David O'Fallon clearly remembers the day back in the early 1970s that Sandy Speiler showed up at what was then known as the Powderhorn Puppet Theater.
"We were really the classic story of 100 pounds of clay, a couple of planks, some burlap sacks and cardboard boxes, starting a theater," said the man who is now president and CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center.
On that particular day he was sculpting the clay mold for a puppet, overworking it, trying to put all of his hopes and frustrations about the world into this one face.
"I look to my left. Here's this young woman, shaping clay with a few deft strokes. I look at her and I go, 'I'll never be that good! Look at her!' " he said. "That was Sandy."
Before long, Spieler was running the company. She renamed it In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, and moved it from the basement of Walker Church to the old Avalon Theater, a building which used to show X-rated movies.
Now it's a thriving neighborhood hub, which O'Fallon says is the result of Spieler's commitment to staying rooted in the neighborhood for four decades.
"It's a level of dedication that not everyone in the arts community makes," O'Fallon said.
EMBEDDING IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Spieler has used her artistic skills to help pull together a diverse neighborhood in south Minneapolis. She's sought to raise awareness of pressing environmental issues and celebrate the human capacity to do good in the world.
She spreads her message and values by teaching workshops in communities across the state, and in the shows she produces with her theater company.
Perhaps her most important single contribution is In the Heart of the Beast's annual May Day Parade, which draws tens of thousands of people to Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis each year.
Spieler says she first realized this work was her true calling when she caught a performance by the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater.
"Everything inside me just vibrated," she recalled. "And I went, 'Oh, this is what I want to do.' I think because it brought together a way of telling stories and images that was visual, that was movement, that was musical and that brought people together."
It's all an outgrowth of something her mother used to tell her: "Bloom where you're planted."
That's exactly what she's done. At a time when many organizations struggle to attract more diverse audiences, In the Heart of the Beast employs a basic strategy: "You just say, 'Welcome, please come!' It's an open door. And I think it grows," Speiler said. "One person comes and tells another person."
Spieler has also figured out how to lead and organize hundreds of people, while allowing them all to follow their own creative instincts.
On one Tuesday night in April, the theater was transformed into a huge workshop. Audience seats were pulled aside to make way for work tables, around which a couple of hundred volunteers of varying ages, ethnicities and physical abilities gathered to create puppets and costumes for this year's May Day Parade.
At the center of this creative frenzy stood Alan Olson, dispensing staplers, duct tape, box cutters and drills from behind a supply counter. He's been a regular volunteer for the last dozen years.
"It's the kind of thing I support a lot because it's more the kind of world I want to see," Olson said. "This is so in keeping with my values. I just couldn't imagine not being here. It's cooperative. It's less about competition and more about people working together and building this thing, rather than having contests about who's building the best float."
Fast forward a few weeks, and the morning of the May Day parade has arrived. Puppeteers and paraders found their places in line, followed by a free speech section that featured people marching for legalized hemp, an end to the wolf hunt, and other progressive causes.
Dressed in flowing white, Sandy Spieler was making her way gracefully through the lineup, repositioning some people and checking in with puppeteers. She looked amazingly serene in the final moments before the parade started.
Flora Klein was waiting patiently in place by her parade banner. Klein, who is 16, said she's participated in the parade for as long as she can remember.
"Every year it's like a catalyst for change, and it always restores faith in humanity. And I just come away with such a great feeling about how we can change the world," Klein said of her association with the theater.
This year's story was called "See the World." As the parade made its way down Bloomington Avenue, spectators were treated to a visual feast of puppets, some close to 20 feet tall, telling a story of pollution, war and death. Paraders flew mock military drones out over the crowds on the ends of long sticks, while a red-faced creation with an evil leer stirred a cauldron made from a hollowed-out planet earth.
Then came a new collection of puppets; a new future is envisioned, in which plants and children dance happily before the growing crowd.
As the procession neared the end, the scent in the air alternated between smells of sandalwood, marijuana and grilled meat. It's been estimated some years the parade draws as many as 50,000 people.
At the park, where people covered a hillside looking over the lake, Russell Packard sat on a blanket with his daughter and her friend, eating strawberries and playing with their new puppy. Packard said the May Day Parade gives him hope in what he said are otherwise dark times
"We're looking for a democratic world, a better society with environmental values, community values, and free speech values," said Packard. "I think we all feel isolated in our own little lives, and when we get together like this we feel less isolated -- we realize just how large the alternative community is."
Spieler says she wants to reach more than the community that applauds the May Day Parade, though. She says her work is ultimately about the interconnection of all things, and about recognizing human potential for change.
"We look at the situations of great illness in the world, and the violence, and the poison, and we say, 'Well, how did we get there?' Well, this is human made, so it can be human undone. I think it's about looking at each person as responsible, as culpable, but also having great power."
As thousands look on and cheer, Spieler and her fellow puppeteers enact the final moments of the May Day ritual. Paddlers row a large sun sculpture across the lake to the shore, ushering in the beginning of spring. And for a moment, the people and the planet seem to move as one.
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