Rough beasts and happy children

“If we are to reach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children.” – Gandhi

Amy Danielson

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, or HOBT, is a frenzied workshop just one week and a day before the beloved May Day parade, ceremony and festival. The event is known in the Twin Cities as the apogee of the May Day holiday and harbinger of spring. The May Day holiday symbolizes more than the arrival of spring, however. It is a day to remember the workers of the first American May Day in 1886 who demanded an eight-hour work day and humane treatment from factory owners. Anarchists, socialists and others on the left have since gathered together in solidarity to protest, celebrate, remember grueling times and look optimistically to the future.

Before the public workshop session begins at HOBT, local artists and collaborators rush around frantically preparing unfinished puppets, masks and floats for completion. Children and adults from across the Twin Cities will be entering HOBT’s doors soon to lovingly labor on these magnificent ritual beasts.

Puppeteer Andrew Kim talked with the Daily about the theme for this year’s celebration. As usual, it is a vision of peace and justice. Kim, who began his career as a staff artist at HOBT, now resides in Seattle where he performs with his own puppetry and theater collective. He is thoughtful, though excited to guide me through the details of the upcoming spectacle. He points to a storyboard hanging in the lobby of HOBT which outlines the major themes of the parade. The frames in the storyboard are beginning to come to life as their details are being crafted in the workshop. Every year in March, members of the community gather to brainstorm ideas for the upcoming parade, and draw out their ideas on large sheets of white paper which become the storyboards or guides for constructing the masks and puppets which will become the parade’s characters. They focus on issues involving politics and social responsibility, eventually forming a poetic narrative.

“This is Our Child” is the theme of the parade and celebration this year. It is spring, a time for rebirth, and a time to focus on the children of the world who should be nurtured as they are growing up to cultivate the future.

This year, the parade is divided into five main sections. The first, “Precious Joy,” celebrates the individual. Trees will be ushered in by lions, deer and babies. “Each person is celebrated as they enter in,” Kim says. The next section, “Darn the Hole,” adopts “Alice in Wonderland” as its theme, with President George W. Bush as the Mad Hatter and hyenas who snatch things from small children. Next, the section Kim is working on, “Procession of Mourners,” will consist of a group of somber, hooded mourners carrying the bodies of the dead.

“Arise!” is a call to action – working against oppressive forces – with the symbol of the dove as the main motif. A large puppet woman with a dove escaping her mouth will be central to the section. Other individuals will adorn dove-shaped hats and wings attached to their arms. Finally, “Radical Revolution Family Style,” encompasses the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of a Child (which, incidentally, has not been signed by the United States). This section of the parade evokes promises the world needs to make to our children with spinning figures and people carrying balls that they will pass back and forth between the spectators. The balls signify the characters’ relation to the world and will have messages written on them. Animals will represent specific elements crucial to the message of this section: dog – playfulness, ladybug – gentleness, penguin – commitment.

All of this visual poetry will culminate at Powderhorn Park for the ceremony where a 15-foot-tall sun will cross the lake to meet the rising 25-foot-tall Tree-of-Life puppet which symbolizes our rebirth.

After his explanation of this year’s themes, Kim guided me through the workshop area where the giant puppets, masks, bicycle moldings and other parade paraphernalia wait to spring to life. A giant papier-mache puppet sits in the corner, eyes closed, mouth mournfully agape, wrists pressed to its head and fingers pointed upward. It is but a silhouette – its papier-mache is dry, but the figure is yet to be painted. The only finished puppets are those of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney tucked between scores of works in progress.

By the end of our tour through the maze of masks, puppets, paint and fabric, the children began to arrive. They gathered around the main table, introducing themselves and announcing the section they are working on. Each received an eruption of praise from the group. During this, a man stood on the main table which the group encircles, busily inspecting a papier-mache marionette mouse. Its head wiggled like a bobble-head toy. The group began to sing as the artists continued to work all around them, and they beat the giant table with blocks of wood to the rhythm of their song. Things began to come to life, as the excitement had just begun. This is the essence of May Day.

The 29th Annual May Day Parade begins at 1 p.m. Sunday at 26th Street and Bloomington Avenue. The Tree-of-Life Ceremony and Festival will begin shortly after the end of the parade at Powderhorn Park.

Amy Danielson welcomes comments at [email protected]