“The Unconventional Success of the Bread and Puppet Theater,” By Megan Cummings-Gunther

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Live theater is a deeply engaging experience. With lights dimmed low and outside distractions gone, audiences watch as performers communicate stories through dialogue, dance, song, and an infinite variety of other mediums. Performance art has the ability to enlighten culture, encourage awareness, and change public perception. While art, including live theater, has a reputation for appealing to mainly the wealthy, nonprofit and smaller community-based theater groups exist to spread this art form to a more general audience. The Bread and Puppet Theater based out of Glover, Vermont does this especially well. Due to their success, The Bread and Puppet Theater, although small, is in many ways more effective in influencing political and social change than Broadway musicals or other large-scale, expensive musical performances. The Bread and Puppet theater and other smaller-scale, less professional theater groups are powerful in that they encourage community, appeal to a wider range of classes, and take more risks in their performances.

The Bread and Puppet Theater was started in the Lower East Side of New York City in 1963 by a German WWII refugee, sculptor, dancer, and musician Peter Schumann. Schumann grew up in turbulent times in Germany. In fact, the theater’s name comes from the “peasant bread” Schumann’s mother baked at home to feed her hungry family (Kalish). Upon immigrating to America, Schumann founded the B & P Theater while the country was in the midst of the Cold War and Vietnam War protests were just beginning (Bell). The group’s performances at the time, and still today, vary from one production to the next. They often involve dance, puppetry, masks, and musical performance with the primary purpose of providing political and social commentary. One show may be about celebrating the small victories and joyous occurrences in everyday life, while the next may be an explicit callout of a particular politician (Kalish).  From the very first performance, Schumann was resolute in making his shows political and about spreading important messages to his audience.

Although Schumann’s mission of communicating substantial and influential stories to his audience has remained unchanged over the course of the organization’s history, the theater group itself has seen huge changes since its inception. After staying in New York for 11 years, The B & P Theater moved to Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont to accept the college’s request to be a “theater-in-residence”. B & P Theater stayed at Goddard for 4 years before permanently moving to Glover, Vermont, a small rural town located in a part of the state called the Northeast Kingdom, where they currently work and reside (Bell). Despite years of success in both New York and Goddard College, it is in Glover that the organization was fully able to make use of their surrounding resources and develop their mission of connecting with the community.

Due to the B & P Theater’s small size and non-profit status, the organization is able to effectively reach and engage with a range of communities. They do so through protests, volunteer opportunities for the public, and multi-day performances. While in New York, the theater group participated in large-scale protests including marches against wars occurring in the Middle East and Central America. They even led an anti-nuclear parade in 1982 that gained the participation of over 500,000 protesters (Kalish). Just recently, at the start of 2017, they were able to gather their audience and followers to protest at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. Their brass band performed while protesters held signs, donned large masks and paraded around the streets with hefty puppets (“Sustainability Fund”).

Protesting is a way of bringing together B & P theatergoers to fight against real-world injustices. It creates a community feel and kinship between audience members with similar beliefs and goals. It provides an opportunity to bring the ideals expressed in the B & P shows and implement them in a way that can bring about change. To accomplish these large-scale protests and essentially bring the “show on the road”, the theater enlists the help of volunteers. Volunteers help by donating funds, making in-kind donations, and participating in the creation of posters, masks, and puppets for the marches. It is entirely a group effort that requires hard work by hundreds of audience members and those that work for the theater. The organization also offers the option of apprenticeships where anyone from “truck drivers, farmers, musicians, students, grandmothers, activists, or lovers of papier-mâché tigers” can learn, create and perform (“Apprenticeship”).

