Bread and Puppet Theater

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Kasper, a character of Bread and Puppet Theater.
Kasper, a character of Bread and Puppet Theater. Photo by Massimo Schuster.

It’s 35 years since Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater first performed at Theater for the New City, and the acclaimed ensemble will return to TNC from November 30 to December 17, 2006 with two new works, one for adults and one for children.

For the grownups, it’ll be “The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists.” This show contains excerpts from the Mayan Council Book, “The Popol Vuh.” It features several no-no-no dances, including the “Civilians-Are-Not-The-Target-But-The-Civilians-Are-The-Target” dance, the “Air-Sea-And-Trees-Casualty” dance, the “Why-Do-They-Hate-Us-What-Have-We-Done-To-Them” dance; and one Yes-Dance, the “Sweeping-Away-Of-The-Miserable-Government” dance.

For kids of all ages, it’ll be matinee (3:00 pm) shows of “Everything Is Fine Circus” on Saturdays and Sundays, featuring Pinky, the Federal Emergency Elephant, The Rotten Idea Theater Company, The Axis of Beagle and more.

Both shows will be performed by the Bread & Puppet Company and a large number of local volunteers, who will also be part of The Brass and String Bands and The Choral Singers and Screamers. The theater will be decorated with the unique Bread and Puppet collection of powerful black-line posters, banners, masks, curtains, programs and set-props.

Once again, all pieces will be created by Schumann with input from the company. Both plays will be accompanied by a brass band, singing and miscellaneous gongs and horns. Schumann will sculpt and paint all of the major masks and puppets.

Bread and Puppet, founded in 1962 on the Lower East Side, is now an internationally recognized company that champions a visually rich, street-theater brand of performance art. Its shows are political and spectacular, with huge puppets made of paper mache and cardboard; a brass band for accompaniment, and anti-elitist dance. Most are morality plays–about how people act toward each other–whose prototype is “Everyman.” Their overall theme is universal peace.

Bread and Puppet productions use music, dance and slapstick. Their puppets of all kinds and sizes, masks, sculptural costumes, paintings, buildings and landscapes seemingly breathe with Schumann’s distinctive visual style of dance, expressionism, dark humor and low-culture simplicity.

A Short History of Bread and Puppet Theater

The Bread and Puppet Theater is one of the oldest, nonprofit, self- supporting theatrical companies in this country. It was founded in 1963 by Peter Schumann on New York City’s Lower East Side. Besides rod-puppet and hand-puppet shows for children, the concerns of the first productions were rents, rats, police and other problems of that neighborhood. More complex theater pieces, in which sculpture, music, dance and language were equal partners, followed. The puppets grew bigger and bigger. Annual presentations for Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and Memorial Day often included children and adults from the community as participants. Many performances were done in the street.

During the Vietnam War, Bread and Puppet staged block-long processions and pageants involving hundreds of people. In 1970 Bread & Puppet moved to Vermont as theater-in- residence at Goddard College, combining puppetry with gardening and bread baking in a serious way, learning to live in the countryside and letting itself be influenced by the experience. In 1974 the Theater moved to a farm in Glover in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The 140-year-old hay barn was transformed into a museum for veteran puppets. “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus,” a two-day outdoor festival of puppetry shows, was presented annually through 1998.

Through invitations by Grace Paley, Bread and Puppet Theater became a frequent attraction at anti-Vietnam War events in the ’60s and ’70s. By the ’80s, the puppets had become emblematic of activist pacifism and a sine qua non of American political theater, as exemplified by the massive, ascending figures that are burned into the memory of anyone who marched with or saw the haunting, massive June 12, 1982 Disarmament Parade in New York City.

Since its move to Glover, VT, Theater for the New City has been the company’s New York home. It has performed one or more productions at TNC each year since 1981.

The company makes its income from touring new and old productions both on the American continent and abroad and from sales of Bread & Puppet Press’s posters and publications. Internationally, Bread and Puppet Theater performs massive spectacles with hundreds of participants, sometimes devoted to social, political and environmental issues and sometimes simply to the trials of everyday life. The traveling puppet shows range from tightly composed theater pieces presented by members of the company, to extensive outdoor pageants which require the participation of many volunteers. At most performances, the company distributes bread and aioli (garlic sauce) to the audience.

Peter Schumann was born in 1934 in Silesia. He is married to Elka Leigh Scott and they live in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. They have five children and four grandchildren.

You cannot understand Bread and Puppet’s work without acknowledging that it is grounded in dance, but not in formal or classical dance. Schumann’s artistic pedigree is a mixture of dance and visual art.

He studied and practiced sculpture and dance in Germany and in 1959, with a childhood friend, musician Dieter Starosky, Schumann, created the Gruppe fur Neuen Tanz (New Dance Group), which invented dances which sought to break out of the strict limits of both classical ballet and the expressionist dance tradition.

He moved to the USA with his wife, Elka, and their two children in 1961. His formative years in the Lower East Side during the early ’60s were heavily influenced by the radical innovations spearheaded John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Schumann rejected the elitism of the ’60s arts scene and embraced the anti-establishment, egalitarian work of American artist Richard (Dicky) Tyler. He embraced Outsider Art: everyday movement, improvisation, direct momentary composition, and the jazz impulse toward overall creativity. He became a regular at Judson Poet’s Theater and Phyllis Yampolsky’s Hall of Issues, where puppet shows included making music and marching around. Street Theater productions followed, at rent strikes and voter registration rallies in the East Village, with crankies on garbage cans and speeches by a Puerto Rican neighborhood organizer, Bert Aponte.

He admired the abstraction of Merce Cunningham, and attended lectures at the Cunningham studio, but ultimately rebelled against it. In an interview with John Bell in 1994, he said, “Cunningham demanded of his dancers was a classical ballet background. He refused to work with anybody who didn’t have that. I totally disagreed. I had traveled around in Europe teaching dance; to Sweden, to a dance academy and various places, pretending I was a great ass in dance, and gave them classes. And they took me–I was fresh and I just did it. I said, ‘I’ll show you what dance really is; what you do is just schlock,’ and I tried to liberate them from aesthetics connected to modern dance and classical ballet and to these various modes of existing dance at the time.'”

There’s dance at the bottom of all of Schumann’s work, but since puppet theater is traditionally a “melting pot” of all the different arts, this is frequently obscure.

Theater for the New City presents Bread and Puppet Theater November 30 – December 17. “The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists” (for adults) will be Thursday through Sunday at 8:00 pm during the first week and on subsequent weeks Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:00 pm. “Everything Is Fine Circus” (for kids of all ages) will be Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Theater for the New City (Johnson Theater)is on 155 First Avenue (at E. 10th Street). The tickets for all events are $12 and thereis a $2 discount with the Passport to Puppet Theater. To buy tickets call the Box office at (212) 254-1109 or visit the theater’s homepage www.theaterforthenewcity.net

Jonathan Slaff is a New York publicist in the specialty of international cultural events. Jonathan and his writers keep us ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.