Puppetry with purpose
At In the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre, kids make magic with paper, flour, and water

Puppetry has been around forever, more or less. From shadows on a cave wall to complex marionettes, puppets enthrall us with their unique ability to bridge the world of imagination and the world of concrete things - to put us in that gray area between the two.

But what exactly is it about this low-tech art engages us, and kids especially? While it shares much in common with traditional theater - conflict, dialogue, relationships woven together with words, music - puppetry seems to occupy its own dimension. Sandy Spieler, the artistic director and a founder of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HOBT) in Minneapolis, describes it as a type of visual poetry. Puppetry allows you to create an entire world and breathe life into it. She calls the experience transformative.

On a mission

The theater straddles the Philips and Powderhorn Park neighborhoods, located auspiciously close to Burrito Mercado on Lake Street. Its unassuming marquis makes it a source of casual curiosity for the random passerby. But for many in the area, it's an institution. HOBT has been around for more than three decades, and its mission is deeply rooted in the social movements of the era in which it was born.

The name of the theater, attributed to Cuban poet Jose Marti via Che Guevera, refers to the notion of change from within; that those in the heart of America are in the best position to enact positive social change. The Web site elaborates: &#8220For us, this means the best way to make change in the world is to seek beauty and work for justice in our own backyard. We tell the stories of the people who live in the heart of the beast, as courageous and resourceful as they really are.”

The agent of social change in this case: puppets. Hand puppets, giant puppets taller than the people who work them, shadow puppets - the style varies, but the mission remains constant. &#8220They have an emotional power that's visceral,” says Spieler, noting the &#8220aliveness of big, raw objects.”

The mission takes shape in performances that involve the audience, but also in workshops that allow children to create their own world. Last month, for instance, the theater offered a workshop for kids who will create and perform a visual play for the Beatles song &#8220All You Need Is Love.”

The idealism in the themes of many of HOBT's productions makes sense in the context of the social movements of three decades ago, but, &#8220In a lot of ways, there's a strong parallel to today,” Spieler says, pointing to the war in Iraq, contemporary social justice issues, and the challenges of creating community.

Low-tech cool

When you enter the lobby of the theater, the colorful murals and poetic messages that spiral along door jams and pretty much any other available surface immediately shift your points of reference. It's a hybrid world of magical thinking and meaningful action.

That participatory spirit comes into sharp focus backstage after one of HOBT's regular Saturday morning puppet shows. Kids and their parents play with puppets, ask questions, interact with the puppeteers, play instruments, and hold shadow puppets under a projector. The parents seem as interested as the children in the puppets and in the inner workings of it all.

&#8220We try to come every Saturday,” says Sarah Torgerson, whose daughters Nola, 6, and Stella, 3, eye the puppets lining the work tables. The family makes the trip from Bloomington for the puppetry and music, but also because there's &#8220always something artistic, something with deep roots in another culture,” Torgerson says. She compares puppet theater to a good children's book - something for adults and children alike. &#8220It's something I enjoy and feel and they enjoy and feel.”

They've spent the previous half hour, along with a highly diverse audience of 50 or so adults and children, watching (and responding to) a pair of hand puppets tell a Chilean folktale about the origins of the sun. The puppets perch on the edge of a makeshift backdrop and banter in a playful, sometimes silly, dialogue. Children are rapt. The content of the shows - whether large productions like this month's debut of Gotama, about the life of the Buddha, or small-scale affairs - runs the gamut but always starts with the theater's value of culture, community, and social justice.

And the puppets always start with simple stuff like paper, flour, and water. Even the enthralling giant puppets in this low-tech art start small. Just like us humans: from simple building blocks come complex beings.

Bringing a community to life

The May Day celebration may be HOBT's most visible connection with the community. The first Sunday in May for the past 32 years, giant puppets have paraded down Lake Street to Powderhorn Park in an event that involves the creative efforts of hundreds and enthralls tens of thousands.

May Day occupies a special place of honor in HOBT's schedule because it presents a unique opportunity to engage the community - and for the community, broadly speaking, to engage itself. HOBT starts planning for the parade in early spring. Public workshops are held to decide on a theme and how best to execute it. Members of the community create their own puppets and participate in the parade. The great thing about May Day, according to Spieler, is that people work side by side, make connections, and form bonds that carry over into their everyday lives.

Last year, the theater expanded into the building next door, taking over a third-floor space complete with a sunny workshop, puppet storage area, and a ballroom where the theater now hosts regular community gatherings with music and dancing (this month's event celebrates the return of spring).

Spieler hopes to convert the puppet storage area, which houses literally thousands of puppets made for shows and May Day parades, into a museum of sorts. For now, it's brimming with puppets of all shapes and sizes popping out of overflowing boxes. The faces of the puppets seem to echo the vision of community that is the theater's raison d'etre. And, in a way, it is a vision brought to life if only for an hour or two.

This month at HOBT

Gotama: A Journey to the Buddha

Through March 26: Telling the story of Siddhatta Gotama's journey to become the Buddha, this production explores the path to self-discovery and purpose. Gotama blends elements of traditional Asian and cutting-edge puppetry, physical theater, dynamic scenery, and original live music. Recommended for children 10 and older.

After the Trash Can

March 4: The world is in trouble! It's a can-to-can battle! Two unlikely superheroes, Waste Not and Want Not, work to save the planet from being buried in its own garbage.

Punch & Judy

March 11: This new production offers traditional Punch and Judy slapstick comedy with a twist.

The Neat Street Association

March 18: The Neat Street Association prides itself on all the houses looking the same, but what happens when a pelican drops a bucket of paint on Mr. Plumbean's house?

Sing in the Spring

March 19: Create a community song with composer Laurie Witzkowski in the family workshop, and stretch those legs on the dance floor with a live band.

On the Day You Were Born

March 25: Music, poetry, and puppetry come together in a story about the miraculous workings of the universe. Appropriate for all ages.

For details visit http:///www.HOBT.org