By Rajdeep K. Bhathal
For the 38th year, Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater will
return to Theater for the New City, NYC, December 2-13, 2009 with two
new works, one for adults and one for children.
The adults' show will be "Tear Open the Door of Heaven." A pink and
blue puppet show about Heaven and its effects on the Underneath,
presented by the practitioners of the brand-new paper maché religion.
The play features over life size puppets representing God, his
daughter and stepdaughter, a US president and his war-waging office,
mountaintop removal protesters, money printing artists and stargazers
of the North East Kingdom of Vermont. The six acts of the play are
supplemented by six dance interventions performed by the Lubberland
National Dance Company, whose members are mostly local volunteers.
The kids' show is "Dirt Cheap Money Circus." It features the
billionaire bonus celebration dance, the logic of the US Healthcare
System, the history of humanity and the removal of a mountaintop,
interspersed with appearances by Karl Marx, who confronts the 2009
economic situation with his existential thoughts about money and our
relationship to it. As always, there is a live band.
Both shows will be performed by the Bread & Puppet Company and a
large number of local volunteers, who will also be part of The Brass
Band. The theater will be decorated with the unique Bread and Puppet
collection of powerful black-line posters, banners, masks, curtains,
programs and set-props. Once again, all pieces will be created by
Schumann with input from the company. Both plays will be accompanied
by a brass band, singing and miscellaneous gongs and horns. Schumann
will sculpt and paint all of the major masks and puppets.
Bread and Puppet Theater is an internationally recognized company
that champions a visually rich, street-theater brand of performance
art that filled with music, dance and slapstick. Its shows are
political and spectacular, with huge puppets made of paper maché and
cardboard; a brass band for accompaniment, and anti-elitist dance.
Most are morality plays--about how people act toward each
other--whose prototype is "Everyman." There are puppets of all kinds
and sizes, masks, sculptural costumes, paintings, buildings and
landscapes that seemingly breathe with Schumann's distinctive visual
style of dance, expressionism, dark humor and low-culture simplicity.
The Bread and Puppet Theater is one of the oldest, nonprofit, self-
supporting theatrical companies in this country. It 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 that
neighborhood. More complex theater pieces, in which sculpture, music,
dance and language were equal partners, followed. 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 1970 Bread
& Puppet moved to Vermont as theater-in- residence at Goddard
College, combining puppetry with gardening and bread baking in a
serious way, learning to live in the countryside and letting itself
be influenced by the experience. In 1974 the Theater 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.
Through invitations by Grace Paley, Bread and Puppet Theater became a
frequent attraction at anti-Vietnam War events in the '60s and '70s.
By the '80s, the puppets had become emblematic of activist pacifism
and a sine qua non of American political theater, as exemplified by
the massive, ascending figures that are burned into the memory of
anyone who marched with or saw the haunting, massive June 12, 1982
Disarmament Parade in New York City.
Since its move to Glover, VT, Theater for the New City has been the
company's New York home. It has performed one or more productions at
TNC each year since 1981. Last summer, the company also appeared at
Lincoln Center Out of Doors.
The company makes its income from touring new and old productions
both on the American continent and abroad and from sales of Bread &
Puppet Press's posters and publications. Internationally, Bread and
Puppet Theater performs massive spectacles with hundreds of
participants, sometimes devoted to social, political and
environmental issues and sometimes simply to the trials of everyday
life. 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. At most
performances, the company distributes bread and aioli (garlic sauce)
to the audience.
Peter Schumann was born in 1934 in Silesia. He is married to Elka
Leigh Scott and they live in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. They have
five children and five grandchildren.
You cannot understand Bread and Puppet's work without acknowledging
that it is grounded in dance, but not in formal or classical dance.
Schumann's artistic pedigree is a mixture of dance and visual art.
There's dance at the bottom of all of Schumann's work, but since
puppet theater is traditionally a "melting pot" of all the different
arts, this is frequently obscure.
Schumann studied and practiced sculpture and dance in Germany and in
1959, with a childhood friend, musician Dieter Starosky, Schumann,
created the Gruppe für Neuen Tanz (New Dance Group), which invented
dances which sought to break out of the strict limits of both
classical ballet and the expressionist dance tradition.
He moved to the USA with his wife, Elka, and their two children in
1961. His formative years in the Lower East Side during the early
'60s were heavily influenced by the radical innovations spearheaded
John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Schumann rejected the elitism of the
'60s arts scene and embraced the anti-establishment, egalitarian work
of American artist Richard (Dicky) Tyler. He embraced Outsider Art:
everyday movement, improvisation, direct momentary composition, and
the jazz impulse toward overall creativity. He became a regular at
Judson Poet's Theater and Phyllis Yampolsky's Hall of Issues, where
puppet shows included making music and marching around. Street
Theater productions followed, at rent strikes and voter registration
rallies in the East Village, with crankies on garbage cans and
speeches by a Puerto Rican neighborhood organizer, Bert Aponte.
He admired the abstraction of Merce Cunningham, and attended lectures
at the Cunningham studio, but ultimately rebelled against it. In an
interview with John Bell in 1994, he said, "Cunningham demanded of
his dancers was a classical ballet background. He refused to work
with anybody who didn't have that. I totally disagreed. I had
traveled around in Europe teaching dance; to Sweden, to a dance
academy and various places, pretending I was a great ass in dance,
and gave them classes. And they took me--I was fresh and I just did
it. I said, 'I'll show you what dance really is; what you do is just
schlock,' and I tried to liberate them from aesthetics connected to
modern dance and classical ballet and to these various modes of
existing dance at the time.'"
The most recent creative history of Bread and Puppet Theater was
written by Holland Cotter in the New York Times in 2007. Cotter
described Peter Schumann's epics as "spectacle for the heart and
soul." He commended Schumann for the courage "to live an ideal of art
as collective enterprise, a free or low-cost alternative voice
outside the profit system." He testified that one summer, on a
mountainside in Glover, VT, Bread and Puppet gave him the single most
beautiful sight he's ever seen in a theater. And when Bread and
Puppet led the nuclear freeze parade in New York City during United
Nations sessions on disarmament, it was "one of the most spectacular
pieces of public theater the city has ever seen." He added, "For me
the real affirmation of the disarmament pageant lay less in the fact
that Mr. Schumann came to New York and created this hugely ambitious
collective work of art than in the fact that immediately afterward he
returned to Vermont, to a farm, to a barn, to the outdoor baking
oven, to his workshops and to his own work, which has come to include
an increasing amount of painting, most of which stays out of the art
"To Tear Open the Door of Heaven" will run December 3-6 and December
9-13, 2009 at 8 PM; the show runs 1 hour, 20 minutes. "Dirt Cheap
Money Circus" will run December 5-13, 2009 on Saturdays and Sundays
at 3 PM; running time is 55 minutes. All shows will be presented by
Theater for the New City (in its Johnson theater), located at 155
First Avenue (between Ninth and Tenth Streets) in Manhattan. Tickets
for all shows are $12, with children 12 & under at $6 for "Dirt Cheap
Money Circus." Tickets can be purchased through the box office phone
at (212) 254-1109 or online at www.theaterforthenewcity.net.