In New York City, in the early 1960’s a new theatre was born - the Bread and Puppet Theatre - named for the coarse, flavourful sourdough bread that was given out at its performances, and for the grave, evocative puppet figures that were the theatre’s main performers. The theatre was created by Peter Schumann, a German born dancer, musician, and sculptor who found in puppet theatre a way of blending all these arts into a form uniquely his own. Schumann’s art is deeply political, but he has also won artistic acclaim for the sculptural genius of his puppets and for the solemn theatrical ceremonies he has created with them. His style is often called Expressionist for its rough, vigorous, suggestive qualities. In France in 1968 his work was so much à la mode that students pounded on the doors of sold-out theatres until they were allowed in. But, despite this glowing artistic reputation, Schumann has always stayed close to puppetry’s popular roots. He has kept his theatre poor, anarchic and non-commercial and poured his talents into the restoration of popular forms like pageants, parades and passion plays.
During the 60’s in New York, Bread and Puppet took their theatre to the streets, creating outdoor shows, giving expression to neighborhood issues and taking part in peace parades. But the company also performed in indoor settings, and, in 1966, created a sensation with a show called Fire, a slow, prayerful, dreamlike choreography for masked performers which honoured three Americans who had immolated themselves in protest against the Vietnam War. When French theatre promoter Christian Dupavillon saw Fire, he invited the company to the World Theatre Festival in the French city of Nancy in 1968. The newspaper, Le Monde, called Bread and Puppet’s performance "a revelation," and, during the next few years, the company experienced a period of rock star celebrity in Western Europe. The experience was somewhat disorienting for a poor, anarchist theatre used to performing in a loft above a gypsy club under the Williamsburg Bridge, but it led to a number of successful European tours during which the company made friends and converts to their style of puppetry. Notable shows of this period included The Cry of the People for Meat and That Simple Light May Come From Complicated Darkness.
In 1970 Peter Schumann and his family left New York to become the theatre in residence at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. This led to the creation of our Domestic Resurrection Circus, an annual event that would eventually become one of the most extraordinary cultural happenings of our time. Schumann envisioned a rebirth of the tradition of popular carnivals and festivals that, with the exception of a few commercialized relics, has died out in the modern world. The circus was a puppet pageant, set in the magnificent landscape of northern Vermont, which adapted the Paradise/Fall/Resurrection structure of old religious plays to a contemporary political setting. People were enthralled and the circus eventually attracted 30,000-40,000 people each summer. These numbers eventually proved overwhelming, and when someone was accidentally killed in a fight in one of the campgrounds, the circus was discontinued, a victim of its own success.
The Bread and Puppet Theatre has toured all over the world, often on a shoestring, and, wherever they have gone, they have seeded a vision of puppetry as the theatre for our time: cheap, accessible,
de-professionalized and able to give voice to all that has been hurt and forgotten in the on-rush of civilization. They have performed in settings as diverse as Nicaraguan villages and Polish opera houses. When Sarajevo was under siege, Peter Schumann went there and performed. In 2002 the company continues to tour and produce new work. The number of shows Schumann has created number in the hundreds and include work in many different styles, from simple ten-minute performances that can be put on by two people in the street to full length theatre pieces that require casts of twenty or more. One of Schumann’s specialties is adapting Christian liturgies to contemporary political circumstances: this has produced insurrection masses, passion plays with today’s political victims substituted for Jesus, funeral marches for rotten ideas, cardboard oratorios, and fiddle sermons. These last are jeremiads during which Schumann accompanies his prophecy with furious bowing on his scratch fiddle.
During the forty years of Bread and Puppet’s existence, hundreds of puppeteers have worked with Peter Schumann. The theatre has always lived on the margins, accepting no subsidy and often performing for free; but people who have embraced its vision have always been willing to come and work for a pittance in order to share in the vibrancy of Peter Schumann’s artistic and political vision. A number of these puppeteers have gone on to start their own companies. Bread and Puppet has also been one of the sources of the current efflorescence of political puppetry. During recent demonstrations against the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the Republican National Convention that nominated George Bush, puppeteers have been arrested and abused by the police and had their puppets confiscated and destroyed. Many of these puppeteers got their training and their inspiration from Bread and Puppet. One young activist calls Bread and Puppet "the mother-ship."
The Bread and Puppet Theatre is one of a kind, a product of a unique artistic genius, and it is unlikely that its shows will ever be remounted or performed by anybody else. But there is a record of the beauty and the brilliance of Schumann’s painterly and sculptural talents: the Bread and Puppet Museum. It’s an old barn on the farm in northeastern Vermont where Peter Schumann, his wife Elka and his current company of puppeteers live. In the museum are displayed the puppets that have been used in shows going back to the 60s. The effect is overwhelming and has been compared to being in a paper maché cathedral. Puppetry, in the age of television, has often been thought of as a cute, tame, and somewhat childish art, full of winsome Kermits, Cookie Monsters, and Howdy Doodies. Peter Schumann has taken this ancient art in a different direction, creating work that is artistically adventurous while always remaining politically engaged. "The pictures and sculptures which are the meat of puppetry," he says, "are ordered by a strange ambition: to provide the world with an unfragmented and uncontrollably large picture of itself, a picture which only puppetry can draw, a picture which praises and attacks at the same time, a theatrum mundi, which includes the desire of the world to be what it can be."