Peter Schumann and Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater
By Tim Johnson
January 9, 2011
GLOVER -- Long before the pastoral extravaganzas in Vermont, before
the international acclaim, before the signature street theater that
grew out of the creative ferment of New York City, there was the year
Bread and Puppet Theater didn't exist yet, but the idea germinated
there in 1962-63, when Peter Schumann, who had immigrated from
Germany with his young family two years before, was figuring out what
to do with himself.
His wife, Elka, had been hired at the Putney School to fill in for a
teacher on sabbatical. What would Peter do? He was a sculptor and a dancer.
"I offered to teach dance," he said recently, in his German accent.
"I just pulled it out of the air." So, someone from Putney came to
see his "Dance of Death," performed in New York City's Judson Church.
"They were so horrified they barely talked to me," Schumann said,
"and they said, 'Certainly not dance!' "
"So I said, 'Well, puppetry,' just like that. I didn't even think about it."
That offhand notion started to take off in Putney, then continued to
grow in scale and vision, infused by the countercultural spirit of
the '60s. And at decade's end, when Schumann's unique blend of
theater, visual art and political commentary finally broke through to
receive widespread public notice, it was fueled and inspired by
protests against the Vietnam War.
But in 1962, it was the modest prospect of a job that prompted the
Schumanns to move from New York to Putney. Elka taught Russian, and
Peter offered puppetry as an after-school activity.
"Then the kids came and I got more and more carried away," he said.
He made the puppets in his kitchen, papier-mache heads and hands
mounted on sticks. He'd made hand puppets when he was a child in
Silesia, but this was different -- not just the stick technique.
"I wasn't interested any more in fairy tales," he said. "I wanted to
make the stories. I think the first one was called 'Fire.' It was
just all kinds of different puppets, how they reacted to fire." The
scenes were stylized war memories, without much plot.
"I was a happening maker at the time," he said. "I wasn't interested
in normal linear story telling."
But when he decided to do a Christmas show -- the first of many -- he
had an obvious narrative to work with.
"That was a mask and puppet show," he recalled. "For some scenes we
used hand puppets, for some scenes we used masks. Joseph and Mary
wore masks, the donkey was a cardboard cutout. I also had a scroll
that I called a cranky," a tableau of painted landscapes that was
unrolled with a handle.
This wasn't a standard nativity show.
"Tongue and cheek, clever," recalled Linn Bruce, a painter who became
friends with Schumann and who still lives in Putney. "A little bit of
Christianity but not a hell of a lot. He wasn't a believer."
Libby Mills, whose husband taught biology at the Putney School, has
never forgotten a performance she saw Schumann put on that winter.
She can't remember what show it was --it was the puppets that
impressed her. They weren't the marionettes she came expecting to see.
"They were gigantic," she said. "Some were menacing. It was all
unnerving. It had a quality of darkness and power," with dashes of humor.
Then there was the bread that Schumann handed out to the audience --
"so hearty, dark, substantial."
"It was such an eye-opener," Mills said of the experience, "a
harbinger of what was to become Bread and Puppet."
"I had a little company, a very interesting bunch of kids, " Schumann
said of his first troupe of puppeteers, "and I traveled with them to
Massachusetts and to Vermont places and we did crazy little shows and
we did Sunday shows in the house Putney gave us to live in. The
living room we made into a theater and performed there, regularly."
That spring, he took the "Putney School Puppet Theater" to Harvard,
where they performed at Adams House and earned a rave review in the
house newsletter as "the most exciting theater experience of the
When the school year ended in 1963, Elka headed to graduate school,
the kids stayed with her parents in Connecticut, and Peter went on
the road for the summer.
"I built myself a little performance trailer, from canvas, sticks a
wooden box with wheels," he said. "I built a tent on top of that with
flaps on the side so I could perform in the street, and I pulled that
thing all over New England."
He called it the Moosach Puppet Theater, after the town in Bavaria
where he'd had a dance company. When he got to Provincetown, Mass.,
he did a show in the library. In the audience was Bob Ernstthal, 19,
who had dropped out of Brown University and was at loose ends.
Ernstthal was intrigued, but he found the performance "unintelligible."
"He was holding up puppets and making noise and moving around and
then dropping them and picking up other ones," Ernstthal told Stefan
Brecht, who wrote an exhaustive two-volume disquisition on "The Bread
and Puppet Theater." (Methuen, 1988)
"He was living on the bread and lard and garlic and beer. And
brewer's yeast," Ernstthal said. "That was his diet."
"I could see he needed someone else there because he was trying to do
the whole show himself, which was impossible."
So Ernstthal, who had done some theater, asked Schumann if he wanted
some help. Schumann did, and they hit it off. They wound up touring
New England together, sleeping in the trailer and performing in
parks, on roadsides.
"I played the fiddle, he did strumming," Schumann said. "I put the
hat out. I made just barely enough to put the gas in."
One of Schumann's earliest artistic inspirations, as a little kid,
was something rather puppet-like.
