Here Comes the Sun

Help! I'm trapped inside a giant ant! Are you wearing clothes underneath that kale? What's that baby doing in the birthday cake? Tales of myth and magic from Minneapolis's May Day parade.

On a sun-struck May 1 in 1975, a ragtag band of young people--some carrying large papier-mâché faces on poles--turned out of a raw vacant lot in the Phillips neighborhood, sauntered up Bloomington Avenue, and entered Powderhorn Park. Unlike many street marchers in those days, they weren't protesting. They were celebrating. The long winter of the Vietnam War had just ended. And spring--no metaphor, just the yearned-for burst of warmth--had finally come.

A few parade participants--veterans of political theater--were beginning to flex their muscles in a new, old art form: puppetry. Ray St. Louis and David O'Fallon's fledgling troupe, the Powderhorn Puppet Theatre, was modeled after Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater. Directed by Peter Schumann, Bread and Puppet combined bigger-than-life puppets, a populist perspective, and simple stories that, enacted by the looming figures, took on the power of myth. The Powderhorn puppeteers saw a good fit between that aesthetic, May Day, with its echoes of pagan pageantry and modern union struggles, and Minneapolis. They were more right than they knew.

Next Sunday some of those same people will again parade down Bloomington, as they've done 24 times before. Their faces are lined now. Dancing takes a little more effort. But instead of maybe 100 curious onlookers, they'll have 50,000. Hundreds of volunteers, from infants to elders, will be helping them carry masks and lift puppets. The parade will extend for blocks, augmented by a "join-in section" that welcomes anybody who's not already marching to tag along.

Gayla Ellis

In Powderhorn Park, where a single Maypole was planted in '75, an elaborate ceremony about death and birth will be performed. Eager observers will jostle together, to the point where Sandy Spieler, for more than two decades the artistic leader of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, will envision bulldozing the hillside and cutting down trees to allow better views.

These days the parade demands yearlong planning from Heart of the Beast (named after a phrase by Cuban poet José Marti often credited to Che Guevara). Grants must be applied for and garbage cans gathered. In February and March, the theater invites the public to attend two brainstorming meetings; via discussions about current events--

 

from Rodney King to a participant's new baby--a parade theme arises. The staff works out a way to relate that theme through images. And throughout April, Heart of the Beast opens its doors to public workshops in which nearly every mask and float and puppet for the parade will be created from scratch.

Puppets are also fashioned there for the goings-on in Powderhorn Park. This ritual reenacting the sun's return has metamorphosed much since shaggy hippies grabbed Maypole ribbons and gamboled: Puppeteers present a tale colored by the year's theme, during which--as one volunteer puts it--Bad fights Good and almost wins. Then the performers and the crowd begin to call for help and, from Powderhorn Lake's small island, a sun puppet (with many brightly clad attendants) is paddled to shore. Its arrival is the cue for the raising of the majestic, very cumbersome, 25-foot-tall and 20-year-old Tree of Life. The crowd sings "You Are My Sunshine." Some May Day regulars will admit that this almost innocent rite means more to them than any other holiday.

Like the May Day celebration, Heart of the Beast has grown exponentially since its tiny beginnings in the basement of Walker Church. Today it is bursting at the seams of the Avalon Theater, its 11-year home on Lake Street. Its paid staff has grown to 14, with a host of regular contract artists. The troupe presents two or three popular main-stage theater pieces a year, teaches puppetry in schools, churches, and small towns, and hosts afternoon and summer programs for children. This summer Heart of the Beast's accomplishments will be sanctified with an exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum, starting June 19, and an accompanying book, Theatre of Wonder: 25 Years In The Heart of the Beast (University of Minnesota Press). Some things never change, however. Heart of the Beast's primary tools are still clay, cardboard, paper, flour, and water. Spieler still directs the unruly process. The puppets still dance for spring. Given the thousands who have created and watched May Days past, it seems appropriate to give the story over to some of those people. The stories, rather: one for every candle on the cake.

 

1. A Founder's Tale

I had worked with Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont, which was the inspiration in a sense for this. Then I moved to Minneapolis and worked with Ray St. Louis in Alive and Truckin', which was, in the language of that time, agit-prop theater. We wanted direct political action: We wanted the war to stop, we wanted Nixon to come down, we wanted to redirect the federal budget from the Pentagon toward schools and houses.

After a while, like lots of radical movements, you burn out because you don't see the change. Alive and Truckin' had gone through its natural life cycle, and people were leaving. So there was this gap, around 1973. We were living in the Powderhorn neighborhood. Ray and I still wanted the changes I talked about, but we were seeing theater in a different way: as a kind of witnessing to the times, rather than direct, overt action. Speaking silence to noise. Going deeper than the social-political arrangements and talking more clearly about the spiritual and human dimensions embedded in that stuff. For those reasons, we found our way into the world of supersize puppets.

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