Building a Community, One Puppet at a Time
Sandy Spieler’75 meant to become a doctor. That’s what drew her to Beloit, the pre-med program. Well—that, and the folk dancing.
“I wanted a place that was noted in the sciences, and I liked the idea of what the Beloit Plan was,” says Spieler, who visited the college while on a Greyhound bus road trip with a friend. She arrived on campus to see students dancing on the quad and was sold.
“I really hate to say it, but I sort of chose it because of the folk dancing on the lawn,” she says.
It’s an anecdote that speaks to her creative nature.
“I wasn’t supposed to really be an artist,” she says. “I was supposed to do something of service.”
Though she dutifully pursued a career in medicine for the five semesters she spent as a Beloit College student in the ’70s, it is her 40-year career as a nationally renowned artist, puppet-master, performer, and community-builder that has recently garnered her accolades.
Last year, the McKnight Foundation awarded Spieler its Distinguished Artist Award for her decades of work as artistic director of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and co-founder of the annual May Day Parade and Festival, now mainstays of the Minneapolis art scene. The award, which comes with a $50,000 prize, is one of Minnesota’s most prestigious.
It’s an apropos distinction for an artist whose work has been so rooted in fostering community and collaboration, as the McKnight award is meant for artists whose work has made a significant contribution to the cultural life of the state.
Spieler credits a Beloit Plan era field term with drawing her to the land of 10,000 lakes, and the college with helping to chart her life’s course, though medicine ended up not being the final destination.
“Even though I didn’t graduate from Beloit, it set me on a path,” she says. The daughter of an East Coast, social-justice-minded Lutheran minister, she decided to spend her first Beloit field term living in a collective in Minneapolis and working with a youth-outreach branch of the American Lutheran Church.
“I wanted to go somewhere where issues of social justice were being paired with ethical decision-making,” she says.
Later, on another Beloit field term, she took a semester abroad in Denmark to study its health system and lived with a Danish nurse. Instead of returning to Beloit, she went back to Minneapolis and took a job in a hospital, wanting to make “triple-sure” she was making the right decision in pursuing medicine. Her irrepressible artistic streak refused to be ignored: She made a name for herself for her elaborately decorated hospital bulletin boards, and when she started creating large sculptures at home, a housemate told her they looked like the puppets coming out of a new puppet theatre taking shape in a nearby church basement.
That puppet theatre, then called Powderhorn Puppet Theatre, was the embryo that grew into In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and the core of Spieler’s expansive artistic work.
Today, Spieler can often be found in HOTB’s south Minneapolis Lake Street location, housed in an art deco cinema that showed pornographic movies before it became home to the puppet theatre in 1988. When HOTB took over the theatre, the organization spelled out its mantra on the marquee. It read: “Bye Bye Porn, Hello Puppets.”
Stepping into the theatre’s darkened space or neighboring storage units can be a surreal experience, not unlike falling down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole: Visitors encounter phantasmagoric, vibrantly painted puppets ranging from the small and intricate to entire faces twice the height and width of an average adult. The forms draw on puppetry traditions from around the world.
For a visual artist like Spieler, a puppet’s nod to the natural rhythms of life provides an appealing canvas. A puppeteer brings life and movement and breath to the form, then lays it down again to rest. “I think there’s something about the power puppets suddenly take that is always alluring and surprising, even to someone like me who’s worked with the form for so many years,” she says.
Under Spieler’s tenure, HOTB has provided traveling shows, workshops, performances, and classes for adults and children alike, always with themes of community at heart. One project had Spieler traveling the Mississippi River with a company of two dozen adults, five children, and several dogs, offering performances; water, in all its vital and metaphorical forms, has long been a passion project for her.
Another is the May Day Parade. Originally intended as a means of peacefully protesting the Vietnam War, it became a celebration instead when the initial event wound up taking place several weeks after the war’s end. May 2014 marked the festival’s 40th anniversary. “It was 200 people in the street with two accordions, and now its thousands and thousands, tens of thousands,” Spieler says.
In a way, the parade and the rest of her work speaks to her favorite metaphor—the way one drop on the surface of water can create a ripple of rings, spreading outward indefinitely.
“If I had to say one thing about my work, it’s constantly to live within and be a part of the recognition that all things are connected,” she says.