Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Sunday at the Circus with the Bread and Puppet Theater

Photo: Me.

Bread and Puppet Theater, a politically radical puppet theater troupe, has been around since the early 1960s. In its first years, it was based in New York City, where, presumably, it fit in nicely with the many other socially conscious, and politically active fringe theater companies that had begun to crop up in the East and West Village as part of the mighty and influential Off Off Broadway movement. While most of the Off Off companies to emerge at the time were dedicated to using theater for social, cultural, and political change, Bread and Puppet set itself apart in ways that its name implies. First, it used puppets--graceful, beautiful, hand-made ones ranging from teeny-tiny ones to ones so enormous that they relied on several troupe members to lift, let alone operate. Second, it made a practice of serving its homemade sourdough rye bread to audiences after performances.
Robert Joyce papers, 1952-1973, Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.
The emphasis on puppets emerged from founder Peter Schumann's interests in dance, music, and sculpture; the practice of serving bread to the audience emerged from the company's interest in creating a sense of community among its audience members, and in encouraging spectators to think of the arts as just as central to life as food is.

Bread and Puppet left New York City in the early 1970s to become theater-in-residence at Goddard College, an innovative, low-residency liberal arts college in rural Plainfield, Vermont that was, at the time, a hotbed of radical thinking and artistic innovation. Once their residency ended there, the troupe decided to stay in Vermont. In 1974, they set up shop at a farm in Glover, Vermont, where they remain.

My family and I were recently in Vermont visiting our friend (and my colleague) Zoe, who spends her summers at the Marshfield School of Weaving, about an hour south of Glover. She suggested driving up to check out Bread and Puppet's Nothing Is Not Ready Circus, performed every Sunday this summer at 3pm. Having exhausted ourselves romping with the piglets in the barn at the Hollister Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast, we decided to jump at the chance, so we jumped into her car and zoomed up.

We arrived early enough to walk around the huge, bowl-shaped field in which the troupe performs their circuses and pageants in the summer. While members of the troupe were readying for the show at the center of the bowl, between two yellow schoolbuses that were (surprise!) painted in happy day-glo colors, other members were performing small, short, pre-circus side shows around the upper rim. I caught a simple, quiet one about the murder of Eric Garner at the back of the field: A small group of performers sang long, held tones in close, undulating harmonies. A woman wearing a mask held a bouquet of flowers and stood in a washtub, and on either side of her, two troupe members unrolled a long scroll that gradually described the murder in basic, but increasingly loaded, terms: "A Man Was Murdered....A Black Man Was Murdered....A Black Man Was Murdered By NYPD Officers....A Black Man Was Murdered By NYPD Officers for Selling Loose Cigarettes..." It was an eerily moving piece, punctuated at the end by strange, cautious applause (and, for me, the weirdly prescient realization that I'd been standing directly behind my friend Jake, whose in-laws were Bread and Puppet alums, and about whom I'd thus been thinking the whole time I was watching).

The circus itself was beautiful, lively, and enormously entertaining. And while I was somewhat concerned that the political overload I've been experiencing all summer would dampen my enjoyment of the visit, the opposite happened: the circus allowed me to continue to think actively about the state of the world, but also to step back a few paces, relax a little, and laugh hard and often. This is agit-prop theater at its finest, and I was grateful to experience it.

There's a lot of video on Bread and Puppet online, but this short documentary, which celebrates its 50th anniversary, captures a lot of what they do, who they are, and what their circus (and their farm) looks like:

After the show, we skipped out on the Hiroshima Memorial, the Gaza Pageant, the Radical Poetry Readings, and the distribution of bread (alas) in order to visit the barn where the Bread and Puppet Museum lives. The space is packed with puppets, seemingly from every show, every action, every demonstration that Bread and Puppet has been involved in. The space is dusty and cluttered and beautiful, and no one yells at you if you happen to be compelled to reach out and touch the nose or stroke the cheek of a particularly inviting puppet.

If you're ever in Vermont, or even if you aren't, please check out this troupe. They're an important slice of history, sure, but there's something deeply moving about the fact that they continue to work, in their unique and wonderful way, toward a bright and shining future.

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