Vermont Edition
8:00 am
Sun June 30, 2013

50 Years Of Bread And Puppet Theater

This is the fiftieth anniversary of Bread and Puppet Theater, an arts institution with a political message based in the Northeast Kingdom. The group’s name stems from its belief that sharing bread with its audiences helps create community, and that art is as basic to life as bread.

An anniversary performance at the Haybarn Theater at Goddard College in Plainfield was packed in early June as Bread and Puppet performed a revival of an old show, “The Birdcatcher in Hell.” A giant face depicting the King of Hell is on stage and ten foot-tall demon puppets pound on drums. Much of the music and speech is grating, and everyone but the birdcatcher is wearing shades of red. This original play was a response to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, however, this revival has drones and depicts the War on Terror.

Bread and Puppet is the creation of Peter Schumann, who looms large as the dominating personality and arbiter of aesthetics for the puppet theater he founded five decades ago.

Schumann's puppetry career began with much tamer fare in 1962, when he ran an extra-curricular puppetry workshop at the Putney School. After leaving Putney, Schumann moved to New York City, where he founded Bread and Puppet in 1963. From the very beginning, the group embraced low-tech, home-made puppets as a means to offer provocative comment on contemporary events.

“It’s the freedom, the elbow freedom, that you get when you can do things because of America’s garbage," says Schumann. "And the freedom of doing gigantic things for almost nothing, with just collaboration, with just people power.”

In New York, the theater was part of the creative ferment and the political ferment of the 1960's, participating in the growing anti-war movement. But, during that period, Bread and Puppet also worked with inner city kids. In 1966, for example, Schumann directed a production of Chicken Little with a cast of children from Harlem.

But Schumann soon began to sour on life in New York City and after his wife Elka was robbed at gunpoint, he accepted an invitation from Goddard College in Plainfield to become its theater-in-residence in the early 1970s.

Jules Rabin, an Anthropology Professor at Goddard at the time, remembers how highly politicized the campus was when Schumann arrived.

“There was a Black Studies Department that had started just that semester when we were discussing inviting Bread and Puppet," recalls Rabin. " And there was a very militant guy - he had a lot of presence - a black guy, who said our college better do a black theater kind of invitation, than a Bread and Puppet invitation. ‘This is more whitey stuff dominating the scene.’ And he didn’t prevail.”

Paul Zaloom - a Goddard student who joined Bread and Puppet in 1971 and lived with the troupe at Cate Farm, part of the Goddard campus - recalls how central Schumann's troop was to his college experience.

“I joined Bread and Puppet and that’s pretty much what I did for my college education," says Zaloom. "I was in a puppet theater company touring all over the place."

Zaloom later went on to star in the children's TV show "Beakman's World", and recalls his experience at Bread and Puppet very fondly.

"I would say there was about 12 of us living on the farm, and then Peter and Elka and their five kids," remembers Zaloom. "You know, the farm had a number of different buildings we could live in, so we weren't really pack in there like sardines. It was pretty great. It was a beautiful location. It has these giant hay fields and a big old barn. It was a really wonderful place to work and live."

But in the Fall of 1974, Bread and Puppet moved on again, leaving Goddard for a farm in the Northeast Kingdom. The farm was purchased by Elka Schumann’s father, who was the son of the famous homesteader Scott Nearing, by his first wife. The 160-acre farm in Glover has been Bread and Puppet’s home ever since.

As I walk the farm with Elka, a spring breeze cools the barn where puppeteers are rehearsing. The barn is also the Bread and Puppet Museum, filled with massive paper mache puppets from the theater’s past. Elka Schumann stops in front of a dragon that is more than 40 years old.

“This puppet was made in the children’s workshops uptown in the South Bronx and Harlem," says Elka. "Kids made it and they used it. It had a big long, green body and you could get a hundred kids under this green cloth with rattles and whistles and tambourines and things and snake down the street. It was a really neat street puppet.”

A huge gravel pit sits on the Bread and Puppet farm in Glover, where stone was removed for the construction of Interstate 91. This gravel pit became a natural outdoor amphitheater and for more than 20 years it served as the site of Bread and Puppet’s Domestic Resurrection Circus.

The theater has long drawn on its natural surroundings for both performance space and to make the puppets – materials like maple saplings growing in the sugarbush and clay from the banks of the Sheffield River.

