The MayDay Parade was still months away. The dozens of artists, neighbors and kids hadn’t yet descended on the Avalon Theater in Minneapolis to build, sculpt and papier-mâché its puppets and props.
But Corrie Zoll was already laboring over the next MayDay — and the MayDay after that.
He huddled in his office on a chilly February morning with Peter D’Ascoli to talk about finances and the future. That future is intimately tied to In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, the nonprofit that stages — and most years subsidizes — south Minneapolis’ weird, wondrous rite of spring.
In January, Zoll, the theater’s executive director, announced that it was on the brink. This Sunday’s parade, the 45th, would be the last it could afford to produce alone. Since then, he’s been immersed in high-stakes meeting after high-stakes meeting, sorting out if and how his scrappy arts nonprofit can survive.
“I wanted to show you this,” Zoll said, reaching over his desk to hand D’Ascoli, the theater’s board chairman, a hand-drawn flowchart.
In the chart’s first circle, a key question: Should Heart of the Beast continue after this year’s MayDay? If the answer is no, an arrow leads to an option in red: “Sunset.” If it’s yes, then: “We need a plan.” Next: “Can we pay for outside help?” And so on. Any “no” leads back to that red box.
But another path leads to a business plan. A future.
Since then, Zoll has been living this flowchart, enlisting consultants and wrangling funders to move the organization from one conundrum to the next. MayDay, the theater’s signature event, draws tens of thousands of people but loses money most years. Its longtime artistic leader is stepping aside. Grants are scarce, donations small.
How does Heart of the Beast avoid joining the ranks of arts groups that have recently folded or faced crises? Zoll ticked off the list: Intermedia Arts, Patrick’s Cabaret, Bedlam Theater, Soap Factory, Art Shanty Projects.
“The business model for midsize arts organizations just doesn’t work anymore,” Zoll said. “This organization and this event are really important, but this is about something bigger.
“If we’re going to continue to take pride in the amazing arts scene in Minneapolis, how much of it can we lose?”
‘The world as it could be’
Meanwhile, the parade has taken shape. Puppet limbs have emerged from storage spaces and basements across the Phillips and Powderhorn neighborhoods, assembling in the theater’s auditorium-turned-workshop.
On a recent Saturday morning, MayDay artistic director Sandy Spieler stood before a throng of kids and parents, yardstick in hand, explaining the drawings of cookouts and community gardens that animate this year’s theme: “Beloved Community.”
“This section is called ‘nursery for the future,’ ” said Spieler, her curly silver hair wrapped in a scarf. She smiled, looking into the eyes of the children. “Who knows what a nursery is?”
Spieler has midwifed MayDay since its humble, hippie beginnings in 1975, when a handful of puppets headed to Powderhorn Park, picking up attendees along the way. But in January, she announced that she’d lead the parade, ceremony and festival for the last time this spring. “At some point, I need to step back,” she said.
At a pair of community meetings this winter, as Spieler led artists and families in brainstorming and song, Zoll sat quietly in back. But behind the scenes, the bearded former actor is the one shaping the nonprofit’s next steps.
Zoll, 49, lives six blocks from the theater and has long worked in this neighborhood. He spent a decade at an environmental nonprofit, advocating for community gardens and urban green space and then, while earning a master’s degree in arts management, worked at Pillsbury House Theatre. He took charge of Heart of the Beast four years ago, not long after its last financial crisis.
In his office, Zoll pulled out a book about the theater company’s history and turned to an essay about its founding.
“It was a very specific choice,” he said, “to move from making art in response to what they were angry about to making art that painted a picture of the world as it could be.”
“Oof. It still makes the hair on the back of my head stand up to talk about it. … I think that’s what my neighborhood and my country really needs right now. If this organization doesn’t exist in the future, it certainly isn’t because that need isn’t there.”
Going from being “ragtag hippies with cardboard to … a 60,000-person event is a big change,” said D’Ascoli, a potter and retired physician. “How do we stop being a small scrappy arts group and become an organization that has responsibilities, that has to pay for Porta Potties and police?”
‘Who will commit $500?’
On a Friday evening in late March, Zoll stood beneath the theater’s classic marquee wearing a burgundy sportcoat and freshly shined shoes, opening the door for people as they arrived for a fundraiser.
Inside, attendees crafted colorful bow ties out of paper and pompoms, posing for photos in front of a “We love MayDay” backdrop. After music and speeches and a short film, the theater turned to the night’s task. The goal was to raise at least $5,000, to be matched by the Seward Co-op, the evening’s sponsor.