An aspect of the Bread and Puppet theater that required a huge collective effort was the Our Domestic Resurrection Circus that initially ran from 1975 to 1998, but has since been revived in recent years. By the end of the Our Domestic Resurrection Circus’s initial 23 year run, the show was captivating audiences of nearly 40,000 people. Before shows reached this size, Schumann was baking and serving his “trademark sourdough rye bread” for the theatergoers (Bell). This is yet another way of making audiences feel as though they were simply part of a family. Once the show reached this level of attendance, they finally brought in food vendors. The actual circus performance is described as “a complex mix of avant-garde forms, political ideals, populist aspirations, and a definite desire to present an alternative to mass-media, capitalist culture.” Thousands of show goers would flock to the small rural town of Glover, Vermont to witness an amazing free spectacle. The circus lasted multiple days as audience members would camp out in nearby fields awaiting the next performance (Bell).

The multi-day format of this event created a sense of camaraderie between audience members and the performers. Unlike in New York City where Bread and Puppet shows were confined to smaller spaces like “tiny storefronts and lofts, occasionally theaters, and very often streets and city parks”, the location of Glover was able to provide a wide open space for audiences to interact and join together to witness the production (Bell). John Bell, a Bread & Puppet Theater Puppeteer at the time states, “What I saw in the Circus . . . was the exchange we puppeteers were able to have with exactly those in the audience who had come to be entertained, those who probably generally avoided live theatre, but who now found themselves involved in interchanges about someone named Brecht, a chorale by Bach,… and the foundations of the Spanish-American War” (Bell). The circus was able to appeal to people of all ages and classes and inform them of culture and history a way that other large-scale productions cannot.

Broadway strives to produce shows that inform and make commentary on social justice, like Rent, The Color Purple, and Hamilton for example. Yet, their demographics demonstrate that their limited accessibility prohibits a huge portion of audiences from seeing these performances. The average Broadway theatergoer is in their mid-forties and white. In fact, 77% of all Broadway tickets were sold to Caucasian theatergoers. Broadway is also for the educated. About 80% of audience members over the age of 25 had attained a college degree and 40% had completed a graduate degree (“Research and Statistics”). This data exhibits the disparity between the messages they are putting forward and the people that are able to actually view these shows.

In order to combat this inequality, The Bread and Puppet theater takes deliberate steps to prioritize accessibility. The organization schedules shows in Glover on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons when working class are most likely able to attend the performances. The shows are also offered at no cost the public, only encouraging a $10 donation (“Summer Schedule”). By doing so, the B & P Theater combat financial barriers and allow the “everyman” to witness theater just as the wealthy have for many years. Where Broadway tickets can go for hundreds of dollars and often require hours of one’s time in order to purchase a ticket, the B & P Theater ensure that anyone with the desire to see a show will be able to see a show.

Despite making a huge effort to be accessible to a range of audiences, the Bread and Puppet theater is based out of a predominantly white area. Glover, Vermont is a small rural area with an extremely low diversity index (“Glover, VT”). However, instead of simply staying put and accepting their limited audience, the B & P Theater tour to places around the United States and outside the country to avoid this potentially large issue. In the 1960’s, the theater spent a great deal of time doing free performances in low-income neighborhoods around New York and then taking their show abroad to places like France to generate revenue. (Estrin). The performances that were completed abroad were met with largely positive responses and invitations to perform at other upscale theaters in Europe (Caley). As a consequence, the theater group toured to upper class audiences in European theaters in the 70’s and 80’s (Bell).

The organization’s performances abroad greatly contrasted their more casual performances in the United States. Marc Estrin, who worked for the B & P Theater during this time, describes the “fancy main stage of the Stadttheater in Frankfurt” in comparison to “ a rag-tag bunch of puppeteers with their roughly lettered plywood boxes full of bashed-around masks and tattered costumes” (Estrin). In spite of their success at these lavish theaters, Estrin describes the organization as being “uneasy” about the audiences who attended these performances. He states, “[We] never wanted to be a theater for the rich, yet it was those big theaters that were paying for 20 boxes of puppets to come over. There was tension about needing to serve the people on the street. And so the days would be devoted to outdoor free shows and in the evening we would go to the theater and prepare the expensive show” (Caley). He goes on to state that “[the theater’s] current bucolic setting has never made it forget its origins or the people and values for whom it fights” (Estrin).

