MINNEAPOLIS: Two weeks before their very first May Day Festival in 1975—which members of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre Company were inspired to begin as a protest against the Vietnam War—that war officially ended with the fall of Saigon. “We thought, ‘Should we still do this?’’’ remembers founding artistic director Sandy Spieler. “And then we realized, ‘Of course we should, because the whole purpose of it has been purely to bring people together in a cultural renewal.’” Now Spieler and company are launching the 40th May Day Fest, a day-long parade and performance ceremony culminating in Powderhorn Park.
It’s not as if the windup of that galvanizing conflict four decades ago marked the end of outrages worthy of protest and in need of healing. In the years since, the May Day Fest has applied its puppet rituals to themes of racism, economic injustice and disarmament, though always with an ultimately celebratory, transformative aim, rather than a tone of pique or grievance. The 2014 fest, slated for May 4, is no exception,
“This year the theme is so hard—there are so many things that people feel beleaguered about, acts of violence both to humans and the earth,” Spieler allows. The first phase of the fest is the “build,” in which community members meet to discuss what issues are on their mind. “Anyone can come to talk about what’s happening in their lives—then our staff takes that brainstorm and finds an umbrella theme.” This year’s meeting brought up such pressing environmental concerns as fracking for natural gas in Minnesota and the distressing “colony collapse disorder” among honeybees, alongside social issues like police brutality. Ultimately the word “wonder,” in both its awestruck and its frustrated senses, provided a way in.
“There’s ‘wonder’ with an exclamation point, that revels in this world of intricate beauty and power, and then there’s ‘wonder’ with a question mark—how in the midst of this beauty there’s so much poverty of body and soul.” Spieler cites a quote from environmental activist and poet Rachel Carson: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” And though a tree-of-life puppet is always the centerpiece of the festival’s closing ritual—“We use every pageant, carnival, ritual and shamanistic technique,” Spieler says—she can promise a swarm of bee puppets.
If some previous May Days have had more clear topical springboards—the Iraq wars, or the Occupy Movement—this year, as in that heady inaugural year, a timely chance event helped bring focus to the roiling mix of issues. “Pete Seeger died a few days before our first meeting,” Spieler says of the great folk singer and activist, whose 95th birthday would have been on the eve the May Day Fest. What Seeger did with music, In the Heart of the Beast hopes to keep doing with puppets and masks: hold its community’s and the world’s problems up to the clarifying and rejuvenating light of art and performance.
Photo Credit: Julie Boada (in white) hoists a backpack puppet in last year’s May Day parade, while her husband Gustav Boada (to her left) looks on. (Photo by Bruce Silcox)