Theater Feature: The Bread & Puppet Theater Turns 50
For me, the fact that Bread and Puppet Theater has survived for 50 years is very hopeful, essentially because company members have never wavered from their principles. Imagine that. You can be radically principled and survive!
The Possibilitarians and Dead Man Rises (recommended for ages 12 and older), along with The Circus of the Possibilitarians (family-friendly). Staged by Bread & Puppet Theater (B & P). At the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA), 539 Tremont St., Boston, MA, January 21–27. The B & P presentations in the Cyclorama include a Cheap Art Sale (January 24–27) and an Art Exhibit (January 21–27).
By Bill Marx
Playwright George S. Kaufman famously quipped that in the theater satire closes on Saturday night. He would probably add that political drama, no matter how effective, wouldn’t have much of a chance to hang on much longer. And he would have a point, given how quickly so many of America’s socially engaged stage companies have vanished over the years. When it comes to show biz, making a political point does not benefit the long-term bottom line.
Thus the 50th anniversary of Bread and Puppet Theater, headquartered in Glover, Vermont, stands out as worthy of a prime spot in The Guinness Book of World Records. Begun in New York City under the guidance of artist, dancer, and baker Peter Schumann, the group has marched for radical causes through the decades, long after the counterculture has bit the dust. What underlies the troupe’s successful marriage of agitiation and entertainment is anybody’s guess: an unapologetic marriage of left-wing politics and bawdy circus hijinks, the inventive use of papier-mâché puppets large and small, a distinctively gaunt visual style, a fusion of broad comedy and delicate lyricism, the hunks of Schumann’s hearty, sourdough rye bread offered to audiences at the end of its shows.
The company is bringing its productions The Possibilitarians, Dead Man Rises, and The Circus of the Possibilitarians to Boston (its 6th annual visit), which gives fans a chance to take part in the birthday festivities. I questioned (via e-mail) three members of the troupe—John Bell (who is Director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry in the University of Connecticut), Linda Elbow, and Trudi Cohen—about what they thought were the reasons behind Bread & Puppet’s longevity, as well as asking them to speculate about the company’s impact on American culture over five decades.
Arts Fuse: What is the secret to sustaining a political theater company for five decades?
John Bell: I think it is a combination of things. Peter Schumann is a brilliant visual artist, but he is also very smart about how he works with people, encouraging them to collaborate with him. One of Schumann’s oft-repeated ideas, in rehearsals and I think in larger contexts, is that “it isn’t figured out yet”; in other words, that the goal is to re-think, re-invent, and re-create what you are doing all the time and try not to get stuck in what has been done before.
Secondly, a very “European” idea of Peter’s that was new to me (when I was in the company 1976–86) was his belief that political art is not a contradiction or complicated problem to shy away from but something to address straightforwardly with confidence; in other words, why not? Try out your idea; see what happens; there is nothing wrong with thinking politically with your art.
Thirdly, Schumann designs Bread and Puppet projects cannily, depending on the thoughtful contributions and talents of others so that collaborators and volunteers have the sense that they are co-creators of the work, necessary elements, rather than simply people doing what they are told (like extras). Of course, Schumann is a very strong and clear director, which is quite helpful, but there are parts of the shows that, by design, really need the inventions of others. And yet, in the end, the work always looks like a Bread and Puppet show.
Linda Elbow: Genius, commitment, patience, strength, economy, hard work, flexibility, openness, a sense of humor, among many other qualities. Also PUPPETS! And not too many words.
I think one of the very important qualities of our work as political theater that has kept audiences engaged is that we work in archetypes. We rarely make images of, or even refer to, real political figures. We’ve got good guys (angels, the garbagemen, and washerwomen) and bad guys (devils, faceless bureaucrats, dragons, Uncle Fatso). And when we have used figures of, or references to, real people, they’ve been mostly heroes—Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, Chico Mendez of Brazil, Grace Paley, Ben Linder, etc. When we do take a hit at a real political figure (e.g., Dick Cheney—who could resist?), it’s in passing, usually in a circus act, not the main focus of a show. This puts whatever issue we’re working on in a more general context, which makes people think more. And people appreciate being made to think—it is good when audience members leave a show scratching their heads. The show isn’t over for them; they’re still thinking about it.