The organization’s performances are able to appeal to audiences both young and old, rich and poor, and transcend age, gender, and race. The theater is able to complete this seemingly impossible task while also staying true to their central idea of “imperfection”. This idea of imperfection takes many forms within the organization starting with the construction of the puppets. Schumann is intent on making use of natural, old or discarded things to make beautiful works of art. He uses clay from a nearby river and lumber-yard scraps to create his masks and puppets (Estrin). These unpolished and flawed pieces, as well as performances, add instead of detract from the shows. As journalist David Caley puts it, the shows “shatter the passive trance state into which spectators can so easily fall and brings the audience into a more collaborative relationship with the performers. Performers can strive for truthfulness not just a seamless illusion” (Caley).  Each imperfect part of the whole production is able to make their political performances more honest, truthful, and genuine.

A major advantage of being a nonprofit theater organization is that the Bread and Puppet Theater is allowed to feature more new, provocative works. Caley states that,“the originality of the shows, let [them] rise far above the banality and preachiness that besets so much political art” (Caley). By creating original, authentic, avant-garde performances, the theater is able to spread their political and social messages to their audience in an interesting and new way. Bigger more “professional” theaters must uphold a certain image. Broadway shows, for example, must maintain a standard in order to market their shows, sell tickets and ultimately, make a profit. In contrast, the Bread & Puppet theater is able to fearlessly push boundaries and take risks. In the end, the organization is able to produce great theater without forfeiting their message.

Without a doubt, the Bread and Puppet theater are able to make strong political statements that are both entertaining and impactful. Through limited means, they are able to bring together people of various backgrounds to engage in their performances. With their strong emphasis on community, they strive for audiences to not only watch the shows, but to experience the shows and feel like they were brought on an adventure. By doing so, the theater is able to challenge the elitism in Broadway and “give voice to all that is hurt and forgotten in the onrush of civilization”(Caley). Their experimental and unconventional theater style helps them push their progressive vision forward and invites audiences to think in ways they have never before. Their years of performances have inspired college students and elders alike to take a stand and speak out against the injustices of the world. It is for these reasons that the Bread and Puppet Theater’s success will live on for years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

“Apprenticeship.” Bread and Puppet Theater, breadandpuppet.org/apprenticeship-and-       workshops.

Bell, J. “The End of Our Domestic Resurrection Circus : Bread and Puppet Theater and       Counterculture Performance in the 1990s.” TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 43 no. 3, 1999,   pp. 62-80. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/32945.

Caley, David. “Puppet Uprising: The Art of Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater.” Davidcayley.com, Dec. 2002, http://www.davidcayley.com/podcasts/2015/1/9/puppet-uprising-   the-art-of-peter-schmanns-bread-and-puppet-theater.

Estrin, M. “The Sustainable Energy of the Bread & Puppet Theater: Lessons Outside the Box.”       Radical Teacher, vol. 89 no. 1, 2010, pp. 20-30. Project MUSE,            doi:10.1353/rdt.2010.0022

“Glover, VT Profile: Facts, Map & Data.” Glover, VT Profile: Facts, Map & Data, VT       Hometown Locator, vermont.hometownlocator.com/vt/orleans/glover.cfm.

Kalish, Jon. “Bread And Puppet Marks 50 Years Of Paper Mache And Protest.” NPR, NPR, 24    Aug. 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/08/24/214818319/bread-and-puppet-celebrates-50-years-           of-paper-mache-and-protest.

“Research and Statistics.” Research Reports | The Broadway League, The Broadway League,         http://www.broadwayleague.com/research/research-reports/.

“Summer Schedule.” Bread and Puppet Theater, breadandpuppet.org/summer-schedule.

“Sustainability Fund.” Bread and Puppet Theater, breadandpuppet.org/sustainability-fund.

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