Peace puppets get to the heart of theater's mission

Puppeteer and puppet
Masanari Kawahara, creator and puppeteer, practices with his main character Thich Nhat Hanh. "A Path Home: A Story of Thich Nhat Hanh" is a new performance from In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.
MPR Photo/Laura Gill

The story of a simple monk trying to promote peace during the Vietnam war might seem an unlikely subject for a puppet show. Yet the performers in "A Path Home" at the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater say in many ways, their show gets to the very roots of what they do as an organization.

"A Path Home" tells the story of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and peace activist who founded what became known as the "Engaged Buddhism" movement.

After experiencing the horrors of the Vietnam war, he moved to the United States to try to persuade the U.S. to withdraw from his homeland. Martin Luther King, Jr., nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

It's a story which has inspired many people over the years, including Minneapolis performer Masanari Kawahara.

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"I decided to use his story as a puppet show," said Kawahara.

In a workshop at the Heart of the Beast theater on Lake St. in Minneapolis, Kawahara is working with musician Matt Larsen. There's a small set which is perhaps eight feet wide.

Masanari Kawahara
Masanari Kawahara works with the puppets in "A Path Home."
MPR photo/Laura Gill

Kawahara rehearses a scene where Hanh talks about a nun who set herself on fire to protest the war. The puppets are simple figures which come to life just by the way he lifts and moves them.

The action on stage unfolds under the attentive gaze of Sandy Spieler, the director of "A Path Home."

"The movement is incredibly subtle," she said. "It's small. It's meditative."

It was Spieler who brought Kawahara to Heart of the Beast after she saw his first ever puppet show.

"I didn't know anything about puppets, but I tried it anyway," he said with a smile.

"What I saw in Masa was an open spirit, and that kind of ability to crawl into the skin of another."

Spieler knew Kawahara as an actor. Originally from Hiroshima in Japan, he'd worked with Theater Mu and Theater de la Jeune Lune.

"I was really interested in having someone who was a performer," Spieler said.

Spieler saw his performance skills as a valuable addition to the people already in the company.

"Many, many people who enter our work enter as visual artists. And what I saw in Masa was an open spirit, and that kind of ability to crawl into the skin of another," she said.

Which is, of course, the essence of a puppeteer.

That was 11 years ago, and Kawahara has since become a mainstay of Heart of the Beast. A couple of years ago he co-created "Gotama," a popular puppet play about the life of Buddha.

For "A Path Home," Kawahara immersed himself for months in the many books of Thich Nhat Hanh. He then began to experiment, making puppets, mostly out of paper, and developing the script.

What he's created is very powerful. Using simple cardboard shapes and a guitar played with a bow by musician Matt Larsen, he portrays an unsettling scene of carpet bombing.

Stage view
Musician Matt Larson watches as Masanari Kawahara sets up a scene for "A Path Home."
MPR photo/Laura Gill

Kawahara and Spieler say "A Path Home" fits well with the social activism of Heart of the Beast, which is best known for its huge annual May Day Parade.

Spieler says over the years, the company has often referred to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. They hope the play will resonate with members of the local Buddhist community, but Kawahara believes it will also touch people with no knowledge of Thich Nhat Hanh.

They will find out over the next three weeks as they present the show at their Lake Street theater.

Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce says Heart of the Beast has been adept at drawing audiences over the years.

"They are very much, I think, wedded to the idea that if you do the right kind of work, magic will happen and people will come," Royce said.

Royce says the theater knows its south Minneapolis community well, and wears its political heart on its sleeve.

"Because of that, I think they hit a nerve or a vein of people who in many ways feel kind of excluded by the mainstream of theater, and that's a significant number of people," said Royce.

After the run, Masanari Kawahara says he hopes to make the show available to anyone who is interested, including schools and prisons. He says the set is designed to fold up into his Suburu wagon -- although he hasn't actually tried it yet.