In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater plans to sell its Avalon Theatre, the 300-seat 1930s art deco building on Minneapolis’s Lake Street where the company has performed and offered workshops since 1988 and bought in 1990. And the company is looking for homes for the company’s archive of thousands of puppets as it vacates a nearby storage warehouse that it has been renting—including giving the puppets to their creators or donating them to museums.
“We are losing the hallowed halls filled with memories,” Victoria Cox, the board’s treasurer, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune via email in August. “But we are being freed from the pressure of sustaining a space that does not meet our needs in terms of programming and accessibility.”
In the Heart of the Beast hopes to find a new home—perhaps a storefront with room for performances and workshops, where they’ll keep just a “small inventory,” a “working collection” of the remaining puppets.
“As we rebuild from the impacts of COVID-19 we are right-sizing our organization,” the company said on its website in August. “It’s time to find a new, smaller home that will allow us to live into our vision of a decentralized MayDay [Parade]. That includes moving into a new space that is more sustainable and accessible.”
In the Heart of the Beast is best known for its MayDay Parade, a community spectacle of giant papier-mâché puppets, stilters, dancers, bicyclists and dogs through south Minneapolis. Beginning in 1975, it produced the parade annually to celebrate the arrival of spring. It attracted an audience of tens of thousands, but the costs of the parade often outpaced the donations and grants it generated.
Inspired by Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, David O’Fallon and Ray St Louis founded the company as the Powderhorn Puppet Theatre in 1973, and initially worked out of the basement of Walker Church in Minneapolis’s Powderhorn neighborhood. Sandy Spieler served as artistic director from 1977 to 2015, and continued to lead the MayDay Parade project through 2019.
While the announcement to sell the Avalon and disperse the puppet archive arrives amidst covid pandemic closures, the company has been wrestling with its future for some time. In January 2019, it cut staff, reduced programs, and announced that the MayDay Parade had grown too big to produce without partners.
“MayDay in its current form is not only unsustainable financially and logistically, the creation process systematically marginalizes and appropriates the work of artists of color. This cannot be allowed to continue. The HOBT Leadership Team has decided that taking time off from producing MayDay to pause and redesign MayDay is the best way to come back with a stronger, more equitable MayDay in the future,” the company said on its website in January 2019.
In June 2019, after that year’s MayDay spectacle, the company announced: “Record attendance reinforces the notion that HOBT’s MayDay has grown too large for HOBT to serve as the sole producing entity. Record numbers also indicate attendees are passionate about finding a way for the event to continue.”
The company had already been working with the consulting firm Deliver and Juxtaposition Arts, surveyed more than 300 people, and held meetings as it worked to reimagine itself—including the question of whether to stay in the Avalon Theatre, which required significant maintenance.
In September 2019, the company announced that it would not present a MayDay Parade in in 2020 as it worked to reimagine the event—in part as an effort to make it more diverse and inclusive. “It is increasingly clear to me that it is just not possible to produce the MayDay that people have come to know and love and at the same time, do the work to change it,” Corrie Zoll, Heart of the Beast’s then executive director, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune at the time. ”So if what we can do in the next year is either produce MayDay or redesign MayDay, this is a choice to redesign MayDay.”
During the pandemic spring of 2020, In the Heart of the Beast did end up offering a virtual “Chysalis MayDay” experience.
“This fall and winter we plan to create a ritual of transition; coming together as a community to grieve, to release, to dream forward with intention. Celebrating both what has been and what is yet to come,” the company said on its website in August. In 2022, they “do not plan to produce a full-scale [MayDay] parade,” but instead “work with a small group of partner organizations to create a series of decentralized MayDay experiences in spring 2022,” a series of “smaller-scale, neighborhood-led celebrations.”
And they’re considering changing the company’s name. “As early as 2019, consultants encouraged HOBT to choose a new name to reflect the new direction of our work,” the company wrote on its website in August. “As HOBT begins to emerge from Chrysalis we are now ready to claim a new name. We see this as an important opportunity to honor and give thanks for what HOBT has been, the caterpillar who entered the cocoon, while allowing us to truly embark on a new chapter, with a new identity, the butterfly who is emerging.”
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