We also often use archetypal forms for the formats of our shows. Most have been from the Christian religion—Passion Plays (we’ve done many; The image of a tree being nailed to the cross is in Passion Play for a Young Tree.), Nativities (the cow giving birth to a calf is in one of our nativities), and we’ve done at least one Last Supper.
The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear referenced a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. We’ve probably done others based on fairy tales, but I don’t know what they are. Peter knows a lot more fairy tales than I do.
Both the familiarity of the format and the contrast of the content help to make these shows strong: “Oh, yeah, I know what this one is about” and then, “but what the Sam Hill is that tree doing there?” (Scratch, scratch.) “Hunh. Oh! Ok.”
Trudi Cohen: I don’t know the secret. And I’m not sure that anyone from Bread and Puppet does either. But for me the fact that Bread and Puppet has survived for 50 years is very hopeful, essentially because Peter, Elka (his wife), and the company have never wavered from their principles. Imagine that. You can be radically principled and survive! Bread and Puppet has always opted out of the world of art-as-commerce. It does not seek, or accept, public funds or private grants. Its income comes from fees for performances, donations from individuals, and sales of Cheap Art, banners, posters, and books. Company members live on a farm in the very rural Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. They use inexpensive materials and re-use whatever they can. They drive beat-up vehicles. They have a huge garden each summer. They rely on scores of volunteers for large-scale performances. They work very hard. And they “believe in what they have built” (a line in a street show, The Foot), which is probably the strongest possible contribution to sustainability.
AF: What were the biggest challenges in getting Bread and Puppet started? What are the obstacles today in sustaining the group?
Bell: I think economics have always been challenging, but doing things cheaply on principle (what Schumann later defined as “Cheap Art”) and not expecting to make money has helped. Finding people to work consistently with Bread & Puppet has always been challenging because the economics are challenging. After a while, many puppeteers want to branch out and do their own work, or realize they don’t want to live in Vermont, or get tired of the constant hard work that defines Bread & Puppet: touring, building shows, working with interns and volunteers.
Elbow: I wasn’t around at the beginning, so I don’t know what Peter and his company faced then. In terms of the more recent companies, it’s isolation. It’s not just that they live and work in rural Vermont but that the company has very little social contact with the larger community. The resident company all live together in one house, and they have a very little free time to go to local events as ordinary people and meet other ordinary people. They do make good and valuable friendships with local volunteers and their families, but that’s mostly in the context of the work. When I ‘left’ the company in 1989 the first thing I did was rent a house and run the Glover, VT recycling center, just so I could meet people in the local community. It worked. I liked it so much that I’ve lived here since then (and soon became very ‘unleft’ from Bread & Puppet).
AF: What Bread & Puppet productions are you proudest of?
Bell: I like all of them. The shows one took part in as a puppeteer one remembers in particular because of the contributions you made to them. I like “classic” shows like Joan of Arc, Ah!, The Stations of the Cross; I think the 27-year run of Domestic Resurrection Circuses was an amazing contribution to American theater. Personally, my favorites are the (neo-classic) proscenium arch shows like Diagonal Man, Ah!, Joan of Arc, and Woyzeck. But for me the shows now are also amazing. The puppeteers working with Bread & Puppet now include so many multi-talented young artists, musicians, dancers, and performers who have worked with the theater for a long time and so share an aesthetic, an understanding of movement, timing, music, etc. It’s a different type of theater work than musical theater or drama, and the abilities of the current company to create strong theater are quite amazing.
Elbow: Hallelujah!!! I saw Hallelujah several times when Bread & Puppet was still in residence at Goddard College in the early 70s. It’s been performed every year since then. I think it’s the best show ever created on the planet in all of history (even though I haven’t seen or read quite all of them). It says all there is to say about human society.
AF: How important has Bread & Puppet’s visual style been to its theatrical success?
Bell: I think this is the most important thing, and of course it is Schumann’s aesthetic, which reminds me at times of German expressionist art, as well as some kinds of medieval art. Schumann’s visual style is what unites all the shows. In the creation process, you always start out working with the puppets, figuring out how to move them, how they work in relation to each other, with sets, music, dance, etc. It’s a unified and consistent visual style (although Schumann goes through different periods in his visual work, in terms of color, scale, design).
