Art follows bread," the German saying goes (Die Kunst geht nach Brot). But as with most conventions, Bread and Puppet Theater turns that saying on its head: performers serve bread dipped in aioli after the main event. Not just any bread, of course: its founder Peter Schumann's homemade rye sourdough baked in brick ovens at the compound in Glover, Vermont. Homegrown garlic spikes the aioli. Asked what has changed most in the Theater's 48 years, Schumann answers, "We grow our own food."
America's popular, self-supporting, agitprop theater may flourish in northern Vermont, but in December it looked right at home in a small theater on New York's Lower East Side. In fact, Schumann returns every year to the neighborhood that nourished his "art of insurrection" when he and his wife Elka left Germany in 1961. This year he's presenting a "respectfully truncated" version of Claudio Monteverdi's opera "Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria," complete with a brass band, accordionist, and other gleeful anachronisms. Its companion piece, "The Decapitalization Circus," shows the effects of money on U.S. citizens and their brave efforts to "decapitalize."
Reviews of Bread and Puppet's latest creative harvest are glowing. Martin Bernheimer called Schumann "a hero who does big things in small places." He echoes New York Times critic Holland Cotter, who once commended the 76-year-old puppetmaster for the guts "to live an ideal of art as collective enterprise, a free or low-cost alternative voice outside the profit system." Both plays incorporate about 50 volunteer actors and musicians (the permanent troupe is seven members). They use papier-mâché masks and sculptures, painted posters, and banners and play odd, if effective, instruments. Long, black, cardboard pipes were salvaged from a carpet warehouse. Another hand-cranked noisemaker sounds like gunfire.
The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland, a reinvention of Baroque opera as political theater, grew out of a collaboration with the Theater Department of Montreal's Concordia University in June 2010. Schumann pared Monteverdi's opera to about 75 minutes, adding two prologues, "Modern Sky" and "Antique Sky." As black-shrouded figures appear on stage, we hear the transcript of a now-famous July 2007 WikiLeaks video in which U.S. soldiers pick off Iraqi civilians. A second prologue has Schumann at an easel using a pointer to give a mock lecture with wordless noises. But the rest of his retelling of Homer's Odyssey is joyful: Ulysses returns, Penelope dances, suitors are dispatched with scarlet ribbons simulating blood. All hail the conquering hero.
Schumann, who studied sculpture and dance in Europe, recalled his early years in a talk on December 15 with another New York legend, the Living Theatre's Judith Malina: "New York City was such an interesting cultural experience for me coming from stuffy old German culture. I was influenced by the Happenings I saw, especially Claes Oldenburg and Bob Rauschenberg. I wanted to do street theater because it broke cultural barriers and reached people in slums who didn't have access to expensive galleries or Times Square theaters. My 'crankies' were like the reinvention of the movies, boxes with paper on a scroll that sat on garbage cans. You'd crank them and tell your story. My friend Bert Aponte, a Puerto Rican neighborhood organizer, insisted on translating those stories into Spanish. Everything was lightweight so when the cops came we could move."
Lightweight props were key for the street theater Schumann was inventing. Although as an art student he had now learned how to make plaster figures, papier-mâché was his medium of choice. From hand-and rod-puppet shows for kids, Bread and Puppet thespians progressed to block-long parades and pageants that celebrated holidays but also protested local scourges like rats and bad housing, then the Vietnam War. "As the issues got heavier," says Schumann, "so did the puppets." Though the Theater moved to Vermont's Goddard College in 1970, it returned to New York City through the 1980s for protests, such as the June 12, 1982 march for peace and disarmament.
The transition from Lower East Side counterculture to Vermont farming wasn't without its rough edges. Marc Estrin in Rehearsing with Gods (Chelsea Green, 2004) remembers Bread and Puppet's first appearance at the July 4 Parade in Plainfield, for example, with its anti-patriotic antics "like an invasion of Martians." The new neighbor arrived with "anti-American puppets; Uncle Fatso, the ultimate capitalist; skeletons with American flags…and Peter Schumann on eight-foot stilts as Uncle Sam." This procession was followed by an anti-Vietnam War performance of A Man Says Goodbye to His Mother.
Today, Bread and Puppet Theater is a local landmark and neighbors know what to expect. Until 1998 the theater presented its Domestic Resurrection Circus at a two-day outdoor festival in which anyone was fair game—God, George W. Bush, Abe Lincoln. Neighbors saw 18th-century politicians using the Constitution as a soccer ball to whip Uncle Sam. A general marched to the Marine theme song while above him soared a giant dove of peace. "Some of our shows are good," says Schumann, "and some are bad. But all of our shows are for good and against evil." And just when the contest begins to look grim, a 20-foot-tall drum majorette crashes the party to "When the Saints Go Marching In."
It's often pointed out that Bread and Puppet performances are like morality plays, with the audience as Everyman [sic]. That aspect is clear in The Decapitalization Circus, where the American dreamer gets bamboozled by billionaires and crooked politicians. Schumann's inventory of money's evil influence includes:
· a satire of New York's economy called "Farms Not Jails"
· "Mr. Everything's Fine," who's running for president on a platform of fiscal transparency wearing a bubble-wrap suit
· "Nuclear Nativity," in which the angel of science impregnates the virgin Mary with a bomb and the three wise guys try to buy it
· an Arizona TV game show called "Nab That Alien"
· and that popular Wall Street hymn "Please Raise the Stock That Falls So Low"
· The play ends with Schumann on stilts and the full cast, which includes many kids, singing "Down By the Riverside."
Schumann has played Pied Piper to many people's kids, some now taking their own children to his productions. Clear, too, is how rural life sustains and replenishes his enthusiasm for his craft. "Agriculture is the biggest mess on our planet," he says, "but I'm fascinated to see the radical organizing local farmers are doing to affect the food chain." Good bread follows good art, and Schumann learned the craft of breadbaking from his Silesian mother. "It's hard to find good bread in America," he argues. "We share our homemade rye sourdough because we want to give Americans something to chew. I inherited breadmaking skills from my mother. My family fled the Allied bombing attacks in Silesia to northern Germany where we settled as refugees, gleaning the fields, then grinding the grain to make bread in communal brick ovens. Maybe what I'm offering is a lesson in refugeedom, this communal offering of bread."
It's also Schumann's belief that art is the bread of life and should be available to everyone, not just a social elite. "Cheap art defies, ridicules, undermines, and makes obsolete the sanctity of affluent-society economy," he says. "It is sourdough rye art against the degenerate tastebuds of the fluffy white-bread eaters." Not a homegrown homily, but a call to cultural arms. Vintage Peter Schumann, still baking those explosive loaves. (Tour information: www.breadand puppet.org.)
Lisa Mullenneaux is a journalist and publisher based in Manhattan and Woodstock, New York. She is the author of Ni Una Bomba Mas: Vieques vs. US Navy, Sleep Cheap in New York, and Vermont Antiquing. She also maintains a travel website (peningtonpress.com).