May Day festival is a call to action

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Weeks before the robins return and the daffodils begin to bloom in Minnesota, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOTB) is busy coordinating its annual May Day parade and ceremony, a unique blend of theater and community activism that takes place the first Sunday in May.

Sandy Spieler is a founding member of HOTB, which evolved from the Powderhorn Puppet Theater in 1974, and has been the group’s artistic director since 1979. “For our first May Day we were looking at a way of doing an outdoor event to bring people out of their houses,” she recalled. “We wanted to rejuvenate a certain spirit in people by creating a forum for them to discuss what was happening in their minds and in their hearts. We wanted to make it fun and energetic, but with some depth. In a way we saw it as another anti-war activity, but instead of shouting ‘down with this’ or ‘up with that,’ we knew that a strong way of protesting is to bring people together.”

When the Vietnam War ended two weeks before HOTB’s first May Day event, Spieler said the group “kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Should we do this?’” They did, drawing about 200 spectators and creating the blueprint for an annual event that nowadays draws thousands of people locally, nationally and internationally.

“We draw people from all over the seven-county metro area and Wisconsin, and in the last week of the parade, people start coming in from all over the country to work on it,” said executive director Kathee Foran. “It’s sort of like having the cavalry arrive.”

Each year HOTB’s May Day event focuses on a theme, and this year it is “The Time is Now.” Foran explained that the themes evolve organically from community input. “Sandy leads a community meeting in February and asks the group, ‘What’s on your mind?’ and ‘What makes you happy, angry? etc.’ At first people are tentative and shy—we’re all Minnesotans. But once they get going they start building off each others’ ideas.”

Foran says meticulous meeting notes are taken and reviewed to determine a common theme. At a second community meeting in March, HOTB presents its ideas to the group and asks for input. From there, a storyboard is developed and presented at the first community workshop. “Sandy goes through the storyboard and explains each section,” said Foran. “She talks about major images and you self-select what you want to work on. You go into the auditorium and the whole theater is turned into a giant studio. It’s pretty amazing. There you talk with the artists, there are usually two or three for each section, and they get you started.”

In a series of 16 workshop sessions that precede the event, volunteers work with local artists to make everything from masks to costumes to props. Foran said that people who bring their children to participate often unleash their own creative spirit. “Oftentimes that’s the easiest way for adults to enter,” she said, “particularly if you think ‘I can’t draw.’ But by bringing a child, they have that openness and become less worried about their own inadequacies. [Participating] is about releasing that and opening the door to creativity.”

This year there are five sections to the parade, each with a distinct message. “The first one is a cry, ‘the time is now,’” explained Spieler. “It calls for each one of us to come forward now … to look at where we are at the present moment, acknowledging things from the past—the genocides and injustices—and saying that there is a step forward into the future.”

Next comes “the time is now to speak the truth,” which Spieler says is owning where we’ve come from as individuals and as Americans. “We are complicit in creating the systems that have generated policies of division in the world—systems of violence and injustice, as well as a great vision of health and wealth for all.” This section will incorporate imagery of the mythological figure Janus, from which the month of January gets it’s name. Janus is a two-headed being that simultaneously looks forward and backward.

Communication is the focus of the third section and its moniker is “the time is now to listen to the heart speak.” To acknowledge individual voices, Spieler described a “conversation of drums of different ethnicities,” as well as images of cosmos, stars and wheels.

“The time is now to walk hand in hand” follows. “At the meetings, people said they wished they knew their neighbors, that they would communicate with their neighbors,” recalled Spieler. “That spoke eons about the marginalization that people feel. This section of the parade is a cry that no one is illegal, that all may love, all may cross borders, all may come together, that Republicans and Democrats need to join together to look for the health and wealth of all, that we need to move across boundaries of faith, gender and age to work together.”

“It’s inspired and takes its imagery from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” where he uses grass as a strong metaphor of the common ground, the open space of democracy. There’s a beautiful quote: ‘I will infuse myself among you until I see that it is common for you to walk hand and hand.’ That’s where our title comes from.”

The next section of the parade, “to check out our commonwealth,” is dedicated to public libraries. Spieler noted the non-discriminatory, reciprocal relationship that exists between a public library and the people it serves. She said there will be a “banned-book band” in which people will read aloud from works including Leaves of Grass, Tom Sawyer, Harry Potter, the Bible and the Koran.

The last section, “re-generate with gratitude our uproarious energy,” explores and celebrates sustainability. “It looks at the incredible generator of the sun’s energy to partner with wind, water and human energies to create health and wealth,” said Spieler. “It’s being imaged by dragons and we have artists from Taiwan who come from a family of dragon masters who will teach some moves.”

Although HOTB’s May Day theme changes annually, certain elements that relate to its significance as both a worker holiday and a pagan celebration are part of every festival. Spieler called these the “green root” and “red root” aspects of the event.

“We always talk about the green root as the ancient Earth changing to spring, and what an incredible gift and energetic force that is in our lives,” she said. “The green root is about celebrating that fertility. The red root is the people’s root. It’s the creative energy of peoples’ hands, hearts and minds that bring forth the cultural and the social life we desire.”

After the parade HOTB conducts a ceremony in Powderhorn Park. “We always have a ritual of honoring the Sun and the Tree of Life,” Spieler said, “which we use as a resurgence to remind us of the physical and spiritual energy that is always with us no matter what we do.” And, of course, each ceremony includes a group rendition of “You Are My Sunshine.”

To hear an interview with HOBT founder Sandy Spieler, go “here”:http://www.mnartists.org/uploads/news/a02136181058bd74658e97da182e4b19/a02136181058bd74658e97da182e4b19.mp3

The May Day parade on May 7 begins at 1 p.m. at 25th Street and Bloomington Avenue. It marches to 34th Street and into Powderhorn Park. The event lasts until dusk, and includes several vendors and musical stages.

For more information on HOTB or the May Day event, go to hobt.org.

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