Back in 2009--although it makes me die a little to remember that was ten whole-ass years ago--I spent a summer working as an apprentice puppeteer to the Bread and Puppet Theater. Bread and Puppet was a familiar presence throughout my youth in Vermont; my mom took me to one of their massive circuses in the nineties, and I attended their shows semi-regularly in my teens. Besides their performances--which went from a three-day festival to smaller weekly ones--they were also a presence at summer parades around the state. They were easy to spot, with massive, papier-mâché puppets and stilt-dancers in tattered finery. They had a profound impact on the way I think about stories, art, political theater, and creativity.
Bread & Puppet was founded by Peter Schumann in the sixties in New York, putting a new spin on traditions of political art and theater. Their massive, graceful puppets were used in anti-war protests on the streets of the Lower East Side before they migrated north to New England. Bread & Puppet’s politics have remained uncompromisingly radical throughout the decades—which is both comforting, in a world of radical art becoming commodified, and also… not. It says something about the world and this country that they’re still protesting the same things: war, corporate greed, political hegemony, environmental destruction, wanton disregard for life.
Bread & Puppet incorporates a variety of performance styles: besides on-the-nose political skits, they also create cantastoria, a traditional Italian performance style that uses sequential paintings, with a performer using them to tell a story. Schumann sometimes performs “fiddle sermons,” spoken word pieces punctuated by wild swipes at a violin. The boisterous circuses are followed by a more somber pageant, which often feels ritualistic: a plea for peace and harmony in a chaotic, violent world. This is followed by the giving of bread, a crusty, homemade rye that is baked onsite and served with garlic aioli. (It’s dang good bread, too. I still crave it.) Schumann also paints, sculpts, and makes prints and letterpress posters, all of which are available through the troupe’s museum and store.
The puppet shows are strange, hilarious, moving, surreal, occasionally creepy. The puppets themselves are rough-hewn, and some of them have been in use for longer than I’ve been alive. They’re molded from river clay dug from a nearby bed, and painted to suggest features more often than detail them. Black paint on cardboard creates a faceless crowd, a burlap sack is repurposed into a turkey. My experience of being a puppeteer with the troupe was often similarly slapdash: grab a mask and figure how to move with it. Fetch a costume from the top floor of the barn. Play around until something clicks, or until you come up with a better idea, or someone else does. If it gets too complicated, ditch it. Schumann’s choreography and direction seemed haphazard until you took a step back to observe: he’s a master at getting groups of people to act as a single, collective organism.
Puppetry at that scale is a curious mix of exaggeration and simplicity, even more so because Bread & Puppet performs in an outdoor amphitheater. The face is immobile, and all the emotion comes through the body, which might be nothing more than a single, massive hand with which to gesture. And yet, you have to work with others to portray anger, or forgiveness, or grief, or love. (And you usually have to do it while wearing an uncomfortable, claustrophobic rig, and being able to see maybe only a couple feet in front of you, in the rain or in the burning heat.)
Puppet theater is the theater of all means. Puppets and masks…are louder than the traffic. They don’t teach problems, but they scream and dance and display life in its clearest terms. Puppet theater is of action rather than dialogue. The action is reduced to the simplest dance-like and specialized gestures. A puppet may be a hand only, or it may be a complicated body of many heads, hands, rods and fabric. We have two types of puppet shows: good ones and bad ones, but all of them are for good and against evil. (Peter Schumann)
I had a print of Schumann’s “Why Cheap Art Manifesto” in my room for ages. It takes its name from a run-down school bus gallery, filled with art that’s on sale for anywhere from $1 to $20. It’s an artifact of its time, but it also speaks a lot to the anxiety a lot of creative people I know: that something that should be sacred has become a commodity. That to create requires you to hustle, lest your art become background noise, valueless, forgettable.
So what, asks the Cheap Art Manifesto. Let art be without value, then: if it feeds someone for a moment, it has done its job. Let it be bread, disappeared by dinner. “Art has to be cheap and available to everybody. It needs to be everywhere because it is inside the world.” It’s defiant and playful, which are two descriptors that can be applied to basically everything Bread and Puppet does. Their puppetry is ego-deflating, anti-serious, anti-commodification. Art is useless, and that is why we need it.
Their puppets are made from the cheapest materials, easily repurposed, and beautiful but not sacred. They’re made for a mission; the complete abolishment of all evil, or resurrecting a dying planet, or something else that’s stupidly impossible and impossibly earnest. Stupid is fine; sifting through stupid ideas is the only way the good ones, the ones that last, will come through.
Bread & Puppet taught me to value longevity in creative practice by detaching from the product. There might be good puppet shows, and there might be bad ones, but they’re all for good and against evil. In terms of politically motivated art, I’m not sure if there can be a better motto than that. Puppets and masks also force a clarity onto stories; to speak louder than traffic, you must tell your story in simple, brash terms. Street theater demands attention, disrupts patterns of complacency. But once it has your attention, it can offer you anything: a silly joke, a chance to think, a moment of clarity, a ritual for harmony. A piece of bread to fill your mouth.
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Want to learn more about Bread and Puppet?
Preview of Brother Bread, Sister Puppet: contains footage of Bread and Puppet in the 80’s, narrated by Grace Paley
For people who are interested in arts management: a 2014 article about Bread and Puppet’s future, and grappling with a communal art project that is also inextricably tied to a founder.
Slideshow of Bread and Puppet’s “Memorial Village” in the pine forest, for deceased puppeteers/friends of company