Puppeteer and theater maker Bart Buch has loved children’s TV icon Mr. Rogers since he was 3. Forty-five years later, he’s sharing that affection with “Make Believe Neighborhood.”
The biggest show in years at Minneapolis’ fabled In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, it features a couple of hundred puppets — including 13 Mr. Rogerses and a 25-foot-long whale — plus versions of Rogers songs recorded by such noted artists as Andrew Bird, Sylvan Esso and Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
Opening Friday, “Make Believe Neighborhood” juxtaposes scenes from the life of the TV icon with others saluting “helpers” in the south Minneapolis neighborhood where HOBT is based — a nod to some famous advice from the late Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”
Buch, who runs HOBT’s youth and community programs, remembers the time his family borrowed a TV set they ultimately decided they couldn’t afford. While they had it, Buch fell in love with Mr. Rogers and his neighbors. Which made saying goodbye to them — and to the TV — traumatic.
“My mom said, ‘You were very, very upset. You cried all the way to the store and all the way home, and I felt so bad because you were so happy and he was such a good influence on you,’ ” recalls Buch.
How they got the rights
Some would say Mr. Rogers was a good influence on virtually everyone who watched “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS from 1968 to 2001, which is why Buch has wanted for years to direct a show about the legendary puppeteer and TV host.
The Fred Rogers Company, which carries on his work through such shows as “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” was initially polite but unsupportive of the idea. Ultimately, though, it decided to give “Make Believe Neighborhood” limited rights to some of the songs Rogers wrote and sang for the TV series.
Four performers, 14 puppet builders and musical director Martin Dosh collaborated on the show, which has the largest HOBT budget in recent memory ($80,000). Rogers’ songs blend with various other media in an ambitious piece that uses front and rear video projections, puppets from hand-sized to bigger-than-life and a soundscape by Dosh to tell a unique story.
Buch, who is directing the show, said he asked himself: “What show would Fred want me to do? And I thought: He’d want me to look at my own neighborhood.”
Buch lives a few blocks from the theater, located at Lake Street and 15th Avenue S. It’s a neighborhood that wasn’t feeling safe, in part because of sex workers and drug dealers who had set up shop nearby.
“For the first time in years, I was feeling afraid to come in and out of this building,” says Buch, a 2017-18 McKnight Theater Artists Fellow. “But this neighborhood also has this incredible richness, and it’s the most diverse neighborhood in the state — one of the most diverse in the country. There are all these people doing incredible things to make the world a better place.”
He and a team of volunteers learned more about those things in interviews with 30 “neighborhood helpers.” Pieces of the show also came together in puppet-augmented concerts by Dosh and the group Dreamland Faces, and in residencies at Phillips neighborhood organizations that serve African-American, Latino and American Indian populations.
Such a broad base created the kind of inclusion that Mr. Rogers would have gotten behind, says Buch, who hopes the show conveys Mr. Rogers’ ethos: “His kindness. That he loves you just the way you are. And that you are special.”
“Make Believe Neighborhood” means to convey how those messages of service and kindness can have an impact on a real community such as the Phillips neighborhood.
“The show is very blatantly trying to bring out the light in the world,” says Buch. “I think we really need Fred’s example now.”
Divided into seven chapters that deal with, among other things, Mr. Rogers’ childhood and his work as an activist, “Make Believe Neighborhood” includes chapters such as “You and I Together.” It illustrates the main character’s friendships (including with co-workers who — in real life — consulted Rogers’ puppets for advice), paired with scenes of a Phillips resident, Chase Redday, helping care for his niece, Anyah, in the Little Earth housing project.
“Chase is building the scene about him,” says Buch. “I wanted him to be part of his own story in the show, and he’s this great visual artist. The first thing he built, in fact, was a puppet of himself, and it’s incredible. That is so hard. I could never build a puppet of myself.”
However, Buch has gotten good at building Mr. Rogers’ face. Along with a team of papier-mâché makers — who, over the course of 100 hours of work, began to call themselves Fredheads — Buch put in a lot of face time with the 13 Rogers puppets.
“I was painting a lot between Christmas and New Year’s,” says Buch. “You learn the face so well that you do start to notice things. He has these beautiful eyelids.”
The many puppets lying around at Heart of the Beast attest to the fact that Buch eventually got Rogers right (Buch’s fiancé, Seth Eberle, built the Rogers bodies and performs in the show). But Buch admits he committed one very clear violation of Puppetmaking 101.
“Usually, you make a puppet neutral. You want it to be able to express different emotions, so you don’t give it a frown or make it look happy,” says Buch. “But I couldn’t stay away from giving Fred a smile.”