Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater


For the 37th year, Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater will return to Theater for the New City December 4 to 21, 2008 with two new works, one for adults and one for children.

For the grownups, it’ll be “The Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle and Circus,” a play which was developed out of the company’s 2008 summer work. For kids of all ages, there will be matinee (3:00 pm) shows of “The Sourdough Philosophy Circus” on Saturdays and Sundays.

“The Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle and Circus” is about the need for human fermentation. It takes a lesson from how apple cider is made. Our republic teases us with the possibility of democracy, but citizens are raised like military apple orchards, pruned down to their predictable minimums, yielding controlled fruits that lack the ecstasy of nature. However, human fermentation occurs in parts of the human body that are not governed by the government, like the guts and the gutsy parts of the brain. Fermented citizens are corrupted by the ecstasy of nature and from that corruption, derive strength to corrupt military-orchard citizens. The show is run by a bunch of cooks, specialists in cooking the various stews and pancakes of our everyday first world existence.

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In a developmental production of The Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle and Circus, Mr. Shutup and Do What I Say gets his arm stuck in a voting machine. Photo by Jack Sumberg.

The family version, “The Sourdough Philosophy Circus,” is also about the need for human fermentation, but the concept is also applied to dancing zebras and turkeys and free range cows. The cooks are featured again. Additional commentary is provided by the Rotten Idea Theater Company. Music is by the Sourdough Philosophy Brass Band.

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 Band. 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.

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Dancing cooks in Sourdough Philosophy Circus, August 2008. Photo by Greg Cook.

The Bread and Puppet Theater is an internationally recognized company that champions a visually rich, street-theater brand of performance art that filled with music, dance and slapstick. 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.” There are puppets of all kinds and sizes, masks, sculptural costumes, paintings, buildings and landscapes that seemingly breathe with Schumann’s distinctive visual style of dance, expressionism, dark humor and low-culture simplicity.


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.

Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont. Tigers preparing for the Sourdough Philosophy Circus, August 2008. Photo by Greg Cook.

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.

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Peter Schumann takes center stage at Theater for the New City in 2005. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

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. 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.

Schumann studied and practiced sculpture and dance in Germany and in 1959, with a childhood friend, musician Dieter Starosky, Schumann, created the 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.'”

The most recent creative history of Bread and Puppet Theater was written by Holland Cotter in the New York Times last summer. Cotter described Peter Schumann’s epics as “spectacle for the heart and soul.” He commended Schumann for the courage “to live an ideal of art as collective enterprise, a free or low-cost alternative voice outside the profit system.” He testified that one summer, on a mountainside in Glover, VT, Bread and Puppet gave him the single most beautiful sight he’s ever seen in a theater. And when Bread and Puppet led the nuclear freeze parade in New York City during United Nations sessions on disarmament, it was “one of the most spectacular pieces of public theater the city has ever seen.” He added, “For me the real affirmation of the disarmament pageant lay less in the fact that Mr. Schumann came to New York and created this hugely ambitious collective work of art than in the fact that immediately afterward he returned to Vermont, to a farm, to a barn, to the outdoor baking oven, to his workshops and to his own work, which has come to include an increasing amount of painting, most of which stays out of the art world’s sight.”

Performances are December 4 to 21, 2008 at Theater for the New City (Johnson Theater), 155 First Avenue (at E. 10th Street), Manhattan. In the first week, “The Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle and Circus” (for grownups) will play Thursdays through Sundays at 8:00 pm. In subsequent weeks, the schedule will be Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:00 pm. “The Sourdough Philosophy Circus” (for kids of all ages) will be performed Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $12 (all events). The box office number is (212) 254-1109. Online ticketing is available at

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.