In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre’s MayDay parade, a vibrant rite of spring in south Minneapolis for 44 years, has become so popular that it will cease next year unless the nonprofit gets outside help.
In a letter published Wednesday on the theater’s website, Executive Director Corrie Zoll said the MayDay event brings in about $150,000, mostly from individual donors. But the cost of producing the event usually runs between $180,000 and $200,000.
Last year, the event lost $50,000 that was covered by theater reserves. The theater “can no longer afford to take on these risks alone,” he wrote.
The next, and possibly final, parade is set for May 5. But city leaders reacted quickly to the news and appeared to be speeding to the rescue.
“This is so much more than a parade,” Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano said, adding that the festival and the year-round work the theater does bring together families and friends from around the city and across cultures.
“The city’s going to do everything in its power to support” the theater and the parade, she said.
Mayor Jacob Frey’s office announced that he was working to save the parade.
“MayDay offers a rallying cry for workers and justice — and one of the events that best captures this inclusive spirit is the annual parade,” said Mychal Vlatkovich, Frey’s spokesman.
Frey has been in contact with Heart of the Beast leadership regarding possible partners for the parade, and Cano said she wants to work with the theater to figure out a sustainable future for the organization.
The parade was the initial attraction — and remains the unique draw — of the festival, attended by some 60,000 people last year, Zoll said.
MayDay is held in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood in Minneapolis’ bohemian south-central core. Occurring at the tipping point of spring when the ground has softened, revelers venture out of their seasonal cocoons. The parade features colorful puppets for kids and a progressive theme for adults; in 2015, for example, it was “And Still We Rise.”
The parade of giant, artist-created puppets has grown to include soccer, food trucks, dance performances as well as private brunch gatherings and parties.
In the immediate future, Cano said the city could reduce or forgive some $5,000 in permit and road-closure fees. She said she also hopes the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will review the fee charged for rental of the large park.
Looking for support
As with many midsize arts organizations, this isn’t the first time Heart of the Beast has faced financial issues.
In 2014, the theater — which then had an annual budget of $750,000 — announced layoffs because of a significant drop in foundation grants and an unexpected mortgage refinancing need.
Since 1979, the social justice-themed theater has aimed to tell the stories of the “courageous and resourceful” people “who live in the heart of the beast,” a global metaphor.
Zoll said the nonprofit has an annual budget of about $1 million, the equivalent of nine full-time employees and contracts with about 100 artists. The theater this year will be forced to cut staff and programming “significantly,” according to Zoll’s statement. Cutting back on the already minimal pay to artists wasn’t something he said he could do.
“This is difficult news to share, and we imagine it will be difficult for some to hear,” the statement said. “With ongoing support, we believe that [the theater’s] vision, values, and work will persist.”
The announcement encouraged artists and community members to share their thoughts, give feedback, volunteer or make donations.
Also noted was that Sandy Spieler, who was one of the parade’s founders and has led it since the beginning, will step down. In a separate letter, she said she made the decision before the latest troubles.
Puppet Lab performances will go on as planned March 15-16 and March 21-22, and the theater will continue to work in schools and places of worship. The Puppet Cabaret, an evening of experimental puppet acts, is planned for Feb. 14. The theater will continue to rent out the Avalon event space.
Zoll said it’s scary to say that he has no idea what MayDay will look like in 2020, but that 2019 is going to be fabulous. He’s also optimistic.
“I trust that there will be a future for this event,” he said.