The drinking fountain at the Avalon Theater, the home of In the Heart of the Beast Theater (HOBT), isn’t just any old drinking fountain. It’s surrounded by bright, beautiful colors. But it wasn’t always the artistic centerpiece of the theater’s lobby – for years, it was just a regular drinking fountain with a sign that read “out of order.”
In 2005, Sandy Spieler, the Artistic Director of HOBT, had just returned from an event the company had staged along the Mississippi River north of St. Cloud, which was about promoting awareness and education on water issues. She looked over at the drinking fountain and its “out of order” sign and had an epiphany.
“The drinking fountain had looked like that forever,” she says. The company hadn’t repaired it because, as a nonprofit arts organization, there was never enough money, and they didn’t know how much it would cost to fix it.
“We had started selling water in plastic bottles to our audience, and I just said, ‘No more,'” she recalls. “If we can’t do this as a building expense, I’m going to do it as a show expense.”
So began HOBT’s long-term project, “Invigorate the Common Well,” a series of plays that looked through the lens of a drinking fountain that didn’t work.
“Invigorate the Common Well” laid the groundwork for the company’s current touring show, called “Are You Thirsty?,” which travels to school groups and community centers, examining how personal habits affect the quality of water.
The two-person show pares down some of the main concepts from “Invigorate the Common Well” into a performance that is accessible for everyone aged 9 and older.
According to Spieler, the show is aimed at getting audiences to understand how our bodies are part of the watershed. Among the questions the show asks are, “Where does your water come from and where does it go when it leaves you?” she says. The idea is to ask how everyone is connected to the flow of water.
In October, Spieler is working with local spoken-word artist Tish Jones to select three young artists to create a hip-hop version of the show for high schools. “We’re trying to figure out ways to get the educational stuff out in the vernacular of artistic forms,” Spieler says.
Invigorating the water love
While “Invigorate the Common Well” series started 10 years ago, water issues have been fundamental to Spieler’s work for much longer, going back to when she first arrived in Minnesota in the early 1970s.
“When I moved to Minnesota and I was dropped into one of those lakes up North, it felt like I met water for the first time,” Spieler says. “I felt it on my body, and I suddenly recognized water. I recognized it in a really visceral way, how connected I am to water andhow each person – every living thing – is connected to water.”
In the early 1980s, Spieler led a group of artists on an intensive three-year project in response to the growing degradation of the Mississippi River and the proliferation of nuclear power plants in close proximity to water sources.
They built a series of shows around the topic, which eventually led to create the “Circle of Water Circus,” where a large group of artists from HOBT would travel to different communities along the Mississippi, building parades and circus sideshows along with community residents celebrating the Mississippi River.
Today, HOBT continues a similar program called “Water Water Everywhere!” “We go in with a small team of people and work for three weeks with lots of local people,” Spieler says. The locals are “getting trained in water issues, bringing the local water issues to the pot, and then they are learning certain ways of combining art with community organizing and performance and education,” she says.
Water’s “holy fool”
Spieler considers her work around water to be her most activist-oriented and, while it can sometimes be difficult for an artist to measure the impact she’s having, she says it’s gratifying to see even just the simplest of changes.
For example, “Invigorate the Common Well” caught the attention of then-Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, who was inspired by Spieler’s call for municipal drinking fountains and the need for public access to water, according to Mary Altman, the public arts administrator for the city.
“Sandy really is all about the role that water has in our lives,” Altman says. “She has the capacity to get people to think about that on a pretty deep level.”
It was one of the many small ways that as an arts organization, HOBT could have a real-world impact.
“We actually got the mayor to say that if Minneapolis became a no-toxin zone, we could become a leader of a toxin-free nation,” Spieler says. Rybak also strongly urged not using plastic bottles in city hall.
“I sometimes think the role of an artist is to be that of the holy fool,” she says.