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In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre

by Jo Beth Gonzalez, M.F.A.

Doctoral Candidate in Theatre
Bowling Green State University

Note: This paper was written for a graduate course in puppetry history and theory, co-taught by Bradford Clark.

"Self-commitment." "Organic growth." "Passion." These words describe the attitude that founding artistic director Sandy Spieler holds toward the Minneapolis-based company In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. In this paper, I will discuss the company's background, give examples of projects that reflect the theatre's mission statement, and compare/contrast the company to other forms of theatre that we have discussed in class.

As is true of many theatre companies, the evolution of In the Heart of the Beast is a constant process. The theatre began as The Powder Horn Puppet Theatre and produced little puppet shows in Minneapolis parks and community theatres. In the early/mid-seventies when the company began to take shape, its members consisted of two kinds of individuals - those who participated because puppetry and theatre was an enjoyable past-time, and serious artists like Spieler. After several years, the members split and the "serious" artists took over the company's leadership. They assembled a board of directors, paid their artistic director, and hired a business manager. They also moved into a semi- permanent home in a church basement, outgrew it, moved into a storefront, outgrew it, and are now based at 1500 E. Lake Street in Minneapolis. This site is a former movie house, complete with a sloping cement floor (where the audience used to sit to watch movies) and a narrow platform stage across one width of the theatre (where a movie screen used to be.) The space is flexible and promotes creative staging.

After the split between the two kinds of participants who originally operated the company, Spieler changed the name of the theatre to In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. The Powder Horn Puppet Theatre was named after a neighborhood park in which the early company members performed, but the company's "new" name was taken from a line in a poem written by Cuban poet Jose Martee. The poem suggests that the "heart of the beast" is the place wherever we are "planted," so that is where we must "bloom." In other words, we must work where we can, and make the most of whatever is given to us. Spieler explained that the stories that In the Heart of the Beast tells are the stories about issues that are important to the company members. The artists hope that those issues are important to their audiences, too. She stated, "Like any theatre company, we base the choice of material we select in part on our own interests, and in part on what we think will appeal to our audience" (interview). To Spieler, the "beast" is the center of their work. The "beast" is the place of change, both for themselves as artists, and for the audiences who witness and participate in their work.

The Mission Statement of In the Heart of the Beast Theatre reflects the meaning of the company's name:

In the Heart of the Beast is dedicated to performing puppet and mask theatre for the entertainment of audiences of all ages and cultures, creating a sense of community among performers and audiences, and building a vital and healthy culture through art, festivity and play.

The work of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre is strongly grounded in the concerns of its home, neighborhood, state, regional, national and global issues. The theatre is committed to empowering its communities by utilizing its artistry to provide opportunities for hands-on participation in the creation of community-wide events.

One example of the way in which the theatre "empowers its communities" is the annual spring festival that the theatre sponsors. In conjunction with a parade of oversized puppets and masks, the company offers free puppet and mask building workshops for the public. The parades that In the Heart of the Beast integrate into their season reflects their commitment to involve audiences of all ages, to integrate festivity and fun with art, and to build a healthy and vital culture by involving the community.

Another example is a four-part project that was orchestrated in 1983-84 called The Circle of Water Circus. This project took place over the course of one summer. Thirty company members travelled from water-town to water-town along the banks of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans. In each town, they led a puppet and mask-making workshop for local participants several days before the main event. Then, on the day of the main event, the company and all the workshop participants marched in a parade to the performance site, gathering more of its audience along the way. At the performance site, the midway opened. The midway was comprised of eclectic five and ten-minute puppet shows created by various company members. Two hours later, the company presented the main event. Entitled The Circle of Water Circus, the performance told the history of the Mississippi River through interactions between puppets and humans, and was interspersed with songs, sketches, and dances. The project symbolized the notion of community by water, which binds humankind and animals in a circle. At the end of play, the company informed the audience that it is their responsibility to control, and eventually eliminate, the poisons that have polluted the Mississippi.