“How about a drumroll?” said the evening’s host. Audience members stomped their feet.
“Who will commit $500?” said a woman onstage.
A few audience members signaled yes, then a few more. The room erupted into applause. $250? More hands. $100? More still.
When it was all over, Zoll shared the total he’d tallied on his iPhone: “I came up with more than $8,000!”
For decades, fundraising for MayDay has consisted mostly of carrying buckets through the throng, encouraging paradegoers to donate a few dollars. Sunshine helps the total. Sleet hurts.
MayDay costs $200,000, and most of that is people — artists, staff, security. Then there are park permits, printing fees. Despite donations, sponsorships and fees from food vendors, the shortfall totaled about $50,000 last year, a big strain on the theater’s $990,000 annual budget.
Last fall, when $130,000 in grants didn’t come through, the nonprofit cut after-school programs and performances. Since January, Zoll has laid off four people. Another left for a new gig. Post-parade, two more.
Minneapolis officials have pledged that the city would do “everything in its power” to support the parade. But the city has “no structures or programs” to aid arts organizations, said Gülgün Kayim, the city’s director of arts, culture and the creative economy. Giving the parade a discount on permits is “very tricky,” she said. “Other people will come to us with the same request.”
So Kayim’s office has been trying to help in other ways, connecting Zoll’s team with funders.
Other arts nonprofits are facing similar struggles, she noted: leadership transitions, building costs, shrinking funding from foundations. Many are rooted in communities — and donor bases — with fewer resources. The city is building a pilot program that could help, she noted.
“It saddens me because we saw these trends a couple years ago,” Kayim said. “We didn’t know that so many of them were going to culminate in this time frame.”
In March, Heart of the Beast launched a crowdfunding campaign: “What if everyone who loved May Day contributed $5? $10? $20?” In the end, 565 people donated more than $26,000. Combined with the fundraiser, MayDay was $41,000 richer.
A memo, then a fitful night
A month ago, Zoll wrote a six-page memo proposing three “core truths” and three next steps necessary for Heart of the Beast to continue.
First, it must deepen its work with diverse communities, he said. Second, it must identify groups to produce MayDay. Third, it must find a “resilient structure” that includes fair, equitable compensation for employees and artists and new ways to make money. (More theater rentals? A coffee shop?)
Getting the plan on paper should have felt good. But that night Zoll lay awake in bed.
“I realized: Now all the eggs are in this basket. … We’re either going to be able to do these things or not do these things.”
Doing these things costs money, too — $250,000, by Zoll’s estimate, including $100,000 for staff and fixed costs such as mortgage and insurance. He has commitments from two foundations for a total of $45,000, plus another $25,000 that looks promising.
If he can’t gather the rest of that funding? “It’s hard for me to say out loud,” he said, clearing his throat. “That would be a good suggestion we don’t have much of a future to build on.”
Zoll pulled on his beard, his face tight. But the big mask on the office wall behind him looked serene, its eyes smiling.
A family tradition at risk
As MayDay drew near, Zoll’s tone brightened.
“The energy around MayDay is so positive, you can’t help but feel positive,” he said this week. “There are so many people who feel so passionately about MayDay, it just seems like there has to be a way to make it work. … I feel more strongly than ever of that.”
Making MayDay has a soundtrack: humming sewing machines, snipping scissors, ripping paper. Add to it the laughter of Ricardo Khan of Minneapolis and his 8-year-old daughter, Jayden, as they dipped strips of newspaper into a paste of flour and water on a Saturday morning in April, wrapping them around 3-D shrimps and lime slices.
“All right, this shrimp’s done,” Jayden said, holding it high.
Last year, she walked the parade as part of a hummingbird troupe. “We all hibernate all winter,” Khan said. “This parade is … ” Jayden jumped in: “It’s celebrating the beginning of summer and waking up from the cold.”
They were sad to hear about MayDay’s precarious financial spot.“We thought this was going to become a family tradition,” Khan said.
The pair approached the paint booth, limes in hand. “We’re ready for some paint,” Jayden told the woman behind the counter.
“Would you like a nose dot?” Sharon Meister replied, a dab of orange paint on her nose demonstrating the concept.
“Yes, please,” Jayden said.
She peered at the dozens of paint colors in clear yogurt cups and plastic containers, picking out a deep teal. Meister dipped her finger. The little girl shut her eyes as Meister lightly dotted the tip of her nose. Then she blinked them open, her nose teal, her smile wide, her face transformed.