Bread and Puppet Theater Does Monteverdi Their Own Way

Bread and Puppet Theater in Claudio Monteverdi’s opera, The Return of Ulysses. Ulysses prepares to kill Penelope’s suitors. This is how the bow wounds! To death, to havoc, to ruin! Photo by Massimo Schuster.

For adults, there will be Bread and Puppet’s own, “respectfully truncated” version of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera, “The Return of Ulysses.” The production has been developed out of a collaboration that Peter Schumann and his company did in June with the Theatre Department of Concordia University in Montreal and the Montreal Baroque Festival. The production was performed as a dress rehearsal in the DB Clarke Theatre at Concordia and presented as a festival performance in the plaza of the Centre Mondial.

For that festival, the score was edited down to and hour and a half. Bread and Puppet subsequently pared the score down further to about an hour, including a 10 minute prologue, for its Friday evening programs in July and August. The production had between 15 and 20 musicians and singers in the orchestra and chorus. Peter Schumann played Penelope. Reviewing this summer’s production in The Chronicle (Barton, VT), Joseph Gresser declared “Peter Schumann has taken his Lubberland National Dance Company in a radically new direction” and deemed the production “enthralling.”

Entrance of the goddess Minerva. Puppets and wall hangings by Peter Schumann. Photo by Massimo Schuster.

The show for family audiences will be “The Decapitalization Circus,” a play that demonstrates in numerous death-defying stunts the phantastic effects of the capitalization of life in the U.S. and citizens’ courageous efforts of decapitalization. The performers represent the whole scale of the social spectrum from benign billionairism to despicable homeless anti-social-elementarianism. All the acts are FDA and FBI certified displays of patriotic correctness and defy all imaginable forms of terrorism. The Possibilitarians, a multi-instrumental variety ensemble, provide the appropriate-inappropriate sounds for the circus.

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.

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.

Newspaper Act sequence in The Decapitalization Circus. Photo by Massimo Schuster.


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. Peter Schumann writes, “Bread & Puppet gratefully acknowledges Crystal Field and Theater for the New City for presenting our often less than popular our-of-this-world puppetry since time immemorial. Our theater was born in New York City, was kicked out of New York City but has returned annually, thanks to the generous spirit of Theater for the New City.”

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 five 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. 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.

Susie Perkins in Economy Act, a sequence in The Decapitalization Circus. Photo by Greg Cook.

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 in 2007, the year the company also appeared at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. 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.”

Theater for the New City is located at 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street) in Manhattan’s East Village. Shows December 2-11 are Thursday through Sunday at 8:00 pm. Shows December 12-19 are Wednesday through Sunday at 8:00 pm. Performances of “The Decapitalization Circus” (for family audiences) December 4-19 are Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 pm.

Admission to all events is $12. For tickets, please contact the box office at 212-254-1109. Online ticketing is available at