations that exist beyond Christmas.
“These celebrations happen at this time of year all for the same reason [of the solstice] — even if people aren’t aware of it,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald said the small size and atmosphere of the Open Eye Figure Theatre helps his message succeed.
“The wonderful thing about Open Eye is that it’s such an intimate space, and you feel like you’re almost in the living room watching a show,” he said. “It’s not meant to overwhelm or overpower the senses. It’s meant to be extremely intimate.”
Toward the end of the performance, Greenwald explains an ancient solstice tradition that involves a stick with a red ribbon on one end and a green ribbon on the other. The tradition involves breaking the stick into halves and throwing the end with the red ribbon into a fire, symbolizing the idea of letting go of the past. The green end is meant to represent hope for the future.
After the show, Open Eye gives audience members the opportunity to engage in the tradition.
“They’re shocked,” Haas said. “You give them a stick and they go, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice,’ because they just heard about it, and then when you walk out, there’s a fire so you can actually do that action.”
Inviting audience members to explore new traditions with Greenwald emphasizes the spirit of inclusion in “The Longest Night.”
“I think it’s important for your soul to celebrate whatever it is, as the longest night approaches,” Greenwald said.
What: The Longest Night
Where: Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays with 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays from Dec. 11-24
Cost: $18-24 with option for pay-as-able