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Bread and Puppet: 50 Years of Cultural Insurrection [Slideshow and Video]

A major exhibit celebrates 50 years of mesmerizing puppet performances that have brought urgent political messages to thousands.

Peter Schumann has always been adaptable. He had no choice. As a child he survived post-WWI Germany’s devastation and the Great Depression by gleaning the leftovers from local farms. In the 1960s, he combined dance, music, theater, sculpture, and painting with puppets to deliver the anti-war messages most of the media refused to carry. Because the streets were the stage for Bread and Puppet, adapting to the unexpected was a must.

In 1966, while staging a protest performance in front of St Patrick’s Cathedral, the puppeteers were threatened with arrest under a 1845 law prohibiting masks on the streets of the New York. Rather than retreat, they mounted their puppet heads onto tall poles. Hundreds of shoppers stopped in their tracks along Fifth Avenue to watch the spectacle. As a result they learned that giant puppets had the power to send their pacifist messages further than they could have imagined.

On Nov. 9, 2013 the Queens Museum will inaugurate its new building with an exhibit called, “ Peter Schumann: The Shatterer.” Running through March 9, 2014, two large galleries will celebrate 50 years of Peter Schumann’s genius. Schumann, who founded the Bread and Puppet theater company in 1963 and has been its leading light and inspiration ever since, is a multi-medium artist who aims to shatter the "shatterers”—those who, he explains, “continue to plot the assassination of existence-as-it-is, while disguising their activities as benevolent maneuvers meant to cure…the planet and humanity.”

The simple, rough, homemade quality of Bread and Puppet’s productions may seem outmoded in a digital age where fortunes are poured into polishing the culture we passively consume. But the collective nature of Schumann’s art is timeless, rippling through generations to create a participatory movement with, as he puts it, “the splendor of 1,000 suns blazing all at once.”

Bread and Puppet is a theater that empowers and builds community, welcoming anyone who wants to participate. Over the years thousands of participants have come to live and create together, becoming part of a whole that has accomplished what no individual ever could. Bread and Puppet also has the distinction of being the only theater that constructs portable brick ovens wherever it performs in order to distribute free bread “shared at moments created by art…in opposition to capitalist culture and habit,” as Schumann explains. Audiences stay after the show to eat, talk and connect. Nowadays, when with the touch of a button we can communicate with thousands instantly, it might seem that Bread and Puppet’s handmade theater is passé. But Peter Schumann and the community he has built have taught thousands, who in turn have taught thousands more, that the power hidden in papier-mâché can change our world.

Hundreds of offshoot arts and educational groups have formed out of the Bread and Puppet experience. Dee Dee Halleck is a retired communications professor who has volunteered with Bread and Puppet over five decades. In 1987, after fighting for the right to create public access channels on cable TV, Halleck founded Paper Tiger Television. For the past 35 years this collective has been producing a half-hour weekly TV show that critiques mainstream media. Its sets and graphics are directly inspired by Bread and Puppet. Halleck explained that she has seen many communications students become despondent when they come to understand the monolithic power of commercial media. “Then they came to my class and learn that they can fight back, not using a gun, but with a few simple tools and cranking their imaginations up to high.”

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