“We believe in puppet theater as a wholesome and powerful language that can touch men and women and children alike, and we hope that our plays are true and are saying what has to be said, and that they add to your enjoyment and enlightenment.”
“The Public Access Center
for the Obvious Presents: The Situation”
is a new work written and directed
by founder Peter Schumann.
This musical and dark clown-show
features cardboard horses, an anti-extinction angel,
proletariat broom dancers, a 100 watt lightbulb,
a ship of fools, and a swinging brass band:
all of whom are urging the
Not-Yet-Existing-Upriser-Masses into reality.
This show is appropriate for all ages, but may be more interesting for children ages 10 and up.
The Bread and Puppet Theater was founded in 1963 by Peter Schumann on New York City’s Lower East Side. Besides rod-puppet and hand puppet shows for children, the concerns of the first productions were rents, rats, police, and other problems of the neighborhood. More complex theater pieces followed, in which sculpture, music, dance and language were equal partners. The puppets grew bigger and bigger. Annual presentations for Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and Memorial Day often included children and adults from the community as participants. Many performances were done in the street. During the Vietnam War, Bread and puppet staged block-long processions and pageants involving hundreds of people.
In 1974 Bread and Puppet moved to a farm in Glover in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The 140-year old hay barn was transformed into a museum for veteran puppets. Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, a two day outdoor festival of puppetry shows, was presented annually through 1998.
The company makes its income from touring new and old productions both on the American continent and abroad, and from sales of Bread and Puppet Press’ posters and publications. The traveling puppet shows range from tightly composed theater pieces presented by members of the company, to extensive outdoor pageants which require the participation of many volunteers.
Today, Bread and Puppet continues to be one of the oldest, nonprofit, self-supporting theatrical companies in the country.
"We don’t have playwrights in the theater. Our playwright is the daily news,.....,"
says theater founder Peter Schumann.
"Bread and Puppet also makes shows about celebrating the tiny moments in daily life that are full of joy and need to be celebrated in the face of all the horrible things we have to deal with,"
explains Claire Dolan, who joined Bread and Puppet after college
What I learned from Bread and Puppet was that it was possible to make good political art. You want to do a show about global warming or something? Go ahead. ... You don't have to shy away from it. There are ways to talk about serious ideas in a way that's entertaining and I think that articulating that as a possibility for modern art was super powerful.
John Bell, Bread and Puppet alumnus
In the early 1960’s, a group of scruffy troubadours rented out a small loft on Delancey Street in New York’s Lower East side, and began putting on weekly performances. Headed by Peter Schumann, a sculptor, dancer and baker recently emigrated from Germany, they would distribute Schumann’s bread to the audience who would slowly chew the coarse sourdough as the puppet performance ensued. Schumann was just back from a puppet teaching gig at the Putney School in Vermont, where his wife Elka had been teaching Russian language as a means to support her graduate studies in the same field. Unable to successfully pitch a class in choreography and dance, the school administration did accept Schumann’s proposal to teach an extra-curricular class in puppetry. Named alternately the Moosach Puppet Theater and People Puppet Theater, Schumann also took the show on the road. He converted his father-in-law’s small trailer into a mobile puppet stage, and hauling it with a beat up station wagon, started an improvised solo tour across New England, putting on impromptu performances in random towns and cities along the way.
Back in New York City, friends Bob Nichols and Mabel Dennison underwrote the $60 a month rent on the Delancey Street space, and Schumann quickly converted it into a theater and puppet museum. Schumann’s skills and interest in dance and sculpture were fused in puppetry, and the bread baking and distribution shored up the utilitarian function of an art practice synthesized with daily life. Peter and Elka decided on the name Bread and Puppet Theater. The name stuck. The year was 1963.
In 1968, Bread and Puppet presented Fire, an understated yet hard hitting indoor piece about the Vietnam war, to critical acclaim at the Nancy Theater festival in France. This launched the theater into international prominence and helped secure over a decade of seasonal touring in Europe and beyond. During this period, Bread & Puppet was often associated with the New American Theater – a loose-knit avant-garde movement that included companies as diverse as the Living Theater, The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Robert Wilson and others. Schumann had come to the States informed in part by the European avant-garde, and in New York was exposed to the Dada influenced work of Cage and Cunningham; the early happenings of Oldenburg, Kaprow, Grooms, et al; Fluxus; and the Judson Dance theater. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Schumann’s experimental sensibility was combined with much older forms and traditions: medieval passion plays, the bible, fairy tales and other folkloric traditions of story telling. Bread and Puppet was also set apart by its economic independence. Guided by a philosophy of living and working within the means available, the Bread and Puppet aesthetic was inextricable from the papermache, burlap, twine, and staples, that made up and literally held the puppets and the shows together.
In 1970 Bread and Puppet moved to Vermont, first to a residency at Goddard College, then in 1975 to an old dairy farm in Glover, in the Northeast Kingdom. In Vermont, the annual Our Domestic Resurrection Circus was created, using the pastoral landscape to stage large scale outdoor productions. As the Theater faded from the contemporary theater spotlight, the two-day festival grew to become Bread and Puppet’s central activity, produced by over one hundred volunteers and drawing audiences in the tens of thousands. Seasonal touring became even more diversified, and included more local, regional and third world venues; Bread and Puppet workshops – where shows and circuses were put together using local volunteers – became a more common mode of production and performance; and the Bread and Puppet Press grew to become a staple of the theater’s income. Peter decided to end Circus in 1998, after the tragic death of an audience member in one of the teeming campgrounds that had evolved adjacent to the Theater. The Circus was succeeded by a summer program with weekly, smaller scaled performances. In this new format, the Theater continues its prolific output of new shows, addressing the issues of the day – like militarism, capitalism, and ecology – as well as re-staging classic Bread and Puppet shows from the 1960’s and 1970’s.
As the theater continues to operate within its means on a shoestring budget, the summer program has evolved into a highly organized operation, including larger than ever intern and volunteer participation, and plays to enthusiastic and growing audiences. One of the most enduring legacies of Bread and Puppet is its autonomy, receiving no direct government or corporate funding, but instead relying on its own practice of frugality and a huge amount of volunteerism, along with the merged incomes of performance fees, Press sales and donations to pay its own way. This model is in itself an art form, not only of puppetry and theater making, but also a lived philosophy of art and activism. Bread and Puppet’s impact on the greater world of experimental theater is acknowledged by scholars, and evidenced by the hundreds of unique theater companies now in existence that cite Bread and Puppet as an influence, in countries from Nicaragua to Italy, Korea to France, Peru to Poland, and of course the U.S. It is difficult to conceptualize what this past fifty years of work represents: how many thousands of hours of paper-mache, sewing and painting; hundreds of thousands of hours of puppet rehearsal and performance; the countless band rehearsals, meetings, training sessions for volunteers; millions of miles traveled by the many many Bread and Puppet company members across these fifty years. This is a landmark we celebrate with astonishment and humility.