The power of puppetry

Organization inspires, educates through imaginative performances

One of the many spectacular large-scale puppets on display during the annual MayDay parade. File photo

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre
Location: 1500 E. Lake St.
Year founded: 1973

Every year, thousands of Minneapolitans gather on the first Sunday of May for MayDay, created and produced by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.

The event begins with a MayDay Parade down Bloomington Avenue and continues with the “Tree of Life” ceremony marking the arrival of spring.

“This is an event that’s really part of the identity of Minneapolis,” said Corrie Zoll, In the Heart of the Beast’s executive director. “It reinforces the best parts of who we are.”

Zoll leads a 43-year-old organization that produces the annual event in addition to full-length, original puppet shows at its Phillips Neighborhood theater.

The nonprofit also mentors emerging artists, produces touring puppet shows and weekly shows for kids and provides local youth with no-cost art activities through its Phillips Project.

“It’s a lot about relationships — the relationship with artists from Heart of the Beast and the relationships with the other youth,” said Bart Buch, director of youth and community programs. “It fits a certain niche in people’s imaginations and has a real accessible quality about it that makes it ripe for people expressing themselves.”

In the Heart of the Beast was founded in 1973 as the Powderhorn Puppet Theatre. It hosted the first MayDay parade and festival in 1975 and changed its name to In the Heart of the Beast four years later.

The organization purchased the 300-seat Avalon Theater Auditorium in 1990. That’s where the organization hosts its main stage productions and Saturday-morning kids’ shows.

In the Heart of the Beast has been hosting the children’s shows for the past 17 years, giving emerging artists the opportunity to produce a show. The first show of each month is in Spanish.

On a recent Saturday, artist Rebekah Crisanta hosted her first show, telling a story based on her dad’s poem about growing up in the countryside. Her mentor, Gustavo Boada, played music as Crisanta glided the puppet characters across the stage while speaking in Spanish.

She said she and her dad plan on turning the story into a children’s book. The moral, she said, is that kids should share their toys.

“If we use less and give more, there can be more compassion in the world,” she said.

In the Heart of the Beast works with about 150 artists like Crisanta each year. They perform touring shows and the main stage shows and work as artists in residence with local schools, churches and day programs.

They also work with elementary school students as part of the Phillips Project. Those students were scheduled to host a Phillips History Museum on March 16 at the American Swedish Institute, a project highlighting the history of the Phillips Neighborhood.

“A lot of after school programs have crafts or help with homework,” Buch said. “We’re using art that starts from a very different place.”

The students also participate in MayDay, which draws about 50,000 people annually. Planning for the event began in December, but the organization doesn’t choose a theme until about six weeks before the festival.

Artistic Director Sandy Spieler said the artists look at social and ecological issues when planning MayDay. They work through potential themes at a community meeting in February, often focusing on ecological and social issues.

“The theme is always crafted based on that and really seeks to move into that,” she said. “We want to meet the times and enter it and wrestle with it.”

The organization divides the parade into five sections, telling a story of a current social or ecological challenge and ending it with a vision of the future. Last year’s theme was “And still we rise” in homage to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the Heart of the Beast has not announced this year’s theme yet but planned to continue working on it at a community meeting on March 15. The organization will host a film-screening event March 21 at Riverview Theater to fundraise for MayDay.

Its newest full-length show, a rock opera called “Basement Creatures,” is showing March 11¬–26 at the Avalon Theater.

By the numbers
— 42: Years In the Heart of the Beast has hosted the annual MayDay parade and festival.
— 50,000: Number of attendees at the event each year.
— 150: Approximate number of artists In the Heart of the Beast works with annually.
— 90: Approximate number of youth who participate in the organization’s programming each year.
— 17: Number of years In the Heart of the Beast has hosted its Saturday morning kids shows.

What you can do:
— Participate in a community build workshop for MayDay on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in April at the Avalon Theater. “Anybody can come in,” Zoll said. “We will find something for anyone.”
— Attend a showing of the original show “Basement Creatures” March 11–26 at the theater or the MayDay fundraiser March 21 at Riverview Theater.
— Volunteer as an usher, help with the building of a show or serve as a committee member. — Learn more about In the Heart of the Beast’s volunteering opportunities by emailing or visiting its website.

About the Where We Live project
This project is an ongoing series spearheaded by Journals’ publisher Janis Hall showcasing Minneapolis nonprofits doing important work in the community. The editorial team has selected organizations to spotlight.