Bread and Puppet Theater has been a familiar presence at political demonstrations since the anti-war protests of the 1960s. Its giant puppets and raucous brass band also marched against wars in Central America, Afghanistan and Iraq. In 1982, Bread and Puppet led a parade in New York that, according to police estimates, consisted of more than a half-million anti-nuclear protesters. Though massive street protests may be a thing of the past, Bread and Puppet’s work is still unapologetically political as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The theater is based on a farm in northern Vermont, about 25 miles from the Canadian border. There’s a pine forest on the property with small, colorful huts that memorialize puppeteers who have passed, and a huge barn jammed with the company’s puppets, some of them nearly 20 feet tall.
The barn is used as a rehearsal space on a rainy summer afternoon. Outside there are old bathtubs full of clay dug from a nearby river. Bread and Puppet’s founder Peter Schumann uses it to sculpt his puppets and masks, then covers them with paper mache made from discarded cardboard.
“It’s the freedom that you get when you can do things because of America’s garbage and the freedom of doing gigantic things for almost nothing, with just collaboration, with just people power,” he says.
Schumann brought people power to New York’s Lower East Side when he founded the theater in 1963. He grew up in Germany as a refugee of World War II. His company’s name comes from the peasant bread his mother baked to survive. Schumann’s low-tech, home-made puppetry became part of New York’s thriving avant garde art scene, and early on Bread and Puppet put on free shows with inner city kids, including one called Chicken Little in Harlem.
The company eventually moved to Goddard College in Vermont where it was theater in residence for four years before getting its own farm. It was there that Paul Zaloom joined the company. He went on to an Obie Award-winning career of his own and to star in the children’s TV show Beakman’s World.
“Being a member of the Bread and Puppet Theater was really the coolest and best thing that ever happened to me,” Zaloom says. “I loved being in puppet shows. I loved the politics of the theater, the aesthetics, the camaraderie we all had, the relationship we had to the community. I feel very lucky and very privileged I was a member of the company.”
On 20 acres of its pastoral landscape, Bread and Puppet still stages morality plays in which good eventually triumphs over evil. Giant puppets of seagulls or soldiers make dramatic entrances over a hilly meadow. Bread and Puppet’s shows have featured a host of political bad guys, but they’ve also celebrated garbage men and washerwomen as they go about their daily tasks.
“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 and now serves on the troupe’s board of directors. “I think it’s easy for people to sort of dismiss Bread and Puppet in some way by saying political theater is a quaint throwback to the ‘60s and not really relevant to art making today and sort of naive, and perhaps also pedantic and boring.”
John Bell is a Bread and Puppet alumnus who directs the University of Connecticut’s Ballard Institute of Puppetry. “What I learned from Bread and Puppet was that it was possible to make good political art,” Bell says. “You want to do a show about global warming or something? Go ahead. You want to do a show about stop and frisk in the streets of New York? It’s OK. 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.”
The company also has a powerful do-it-yourself ethic. Founder Peter Schumann says that with two exceptions, the company has never accepted outside funding.
“From the beginning, even in New York, we have said ‘Let’s not have a theater that is dependent on private or government money. Let’s make only theater with money we can make with theater.’”
That money comes from ticket sales when the company performs in professional theaters and from visitors who make donations at its farm in Vermont, where the troupe performs every weekend this summer. At age 79, Schumann still bakes the coarse sourdough rye bread that he learned from his mother and that Bread and Puppet gives away at every performance.