HOBT's Sandy Spieler on her McKnight award and what comes next


It's been almost two months since In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre hosted its 40th MayDay Parade and Festival. Now the organization gets to celebrate again, as artistic director Sandy Spieler has been honored with the 2014 McKnight Distinguished Artist award, which comes with a cash prize of $50,000. Rather than being a grant that artists apply for, the award is given out to established artists who have helped to  "lay the foundation for Minnesota's rich cultural life."


"My first response was disbelief," Spieler says of receiving the award. Her second thought? "'This is surreal,' followed by, 'Oh no!'" Wanting the recognition to be shared, she had a feeling of dread upon winning, and wanted to "crawl under a rock." After a while, "thank you" has risen to be the strongest emotion. It's "the most wonderful feeling [to be recognized]," says Spieler. 

The work of In the Heart of the Beast has always been collaborative, though Spieler acknowledges that people see her as the figurehead. "I have reconciled that in a way," she says. Though not one of the founders, Spieler emerged as a leader in the company early on as the group went through the growing pains of going from a ragtag troupe into an institution. Today, there's still a collective spirit around certain projects, such as MayDay, though as artistic director Spieler has the final word. 

"[The award] helps me accept what it is that I've done, and value it in a way that I haven't valued it," she says. 

Spieler's not sure yet how exactly she'll spend the $50,000 award. "I haven't had a chance to be specific about it," she says. "I'm still immersed in the work of In the Heart of the Beast." 


There are some projects that Spieler hopes to continue. Her work about water, for instance, will carry forward. Spieler first began thinking about the natural resource while at a conference in South Dakota in response to a proposed uranium mine. There was much talk about water during the conference, but Spieler noticed that during the discussions, everyone was drinking water constantly because the air was so hot and arid. Inspired, she went home to Minneapolis and began creating touring shows about water, eventually producing an epic piece of theater called the Circle of Water Circus that was performed along the river in small towns in the Midwest. In her work, Spieler seeks to educate about the importance of preserving water as a vital resource, rejecting its privatization, and emphasizing things like drinking fountains over water bottles, for example. Spieler has conducted workshops, called Invigorate the Common Well, and has initiated other programming through HOBT. 

After three decades of her water work, which "combines reverence and experience with education and a sense of personal responsibility," Spieler says the state of water is not necessarily getting better, though awareness is beginning to rise, and she believes there still is use in getting the message out. 

One project she hopes the McKnight money will help seed is an investigation of Japanese artist Taro Yashima, author of the children's book Crow Boy, which will allow her to explore what it means to look "deeply into the worst of humanity" and find potential of generosity. Spieler hopes the McKnight support will allow her to focus on the project.

Spieler received a Bush Fellowship as a young woman, which "helped ground me in a way that was very precious," she says, and allowed her time for reflection. With McKnight, Spieler hopes to "take a class or something," and perhaps save a bit for her retirement. 

More than anything, the award has given her a renewed sense of energy. "It's incredible," she says. "I have so much energy for the most mundane, awful tasks -- all of the pieces of it -- and intense love for this incredible group of artists," she says. "I'm so lucky to work in and amongst them."