"Coats on a coat rack," he said. "When you looked at a coat rack,
that was all human beings who were mostly on the dangerous side."
His parents had puppeteering friends. He remembers getting puppets
for Christmas and putting on shows with his siblings.
Later, as a young man, he experimented with moving sculpture.
"Before I came to the States, I had a dance company in a village
outside of Munich," he said. "and I made quite a few sculptures --
heads, hands, full-size bodies, for that company, even tiny ones, and
I tried to integrate them into the dance."
"That was already a fanciful idea of mine," he said, when he moved
back to New York City with his family in the fall of 1963.
He rented a loft vacated by Red Grooms, a pop artist well-known in
the "Happening" movement. Together with Ernstthal and a German
painter he knew, Bruno Eckkart, Schumann used the space both as a
studio and for performances.
One of the early shows drew an audience of just their families and
"two gentlemen who looked suspicious to us -- and indeed they were
from the police."
Cited for performing without a permit, Schumann and company were
hauled into court. "The judge just laughed and dismissed it," he said.
Schumann had many other run-ins. He'd do shows on the street, where
he'd make up stories "about the rats, about the Fire Department, the
Health Department, whatever you learn," usually with a political edge.
"We did the crankies, but we also did puppet shows. You can hold up a
little curtain, a sheet, and it immediately creates a situation where
you're above the heads of the crowd.. ... Punch and Judy shows,
transformed into Black Punch and Blue Judy ... Oh my God, all kinds
of fancy stuff, related either to the politics of the day or the
"The cops were a big problem, naturally, so we made everything so
that when the cops came, we just packed up and went to the next street corner."
They started out calling it the People Theater. Then at some point,
Schumann recalls, "I was giving out bread, so I said, why don't we
call it 'Bread and Puppet?' "
Why the bread?
"Well, it's like this," Schumann said, spinning out a thumbnail
version of his standard explanation. "As an artist you have a bad
conscience that you do nothing but nonsense all your life. ... Bread
is what people need. Art they don't need, forget about it. I wanted
to do something useful with myself."
He always wanted to be a baker, he said, and besides, "I couldn't
stand the taste of American bread. It was the lowest common
denominator." So he baked bread the way his mother taught him and
gave it out at the beginning of his shows.
The shows didn't get much notice in the media. Once in a while the
Village Voice would print something.
"We hated the Village Voice," Schumann said. "They had no politics.
Not radical or nothing. They barely reviewed us. Barely, barely."
Fire' provides a spark
The U.S. role in Vietnam was getting critical notice among New York
anti-war activists even in 1963, "earlier than people think," Schumann said.
The street protests grew, and so did the puppets -- to 10, 12 feet tall.
One of Bread and Puppet's biggest demonstrations, a vintage
"happening," was at the door of Saint Patrick's Cathedral.
"We heard that Cardinal Spellman had blessed the B-52s before they
went on a bombing mission," Schumann said. "We wanted to make him a
present of a napalm Jesus baby, for Christmas. ... We took our masks
from the 'Christmas Story' and put them on sticks over our heads. ...
Outside the cathedral, it was a massive spectacle." The door was
locked. They left the napalm baby on the steps.
Throughout the '60s Schumann was writing plays and the troupe was
performing them, typically with audience collaboration. Among them
was an entirely different "Fire" -- this version inspired by three
people who immolated themselves in protest of the Vietnam War.
Novelist and critic George Dennison later called it "among the finest
plays I have seen."
But the shows, which included publicly sponsored projects with slum
kids throughout the city, weren't paying the bills. Schumann worked
for a plaster company, loading and unloading sacks. With his friend
Bruno, he painted apartments, cut-rate. They called themselves
"We went in and did very bad, very quick and very cheap," he said.
"We made our living that way. He also did what he calls "furniture
schlepping": "moving fridges up four flights, stuff like that."
"Then in '67, a talent scout -- a very nice gentleman from France --
saw us performing our play 'Fire' in the basement of the Washington
Square Church, and he invited us to the Nancy festival in '68."
"We took that play there and it was a gigantic hit," Schumann said,
"and then all of a sudden we got invited all over Europe, and we went
to Paris and London and Berlin, all over the place." He baked bread
all along the way.
The next year, the troupe went back for a longer tour, nine months.
This time, Schumann took the family, along with his bread-baking paraphernalia.
"All of a sudden, money wasn't a problem any more. We could live for
quite a while on what we made in Europe."
Now he could give up his day job. "More and more fancy writers wrote
about us," he said. With the new income and the critical acclaim, in
New York City and overseas, Schumann had reached a breakthrough.
But after he got back to the city, his career took an unexpected turn.
Back to Vermont
When the Bread and Puppet Theater returned to New York after the
second European tour, they found they had been evicted from the old
courthouse they'd been using for their studio. (Someone had held a
pot party there while they were away and the police had shuttered the
place, Schumann said.) They found other quarters -- an old bank
building under the Brooklyn Bridge, then a place at Coney Island that
producer Joseph Papp helped them get.
But Schumann was beginning to sour on New York City. Life was getting
rougher on the Lower East Side. Coming out of the bank, Elka got
robbed at gunpoint. The kids were held up for their bag lunches. The
puppeteers were held up on their way to rehearsals.
"I was sick and tired of it," Schumann said. Then, by happy
coincidence, came an invitation from Vermont.
Goddard College proposed a theater in residence for Bread and Puppet
in Plainfield. It was an offer Schumann couldn't pass up: He'd have
the run of the Cate Farm, next to the campus. No salary, but no
teaching commitment either. He just had to agree to let students and
faculty join in his productions.
So the Schumann family (now with five kids) moved back to Vermont,
along with part of the Bread and Puppet troupe. (The rest stayed in
Coney Island for a few more years, with Schumann dropping in
periodically to direct.)
Schumann looked forward to life in the country, but he admits it
required something of a professional adjustment. What was it like,
transplanting a radical brand of street theater from the brash, noisy
city to a placid small town in Vermont?
"It was pretty awful, actually," he said. " We immediately
participated in the Fourth of July parade Plainfield had. They threw
tomatoes at us, rotten eggs, I don't know what. They very strongly
let us know that they disliked what we did, because our parade was
about the war, about the bombardment of Cambodia, I believe. Giant
puppets preaching to the unconverted. They hated it."
As he saw it, the angry reaction wasn't just to Bread and Puppet, but
to the college.
"You have to understand, Goddard was a radical institution," he said,
"and the local community was in the servant role, cleaning the
bathrooms for the little princes and princesses, the spoiled brats
with the fancy education. That was the attitude."
As Schumann and the troupe settled in, they adapted.
"We toned it down," he said. "We still used political themes, but we
added new themes having to do with country politics, country life.
More animals, flocks of birds and cows and dogs and horses and all that."
Schumann did sculptural portraits of the Goddard maintenance crew and
worked them into shows. He called them "The Garbagemen."
At the Hardwick parade, in 1971, the reception was much better.
Gods and washerwomen
In 1974, the end of what Brecht calls the "Goddard Period," the
Schumanns moved with Bread and Puppet to a farm in Glover, in the
Northeast Kingdom, where the company has been based ever since.
Once again, the locals weren't sure what to make of this strange
collective, but Schumann found a way to win them over, at age 40.
"By that time, I walked on tall stilts," he said. "It was a big
success. We went to all the towns."
In 2007, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter came to Glover and
recalled having made an earlier visit, 25 years before. He described
a scene from "Domestic Resurrection Circus" -- Bread and Puppets'
trademark festival for many years -- as "the single most beautiful
sight I've ever seen in a theater."
Cotter's description was part of an appreciation, titled "Spectacle
for the Heart and Soul," that spoke highly of Schumann's work as a
visual artist and his puppet creations, ranging from "immense pageant
gods, madonnas and angels" to butchers, washerwomen and Yama, the king of hell.
"If any single work could effectively fill the atrium space at the
Museum of Modern Art," Cotter wrote, "this ensemble could, and should."
Instead, they're all in the barn at the Glover farm. This is the
Bread and Puppet Museum.
On a recent morning, as he prepared for another tour -- to New York
City -- Schumann paused as he showed a visitor around the barn.
Scores of urban and rural creations intermingle. Here was the
frightful, multi-faced Yama from New York, and there were the
approachable Garbagemen from Plainfield.
Contact Tim Johnson at 660-1808 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Schumann chronology
1934: Born in German-speaking Silesia, a region in central Europe now
part of Poland
1961: Schumann, a sculptor and a dancer, immigrates from Germany to
the United States with his American wife, Elka.
1962: Moves from New York City to Putney. Elka teaches Russian at
Putney School; he teaches puppetry as an extra-curricular activity.
1963: Moves back to New York City. Bread and Puppet Theater founded.
1963-70: Based in New York City: Dozens of shows, plays and
performances include "The Rat Movie," "The Pied Piper of Harlem," "A
Man Says Good-bye to his Mother," "Fire," "King Story" I and II, "The
Difficult Life of Uncle Fatso."
1970: Moves to Goddard College, in Plainfield, as artist in residence
1974: Moves to a farm in Glover, which becomes home to the Bread and
Puppet Theater. Troupe continues touring.
1975: The first Domestic Resurrection Circus produced in Glover. The
event becomes a Vermont tradition -- an annual outdoor festival
featuring giant puppets and stilt-walkers performing politically
flavored plays and comedic sideshows, with audience participation.
1998: More than 30,000 people attend Domestic Resurrection Circus.
The beating death of a festival-goer at a nearby campground prompts
cancellation of future mass performances. Troupe continues touring
and giving small performances at Glover.
2007: Schumann's "Independence Paintings" at the South End Art Hop
draw protests from the Jewish community.