50 Years of Political Puppets
This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of this country’s most beloved theater companies. Founded in New York City in 1963, the Bread and Puppet Theater’s first productions ranged from puppet shows for children to pieces opposing poor housing conditions. The group’s processions, involving monstrous puppets, some about 20 feet high, became a fixture of protests against the Vietnam War. ‘We don’t have playwrights in the theater. Our playwright is the daily news, is this — all this horror that happens,’ says theater founder Peter Schumann. ‘And it’s not so much that we want to do it, but we continuously get obliged to do it, because the goddamn media don’t say it. They are — they live by omission, rather than by reporting.’ In the early 1970s, Bread and Puppet moved to Glover, Vermont, where they transformed a former hay barn into a museum of puppets. Today, Bread and Puppet remains one of the longest-running nonprofit, self-supporting theater companies in the United States. We spend the hour with Schumann, asking him how the theater addresses the most urgent political issues of our time, from nuclear weapons to mass domestic surveillance. Soon to celebrate his 80th birthday, Schumann also discusses why he refuses to retire and the place of older people in our society.
NPR’s Jon Kalish also visited with Bread & Puppet at their Vermont home in August:
The theater is based on a farm in northern Vermont, about 25 miles from the Canadian border. There’s a pine forest on the property with small, colorful huts that memorialize puppeteers who have passed, and a huge barn jammed with the company’s puppets, some of them nearly 20 feet tall.
The barn is used as a rehearsal space on a rainy summer afternoon. Outside there are old bathtubs full of clay dug from a nearby river. Bread and Puppet’s founder Peter Schumann uses it to sculpt his puppets and masks, then covers them with paper mache made from discarded cardboard.
‘It’s the freedom that you get when you can do things because of America’s garbage and the freedom of doing gigantic things for almost nothing, with just collaboration, with just people power,’ he says.
Schumann brought people power to New York’s Lower East Side when he founded the theater in 1963. He grew up in Germany as a refugee of World War II. His company’s name comes from the peasant bread his mother baked to survive. Schumann’s low-tech, home-made puppetry became part of New York’s thriving avant garde art scene, and early on Bread and Puppet put on free shows with inner city kids, including one called Chicken Little in Harlem.
I’ve loved Bread & Puppet Theater since Siun introduced them to me as a child. It was a real treat to see their Bain Capital monster cavorting in Zuccotti Park during the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, adding to the almost mythic atmosphere of the entire proceedings. The creature came with its own handler, a Man In Black. Do you have any Bread & Puppet stories to share?
Photo by Paul Stein released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.