Two other projects reveal the company's dedication to exploring the concerns of the company's home, neighborhood, state, region, nation, and world at large. The issues represented in these works exemplify the "beast" with whom company and audience must "wrestle" in order to produce change. In 1990, Martha Boesing (from Minneapolis' At the Foot of the Mountain theatre) and company member Lisa Witzkowski collaborated with Spieler to conduct research for Reaper's Tale. Because the Columbus Quincentennial was approaching, this production told the story of Columbus' "discovery" of the "New Word." However, In the Heart of the Beast chose to tell the story from "the opposite point of view" - from the perspective of America's indigenous people. The artists extracted writings from Columbus' diary to form the basis of the play's text, and read a contemporary trilogy by Eduardo Galliano in which the writer claimed, "When Greed comes to the earth, its hands will be set free, its feet will be set free, and its head will be set free." The company explored many large themes relating to the collision of two worlds in a series of workshops led by the three collaborators, and together, the cast and directors determined that the most significant contributor to the devastation of the Indies was humankind's propensity for greed. The performance used live actors who, wearing unitards painted with skeletal bones, represented the dead indigenous peoples. Among the actors floated oversized skeletan-puppets that represented Columbus and his sailors. At the very end of the play, two large doors at the back of the theatre opened; it had been stacked to the ceiling with empty aluminum pop cans. They tumbled onto the raked cement movie-house floor and rolled unceasingly for several minutes. This simple action created a profound series of sounds which the company, according to Spieler, had decided was the most convincing metaphor of greed for an audience heading into the 1990's.

Befriended by the Enemy (1994) was based on a true contemporary story that took place in Lincoln, Nebraska. The play depicted the evolving friendship between KKK Dragon King Larry Trapp and Julie and Mike Weiser, a Jewish couple who Trapp had been harassing through a series of obscene telephone calls. As Weiser began to return Trapp's calls with offers of help, Trapp was revealed to be - not a mighty "king" - but a disabled, weak, pained, and saddened man. The play's many characters were depicted through multiple puppetry styles, "as varied as the plethora of emotions they evoke[d]. . . .From the hand and body puppet of the main characters, to the shadows of the KKK and the Nazi's, to the giant (8') flowing angels, to the mini cut-outs used for the train scene to evoke physical distancing. . ." (Penfil 3).

Spieler explained that after working on "epic" productions like The Circle of Water Circus and Reaper's Tale for many years, the company turned their interest to more "person to person" work. Spieler had read about the Weiser story in Time magazine, and was so intrigued by it that she wrote to Klan-Watch for more details. Then she and the co-director, who was Jewish, travelled to Lincoln, Nebraska and spent two days with the Weisers. The resulting project included poignant and moving scenes that eliminated "any conscious thought [in the minds of the audience] that these were puppets" (Penfil 3).

While I have had only one opportunity to witness the work of In the Heart of the Beast, through my research for this project I can point out several connections between the company and some of the cultural and aesthetic aspects of puppetry that we have discussed in class. The annual spring parade and the parade that preceded the performance of The Circle of Water Circus incorporate puppets that abstractly represent images in nature. The parades become communal rituals that are rooted in earlier cultures wherein puppets represented gods and other religious icons. E.T. Kirby justifies the contemporary use of abstract puppets when he asserts, "Abstraction thus supports an 'enforced connection' between earth, plant, animal and man in the recreation of an ancestor who was associated, in essence, with them, and the abstraction, as such, retains the mystery of that association" (10.)

The oversized, abstract nature of many of these puppets, as well as the opportunities that the company seeks to involve its community in company- sponsored events, point to the modern influence that the Bread and Puppet Theatre contributed to In the Heart of the Beast's style. In the seventies, Spieler had spent three (non-consecutive) summers in Vermont as a team member helping to mount The Domestic Resurrection Circus. Schumann's commitment to supporting communities of peace and his use of archetypal images in puppets of mammoth proportion are reflected in projects that In the Heart of the Beast has created for fifteen years. Spieler said in an interview that in some ways the company has evolved into something quite different from what it began as. Her experiences with Schumann's theatre impacted that change to some extent. Both Schumann's theatre and In the Heart of the Beast demonstrate that

"Puppet language. . .is an experiment which strips words and sentences of their secondary fashionable contexts. . .into singular terms. The puppets need silence, and their silences are an outspoken part of their language. . . .In the puppet theatre words are attached to faces which don't move externally but are all the more obviously able to produce meaning" (Schumann 77).

Another aspect of the company's style involves object manipulation. Although the pop cans were objects "manipulated" only in so far as gravity controlled them when the closet doors opened, the artists who created Reaper's Tale discovered a profound use for "objects in performance." The endlessly- rolling aluminum cans made a statement more clearly and simply than could words from an actor. The nature of In the Heart of the Beast's work, while incorporating and experimenting with multiple dimensions of puppetry, seems to aim toward what Latshaw described as puppetry's ability to form "the ultimate disguise." That Befriended by the Enemy could evoke scenes in which the audience forgets that it is watching puppets attests to the power of the stories that the company selects for performance, and the interpretive skill of the artists.

One "postmodern" technique that the company uses is the mix among live actors, live actors wearing masks, and puppets. This approach is demonstrated is the work of director Julie Taymor and performance artist Theodora Skipitares. The process that Spieler uses to determine the appropriate "balance" of live actor, mask, mask on actor, and puppet is typical of many theatres whose work is self-created. Spieler collaborates with her co-directors and members of the company to develop scripts through an evolutionary process of workshops. The actors explore dialogue and movement, and then they create and manipulate prototypes of puppets. Combined with the actors' early dialogue, movement patterns, and simple puppets, they workshop until the images express the essence of their ideas (interview). For instance, actor/puppeteers who performed short midway performances in The Circle of Water Circus created pieces that they first showed to the directors, and then revised and showed to the rest of the company for critique. Spieler explained that the cast improvised scenes to explore the larger issues associated with the collision of two worlds before the storyline was solidified for Reaper's Tale.

The process of improvisation and revising scenes based upon company critique is a method common to theatre companies in general that profess an "ensemble" approach to their work. In the Heart of the Beast operates as any professional theatre company does - its artists are committed to their mission, they are passionate about every story they tell, they evolve into performance spaces as the company grows and changes, and its board of directors seeks funding from sources beyond its audience (Footnote 1). The fact that the company creates theatre primarily through the manipulation of puppets and masks reflects the particular talents of the company's leaders and members. Armed with those skills, the actors tell tales that evoke images impossible to create via actors alone. A human actor could not physically float and fly as gracefully as the "giants angels" who were manipulated by puppeteers in Befriended by the Enemy. The giant puppet-angels' movements were reportedly so fluid that "their wisdom and serenity penetrated throughout the assemblage who took it all in" (Penfil 3). What is most important is that the actors imbue the the puppets and masks with life. The life the In the Heart of the Beast actors "breathe" into the puppets and masks creates memorable pieces of theatre that reflect the human condition.



1 In 1992, In the Heart of the Beast was contracted in a multi-year partnership initiative sponsored by NEA's Arts Initiative Education Program with Stage One Children's Theatre of Louisville and an individual puppeteer from Helena, Montana. (The Puppetry Journal, Fall 1992)


Works Cited

Penfil, Tih. "In the Heart of the Beast." The Puppetry Journal, Spring, 1995.

Schumann, Peter. "The Radicality of the Puppet Theatre." THEA 782 Course Packet.

Kirby, ET. "Masks." THEA 782 Course Packet

"The Circle of Water Circus." The Puppetry Journal, Spring 1984.

Spieler, Sandy. Telephone Interview. June 6, 1995.


Article copyright 1995 by Jo Beth Gonzalez
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