Great thoughts: Bread and Puppet Theater

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(Host) Commentator Lois Eby reflects on how the ideas of Peter Schumann and the Bread and Puppet Theater have contributed to art and social conscience in Vermont and around the world, as VPR continues to explore Great Thoughts of Vermont.

(Eby) Peter Schumann founded Bread and Puppet Theater in New York in the early ’60s. The theater features puppets and often distributes a dark, hefty bread with its performances, a way of saying that bread and theater are essential to life. At anti-Vietnam War marches in the streets of New York in the ’60s and ’70s, puppets floated dramatically above the huge crowds, great winged, white birds of peace and huge sculptured heads of grieving women.

In 1970, German-born Schumann and his wife Elka moved to Vermont to begin a theater residency at Goddard College in Plainfied. Eventually a farm in northern Vermont became their home. There, in Glover, they performed the Domestic Resurrection Circus one weekend each summer for over 20 years. The crowds grew over the years to 30,000 or 40,000 visitors drawn from all over the world. Young and old, working Vermonters and college students, filled the farm’s natural amphitheatre to see Schumann’s larger-than-life puppets appear on the horizon and move sometimes half a mile to center stage.

After the Circus ended in 1998, Sunday performances and the Bread and Puppet Museum continued to attract many visitors to Glover. Since the ’60s, they have also taken Bread and Puppet to streets and theaters around the world and have greatly influenced uses of puppetry, especially in street theater and political demonstrations.

Bread and Puppet Theater uses sculpture, dance, mime, music and religious ritual in their pieces. Words are few. But one can find written sources online and in print that provide insight into Peter Schumann’s ideas. In “The Cheap Art Manifesto,” Schumann speaks of “the business of art and its growing appropriation by the corporate sector.” Art becomes “political whether you like it or not,” the Manifesto states. In contrast, the Manifesto urges that art be made available to a wider audience. Schumann wants to “inspire anyone to revel in an art making process that is not subject to academic approval or curatorial acceptance.” “Why?” the Manifesto asks. “Because art is food,” it answers.

The work of Bread and Puppet Theater illustrates what cheap art means to Schumann. The theater creates and performs original works on a shoestring, with basic raw materials, for people outside the mainstream of American theater and art. It performs on streets and in churches, town halls, and other public settings. The performance is free or by donation; the art is for sale for very little money.

One can’t draw a direct line from Peter Schumann to the environment of Vermont which supports art, social conscience, and the hard work of peace. But Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater provides an example of how art can reach out to ordinary people and become bread.

This is Lois Eby.

Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women’s issues and civil rights. Learn more about the Great thoughts in this commentary series and give us your feedback.

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