Troupe uses large puppets to tackle issues equally big
By Joel Brown
January 23, 2010
Peter Schumann leads his Vermont-based Bread & Puppet Theater into
the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts next week with
politically charged shows starring live performers and giant
papier-mâché puppets. But the social moment has changed a lot since
last year's visit, he says.
"We were all so delighted when Obama won the election. It seemed like
it was a change in American politics,'' Schumann says by phone from
Bread & Puppet headquarters in Vermont. "I guess we all overestimated
what anybody could do in that position. We were pretty naïve.
"I'll never forget the moment when he was elected,'' Schumann
continues. "There was a reporter on the street in a black
neighborhood and a woman said, 'Yes! He will cure AIDS!' He was a
messiah, people took him for changing the world, deep down and all
over. Now, OK, those things have not materialized. Not only is AIDS
still with us, but a lot of other things as well.''
A native of Silesia, 75-year-old Schumann has been leading Bread &
Puppet since its inception in the early 1960s on the Lower East Side
of New York City. The group's giant puppets became a staple at
antiwar and anti-nuclear rallies and other countercultural events.
The troupe moved to Goddard College in Vermont in the 1970s, and has
long been based on a farm in there, where they do their shows in the summer.
The annual Boston visit includes two different shows, "Tear Open the
Door of Heaven'' (Jan. 28-31, evenings), which also features the
Lubberland National Dance Company, and the more family-oriented "Dirt
Cheap Money Circus'' (Jan. 30-31, matinees). The residency includes a
week-long political art installation which begins Monday and the
usual after-show bread distributions.
"Heaven'' features giant puppets representing, among others, God and
a US president. The play "is about the fact that we felt we
absolutely needed a brand-new religion,'' Schumann says. "We called
it the Paper Mache Religion, indicating that it is a disposable religion.''
"Dirt Cheap'' tackles government and greed and features the
"billionaire bonus celebration dance'' and appearances by both
Groucho and Karl Marx. The press release specifies that "some of the
circus acts are politically puzzling to adults, but accompanying kids
can usually explain them.''
As in every community where Bread & Puppet performs, Schumann and the
six puppeteers will be joined by dancers, musicians, and others
"In the case of Boston, as in New York, where we have been
frequently, it is no problem at all,'' Schumann says. "The real
challenge is when we go on the road with the bus and we arrive in a
town and we are only six performers and we need 40 minimum and we
have to find the rest on the spot.''
Schumann appreciates that many of those who come out don't have an
ulterior motive for getting involved. "Joining in . . . is just as
much to be expressive about issues you care for strongly but in your
life there isn't any spot where you can make your fury into form,
into something that speaks publicly, so the puppetry does that.''
Bread & Puppet has no foundation support, and economic conditions
remain difficult, Schumann says. "We rely on gigs in the other months
when we have too much snow here to do anything in winter, so we
travel around. To find those gigs, to get money for them, is more and
more difficult. As I suppose it is for all artists.''
Full-price tickets are $10-$12 and are available (cash or check only)
in the Cyclorama one hour before each show. For advance tickets,
visit www.theatermania.com/boston/ or call 866-811-4111.