Bread and Puppet: 50 Years of Cultural Insurrection [Slideshow and Video]
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 passÃ©. 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-mÃ¢chÃ© 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.”
Based on a semi-self-sustaining Vermont farm close to the Canadian border, Bread and Puppet is run like an anarchist collective with a supreme leader. On any given day you will find volunteers tending the garden, molding clay sculptures for masks, or building frames for giant, movable puppets. While the young residents run the farm, build sets and work out skits, Schumann has final say on all matters related to the productions. As new volunteers arrive, the skits are handed off and fresh creative energy is injected into them. Katherine Nook, a current resident puppeteer described the process as, “an ever-evolving oral history—a physical language—being passed on through successive generations.”
Bread and Puppet has toured extensively nationally and internationally. In the ‘80s and '90s, upwards of 30,000 people traveled to Vermont’s hinterland each August to witness the “Resurrection Circus.” Performed in the farm’s former gravel pit, this series of humorous skits addressed the urgencies of the day. The Circus was followed by a “passion play” where battles between good and evil were acted out among towering puppets operated by hundreds of volunteers scampering across a giant field. The event culminated with the puppets being ceremoniously burned while the masses danced around the fire to beating drums. This Burning Man-like event was scaled back in 1998 after a man was killed during an altercation at a nearby campground. Now the group offers free weekly shows throughout the summer, including tours of its astounding puppet museum housed in its massive barn.
Scaling back the performances at the farm has not cramped Schumann’s productivity. Theater historian Stefan Brecht calls Schumann one of the great artists of the 20th century. He is certainly prolific, having written, directed and performed hundreds of “sculpture happenings and esoteric musicals with activist ingredients,” often while dancing on sky-high stilts. In the process he has created thousands of puppets, drawings, handmade books, and kinetic machines.
Jonathan Berger, curator of the Queens Museum exhibit of Schumann’s art says Bread and Puppet is just one of Schumann’s many projects. While his name is synonymous with Bread and Puppet, Berger feels that Schumann’s artistic prowess away from the company is less widely recognized. The exhibit attempts to put this right.
In his book, An Existing Better World, George Dennison concludes that Bread and Puppet is not just doing the work, but living it. Through its dynamic, collective reality, it has built the better world its plays suggest is possible. As Peter Schumann celebrates his 80th birthday next year, the question of what happens to Bread and Puppet in a post-Schumann world is under discussion. Like Bread and Puppet itself, the answer is a work in progress. But withstanding the test of time is something Bread and Puppet is enduringly good at. Through its awe inspiring performances, the company continues to demonstrate that today’s electronic communication is no substitute for people working together hand in hand for the common good, particularly when they can refuel themselves along the way with a slice of hand-crafted bread and garlic aioli.
Slideshow, event listings and video below:
November 2 – 30, 2013:
PRINTED MATTER BOOKSTORE, NEW YORK, NY
NOTHING IS NOT READY: Artists’ Books and Pamphlets by Peter Schumann and the Bread and Puppet Press 1963-2013. Curated by Max Schumann. Opening Reception Saturday, November 2, 5-7pm, with fiddle lecture by Peter Schumann. Printed Matter, 195 10th Ave., NY, NY 10011. Hours: Mondays thru Weds and Saturdays from 11am-7pm. Thursdays and Fridays from 11am-8pm. Admission free. For more info call 212-925-0325 or visit printedmatter.org/.
November 7– 24, 2013:
WEST PARK CHURCH, NEW YORK, NY
Shatterer of Worlds Chapel with Naturalization Services for Applicants Requesting Citizenship in the Shattered World
All shows at 8pm, recommended for ages 13 and older. Week one: Thurs.-Sun.: $18 general admission, $15 for students/senior/groups of 6 and more (use code BPNYGROUP6). Weeks two and three: Wed.: $15 general admission all tickets; Thurs.-Sun.: $18 general admission, $15 for students/seniors/groups of 6 & more (use code BPNYGROUP6). Tickets for the performances available for purchase (cash or check only) in the West Park Presbyterian Church one hour before each performance. For advance tickets, visit http://tinyurl.com/BPNYC2013 or call 866-811-4111. Presented in conjunction with the Center at West Park, West Park Presbyterian Church, 165 West 86th St., NY, NY 10024. For more info call: 212-362-4890 or visit westparkpresbyterian.org/.
VOLUNTEERS NEEDED TO HELP US PERFORM THIS SHOW! For more information email email@example.com
November 9, 2013 – March 2014:
QUEENS MUSEUM, NY
The Queens Museum presents: Peter Schumann: The Shatterer, the first solo museum exhibition of Bread and Puppet founder and director Peter Schumann, will open in Fall 2013 at the Queens Museum as part of the first season in its newly expanded galleries. On view from November 9, 2013–March 2014. Curated by Jonathan Berger and organized for the Queens Museum by Larissa Harris. Opening Reception Monday, November 11 from 6-8pm, with fiddle lecture performed by Peter Schumann in the exhibition’s “Paper Mache Chapel.” Queens Museum, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, NY 11368. Queens Museum hours: Wednesday-Sunday from 12-6pm. Admission: Suggested donation. For more info call: 718-592-9700 or visit: www.queensmuseum.org.
Tuesday, November 19, 7:30pm:
Anthology Film Archives, New York, NY
Selected Videos of Bread and Puppet:
Bread and Puppet 2013
Bread and Puppet Theater Circus Fracking
Bread and Puppet Summer Theater 2012 Season