Elbow: Very, very important. Our shows are mostly visual. For the most part, we use little text, and what text we do use is usually distanced from the figures. Our puppets mouths don’t move. If there is something for them to say, it’s most often spoken by someone standing next to them or on a sign held near their mouths. Longer texts are usually readings or Peter’s fiddle lectures. People tend not to remember pieces of text from our shows: it is more likely to be images of little puppets fleeing from big figures sweeping them away, or an angel resurrecting a dead horse, or a tree being nailed to a cross, or a cow giving birth to a calf, than a piece of text.
AF: When did the children’s theater component of Bread & Puppet start and why?
Bell: There really isn’t a “children’s theater” component of Bread & Puppet. The circuses are “family friendly,” but Bread & Puppet has never done shows expressly for children. However, pretty much all the Bread & Puppet shows are suitable for kids, and Schumann has said “if you don’t understand the show, ask your children,” meaning the shows are accessible (and meant to be accessible in a way) to kids as well as adults. Because they are visual theater, you can enter into them on a variety of different levels: from pure visual enjoyment to more sophisticated philosophical critique. When our son was growing up, we never had a problem taking him to any Bread & Puppet show; they were all suitable for kids.
Elbow: We have made short shows with children in mind—Very Haunted House is the only one I can think of right now—but I wouldn’t say that this is something that had a start time, unless it had to do with Peter’s grandchildren.
AF: What has the political and/or artistic impact of Bread & Puppet been on American culture?
Bell: Both omnipresent and invisible. Bread & Puppet has been such an unusual, unique theater company that most mainstream theater and art critics, as well as the academic world, don’t know what to make of it. Stefan Brecht (in his two-volume study Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater) pointed out that this was always the case, even back in the ’60s in New York when even the Village Voice didn’t quite understand Bread & Puppet’s non-actorly, non-dramatic puppet shows. It’s not acting, it’s not drama, and it’s unabashedly political, which is highly problematic in American culture.
Also, as a form of visual art (Schumann is primarily a painter and sculptor, one could say), Bread & Puppet does not fit easily into the art world. It’s difficult for most critics and academics to deal with; it’s unwieldy, and to look at it from a good critical perspective, you need to consider it as visual art (painting and sculpture), music, dance, acting, drama, and political idea-making. However, on the other hand, Bread & Puppet has from time to time been somewhat popular in a low-level way. For example, when it became emblematic of the anti-Vietnam War movement and ’60s culture.
In addition, for decades it has inspired people across the country to engage in similar activities with puppets of all kinds and political theater. Many hundreds of talented performers, artists, and musicians have worked with and been nurtured by Bread & Puppet (probably more than with any other theater company in the United States, if you think about it) and then have gone on to do their own work, inspired one way or another by Schumann’s work. The work has been ceaseless since the early ’60s; but its effects have been strongest on a local, grassroots “under the radar” level.
One of the most important things Bread & Puppet has done is to change the nature of puppetry in the U.S., by establishing a place for “serious” “adult” theater (although many puppeteers do not realize this). When Schumann started in the U.S. in the ’60s, puppetry was in general limited to kids’ shows and cuteness. Even puppeteers who wanted to do serious work couldn’t figure out how to break out of limitations of puppetry as children’s entertainment. Schumann’s work changed all that. It’s clear that Jim Henson revolutionized puppetry for television, but Schumann is ultimately responsible for creating space for contemporary puppetry as a legitimate art form.
Elbow: John sums this up very well. I think a good example of our impact on American culture is when the police raided a puppet workshop before the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and seized/”arrested” all the puppets.
Cohen: John answered this question so well, but . . . I believe that Bread & Puppet’s influence is ubiquitous. There are so many places where its influence is profound and, as John says, few people know. Every time a big puppet appears in a U.S. street demonstration. Every time a theater company puts a puppet on stage. Every time organizers brainstorm about innovative activism. And by “culture,” I’m also thinking about Bread & Puppet’s way of working, which is a model for collective living, for avoiding the temptations of commercial success, for resisting power, for operating outside the mainstream while still being thoughtfully engaged with the social and political fabric of our time.
John Bell’s book American Puppet Modernism is now available in paperback from Palgrave Macmillan.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.