The “bread” of Bread and Puppet comes in the form of Schumann’s coarse sourdough rye bread which he bakes in huge quantities in a few outdoor clay ovens and then gives away for free.  But it took awhile for people to accept the idea of him giving away bread.

“I had a sign out and it said, ‘Free Bread.’  Nobody ever came," says Schumann. "Then inflation struck and I changed the sign and I said, ‘Due to inflation, twice as free bread.’ (He starts laughing) Nobody came!”

But people did come to the summer circuses and to the parades where Bread and Puppet performed with colorful puppets and a raucous band, in towns like Barton, Marshfield and Cabot. However, the puppeteers’ political messages didn’t always sit well with Vermonters.

“There was a Fourth of July parade and I believe the Bread and Puppet section of the parade was a group of Vietnamese women puppets being dragged through the streets by Uncle Fatso, the kind of Uncle Sam figure. And that didn’t go over too great with the local residents of Plainfield," recalls Puppeteer Paul Zaloom. "So, Bread and Puppet was sort of banned from the Fourth of July parade for a number of years and when we were invited back, I remember a guy in town who said to me, he says, ‘Now we don’t want anything political in the parade, right? Nothing political.’”

Peter Schumann’s uncompromising political statements have ruffled feathers outside of Vermont as well. In 2001, just weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Bread and Puppet bowed out of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in New York over a theater scene about civilian casualties in the new war in Afghanistan. In 2007, an art exhibit in Boston drew complaints when Schumann’s compared the Israeli government to Nazis. However, despite its left-leaning politics, Bread and Puppet seems to be at peace with its neighbors after close to 40 years in the Northeast Kingdom.

“Anyone who can last a while around here," says Joseph Gresser, "People figure you have to put up with them whether you like them or not.”

Gresser is a writer with the Barton Chronicle. He remembers the 23 years of Bread and Puppet’s summer circuses as “a helluva lot of fun” but says crowds as large as 30,000 became an incredible inconvenience for nearby towns.

“What would happen is that there would be parallel events, so a lot of people would show up a week early, go to one of these campgrounds and there would be raves," says Gresser. "Or, I remember seeing a truck with tanks of nitrous oxide pulling in and, you know, there were OD’s. The emergency responders were really run ragged. That was very hard on them. It had a bit of the feel of riding the back of a tiger.”

After a fight at one of the campgrounds resulted in a man’s death in 1998, Schumann concluded that the event had spiraled out of control and stopped putting on the free circuses.

With rare exceptions, Bread and Puppet has been able to survive without government grants or business underwriting. When the barn housing the Bread and Puppet Museum needed major structural repairs, an appeal letter brought in $90,000. Claire Dolan is a member of the theater’s board of directors.

“It’s kind of strange and unbelievable how the theater functions economically. We don’t have an outreach and development person. We don’t have a business planner. We just have a few people who are doing a lot of stuff all at once and sort of getting by, by the seat of their pants. But 50 years! It’s been going on 50 years. That’s kind of amazing.”

Peter Schumann is at peace with the troupe’s precarious finances.

“We have constantly gone under and come up again and we are constantly collapsing, continuously," says Schumann. "And then sort of struggle back again. It’s all the time on the margin, anyway, you know, which I don’t mind that it is that way. I wouldn’t see any advantage if it would be more successful so to speak.”

Peter Schumann just turned 79 and is in remarkably good shape. He has stopped walking on 10-foot stilts at the request of his family but other than that, the man shows no signs of slowing down. For this summer’s parades, Schumann is focused on the F-35 fighter jet that the Air Force might base in Burlington.

“We created a very powerful daffodil attack force with a daffodil navy and daffodil knights and daffodil weaponry and that’s going to fight the F-35 very effectively.”

Longtime friend Helen Rabin broached the subject of what will become of Bread and Puppet when Schumann is no longer around.

“Other people worry about that but not Peter Schumann," says Rabin. "He doesn’t want to think about that. He’s more concerned about what comes next.”

What comes next is July 4th parades in Barton and Cabot, and summer performances at the farm in Glover on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Bread and Puppet’s 50th anniversary season culminates with tours in France and Italy this fall.

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to state the accurate family lineage of Elka Schumann.

Tags: