In the Heart of the Beast Theatre falls on hard times

Photo by Max Haynes

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT) has been part and parcel of multicultural theatre in the Twin Cities for the past 45 years. That could all end this summer. HOBT announced in January that 2019 cuts in its operating budget necessitate staff and programming reductions. And when an organization has to tighten its belt, the threat of the doors closing altogether looms.  

Executive Director Corrie Zoll shared with MSR that as a rule of thumb, “About every five years you should count on going broke and figuring out what comes next.”  

This, however, is bad news for the organization. The Bush and General Mills Foundations, among the state’s bedrock arts funders, have ended those programs. Target Foundation, reducing its awards to arts organizations overall, has completely withdrawn support to HOTB.

The paring down is a stopgap measure as HOTB looks for ways to strengthen funding for an establishment with a track record for contributing to the community. That includes its annual MayDay Parade celebration, Zoll reflected: “MayDay has been about…weaving together different cultures.”

Conducted in South Minneapolis since 1975, the event draws more than 60,000 attendees. Beyond MayDay, HOBT hosts school residencies and extra-curricular and summer programming, afterschool and summer arts programming. Other productions at its Avalon Theater regularly engage audiences in issues of social justice, notably Make Believe Neighborhood, The Story of Crow Boy and Cartoon!

To keep the MayDay event going, HOBT has launched a $50K fundraising campaign to cover part of its annual $200K costs.

“MayDay has grown too big for an organization the size of HOBT to carry on our own,” said Zoll in a recent statement. “This crowdfunding campaign is just one of several things we are doing now and in the coming months to build a wider understanding of what it takes to make sure MayDay continues to be an essential part of the identity of South Minneapolis, and to build a sense that we can successfully share the work of making it happen.”

Given that GOTB will be competing for dollars from dwindling sources, including individual contributors, Zoll hopes the new fundraiser will build momentum around support for the organization.

“After the 2016 elections, we saw a pretty big bump upwards in donations, because people said, I didn’t realize that was going to happen. Let’s show support,” Zoll told the MSR. “That lasted for about a year until the changes were announced to individual tax code.

“Over 2018, our individual donations fell because people are scared of what’s happening in the world right now. The economy is very soft, and people are hedging their bets about where they want to put their money. Also, the number of important causes to support are bigger than ever.”

About every five years you should count on going broke and figuring out what comes next.

Photo by Max Haynes

If they exceed their MayDay fundraising goal, HOBT will use the remaining funds to establish a new organizational model that is more “resilient, inclusive and relevant.” This will inevitably include partnerships with the community and other organizations.  

“Any future for this organization, assuming there is a future, will involve sharing [the Avalon Theater] more,” said Zoll. “This building needs to be more of an asset to more of the communities that are in this neighborhood.

“There are ways that can be done. It could be about sharing with two or three other arts companies that want to present their whole season but are having trouble hanging on to their space,” he continued. “Maybe something like a Lake Street version of the Cedar Cultural Center. Curating not just theatre but music and other things.”

In recent times, among long-established theatre companies to shut down are Intermedia Arts, Patrick’s Cabaret and Bedlam Theatre. All of whom, like HOTB, made reflecting Twin Cities multiculturalism a priority.

HOBT’s artists of color have been essential to the work produced at the Avalon. However, the MayDay event has not been in step with the institution’s commitment to varied cultures. Zoll, in his third year at HOTB, stated there are plans to improve on that.  

He acknowledged that his predecessor, founding artistic director Sandy Spieler, advised him, “MayDay has a culture where artists of color don’t feel welcome. Artists [also] talked to me about this. I said that these things should change. I naively thought talking about it would be a way to move on. I learned in the past three and half years that was not going to be an effective process.”  

Those operating the MayDay infrastructure had grown set in their ways, developing what Zoll described as inertia. “The system has been resistant to change. We look for new ideas. We welcome [them]. But, as soon as the process rolls along, the new ideas get pushed back,” he said.

“Because of the crush of the work, people say, ‘Maybe we can do that next year.’ Or, ‘We tried that once and it didn’t work. We’re just going to have to do it the way we already know how to do it,’” said Zoll.

“What we have come to understand internally here is that classic dynamic of supremacy culture,” he added. “Artists of color start out feeling invited, feeling welcome, that MayDay will be an artistic home for them, and then two or three years later saying, ‘No, thanks. I don’t need this. This is not a system that’s changing.’  

“My work has been to pick apart why that’s happening. And to dismantle it.” Zoll means to replace the lip service with actual inclusion.

Photo by Max Haynes

Toward this end, last summer, HOBT engaged consultants including Nadja Rubenova, Sandra Richardson, Susan Raffo, and Marie Michael to facilitate dialogues with MayDay artists about altering the MayDay process.

“We’ve boiled it down to a set of agreements that are promises In the Heart of the Beast Theatre has made to our artists and expectations we are having of our artists community, and building in the assessment [so] we can say after MayDay how well we do in keeping the promises we made.”

Bottom line: In the Heart of the Beast Theatre, to uphold those promises and continue its legacy contribution to South Minneapolis multiculturalism, must find some way to pay the bills.

To donate, go here. The crowdfunding campaign will culminate with the premiere of a short documentary Children of Spring about the magic of MayDay.

Also, a special fundraiser, “MayDay for MayDay,” will take place Friday, March 29 from 7-10 pm at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre’s historic art deco Avalon Theater, 1500 E Lake St., in Minneapolis.

Tickets are $12 for adults and $7 for kids under 12. Order tickets here.