There Is Beauty in It
The first time I saw a Bread and Puppet show, I was 17. My circle of friends and I were neo-Deadheads of the ’90s who shed our preppy penny loafers for Birkenstocks and stitched up our own clothes from scraps of thrift-store corduroy. When my 17-year-old self heard that a group of us — we travelled in a pack — were going to the far reaches of Vermont for a festival where we could camp and, well, do a host of other things, I was all for it. Bread and Puppet Pageant was a yearly occurrence in those days, and upwards of 30,000 people would descend upon the small town of Glover for the occasion. When we set out from northern New Jersey for our road trip up I87, through the Adirondacks, across the valley and into the Vermont mountains, we weren’t fully prepared for the spectacle that awaited us. The crowd was a colorful mix of characters, many of who were half-naked in the woods, eating ganja goo balls and liquid LSD. I came for the fun of the scene but the real treat was the puppet show.
Sitting on the steep slope of the natural amphitheater where thousands of other people attentively sat, I watched as a troupe of performers brought to life towering somber-faced papier-mâché puppets against the backdrop of a blue sky. It was visually stunning, artistically courageous and politically on point.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was witnessing a great tradition that had begun back in 1963. Peter Schumann, Bread and Puppet’s artistic director, began as a dancer and choreographer, sculptor and baker who emigrated from Germany to New York City. Immersed in the avant-garde counterculture arts scene, he started putting on puppet shows and serving sourdough bread to audiences out of a Lower East Side loft on Delancey, and later on city streets, famously protesting the injustices raging from the inner city all the way to Vietnam. In 1973 he and his wife, Elka, moved Bread and Puppet to Vermont, first to Goddard College, where the company was in residency, and then to the 200-year-old dairy farm in the Northeast Kingdom town of Glover. The company is still there more than 50 years later and remains one of the longest-running, self-sustaining non-profit theaters in the United States. “We believe in one nation,” you will often hear a puppeteer say at the end of a show, “the Donation” (or is it dough-nation?). They ask for ten dollars. And that is how they’ve made it this far.
Watching that show for the first time as an impressionable teenager was one of those all-too-rare moments in my life when I stopped and realized how lucky I was to be here — as in, alive and on the planet. To be, period. And every year that I’ve attended their shows I’ve always felt that same sense of luck. But as a performer myself, I’ve always had the desire to get in on the action, to be on the other side of the greatness, to partake in the creative act. Finally, this summer, after 21 years, I decided to take Bread and Puppet up on their open-door policy and showed up to a community rehearsal with my two young children in tow.
We arrived to our first rehearsal a few minutes late to find a group of children and fewer adults collected under the tent canopy behind the show bus. Over the years, we’ve pulled onto the same dirt road and down through the forest dotted with hand–painted campers then out into the open field full of people, puppets and pageantry. It was odd to see the place so empty. My son, almost 4, and my daughter, almost 6, who have both seen Bread and Puppet every year of their lives, were nearly jumping out of their seats with excitement ready to rehearse and promising me they’d use their “good listening ears.”
A core member of the company, named Joe, was there to greet us. He was in charge while the rest of the troupe was performing in a parade in Barre. We joined the group of volunteers under the tent, nodding at the parents with wide-eyed children in their laps. Everyone was attentive as Joe addressed us “This year’s pageant is entitled, ‘The Whatforward Circus’! And the show opens, as every pageant does, with the running of flags.”
Joe read the rundown of the show off the blackboard but didn’t spend much time elaborating on any one scene. However, he did take extra care going over the children’s skits, the first, part of a series of jokes about Donald Trump, like when Genghis Khan charges onstage, followed by his warriors (the children) donned in burlap, and declares, “I have come to the Northeast Kingdom to make Mongolia great again!” Ferocious roars ensue from his pint-sized army wielding their weapons. My son picked out of the prop box the most impressive machete and shield he could find, the latter made from cardboard, and the former from the top of a tin bucket. Another great kids-only skit was “Oregon 21,” about the twenty-one children who have filed a landmark constitutional climate-change lawsuit against the federal government in Oregon. The costumes for this were superhero capes and eye masks, another ensemble which won points with my son and daughter.
As for the adult volunteers, we were told to jump into any scene that involved the chorus. Our first big skit was “Puerto Rico,” in which our Caribbean neighbor was personified as a strongman attempting to lift a giant barbell weighted down with “debt” on one end and “colonialism” on the other. Puerto Rico collapsed on the ground in defeat, unable to lift his burden, and we booed and hustled offstage.
The Donald Trump theme continued with a skit called “Pluto” that took place on top of the eleven-foot school bus. We practiced climbing the ladder, which had me shaking at the knees, and blocked the scene. For the performance there would be a total of fourteen of us on top of said bus, all swinging weapons and wearing blue tarps and masks. I considered unvolunteering myself. “When the alien leader says, ‘I’ve come to this puny planet to make Pluto great again!’ make some loud alien sounds and then get off the bus.” Joe made it sound easy enough and I felt some moral obligation to stick with the scene.
The kids kicked off the finale, mobbing the stage (as themselves and without weapons), vowing to “make humanity great again,” which tied up the Trump joke on an exalted note, in true Bread and Puppet fashion. After a quick run-through with a stint of 11-foot-high nausea, it all went over pretty smoothly. We were told to come back the next day at 10 o’clock, wearing all white.
After rehearsal, we headed back to our campsite for a quick swim and dinner. My daughter drew our portraits by the glow of the campfire and before too long, our tired bodies cozied up in the tent for a surprisingly sound sleep.
We made sure to arrive fifteen minutes early to dress rehearsal. The entire company and slew of interns were present. Faces mostly serious, a little sleepy. The majority of the troupe tends to be twenty to early thirtysomethings but there are also folks upwards of 50 and 60, some who have presumably been a part of the company since the early days. I wondered where they all stay — perhaps in the tents and campers that dot the 200 acres of the property.
They worked with purpose, setting props, making repairs, running transitions, stretching. The band blew their brass and snapped percussions, all warming up, energy simmering. Peter Schumann was also present and sitting just outside the circus ring in a chair, arms folded, front row center. When the time came, he signaled rehearsal to begin.
There were stops and starts, problems identified, solutions made on the fly. It was somewhat chaotic yet organized — always a sign of a good show-to-come. In one skit, which paid tribute to Michael Ratner, the fearless civil liberties lawyer who died this year, three puppeteers ran around the ring, manipulating a giant rod puppet of a white bird. Peter Schumann gestured a prominent thumbs-down, shaking his head. The band music fizzled out.
“There is no beauty in this. No beauty in this, whatsoever!” he called out in his thick German accent. He explained further, this bird was not meant for the small stage. It was meant to be on the big landscape and he redirected the puppeteers to run the bird out beyond and the audience. That is, up a steep incline and around the whole natural amphitheater. This was no small physical feat. And he wanted two more birds to follow, upping the flock to nine troupe members. They ran it once. The new direction elevated the moment to have real poetic impact. Peter seemed satisfied, and I was awestruck.
Once the puppeteers completed their run, winded and sweaty, senior company members gave them technical adjustments on how to tip the rods so the wings would sail on the air more gracefully. Rehearsal continued. My ascent for “Pluto” was tolerable and by the time dress rehearsal had wrapped up we were all in need of some water and lunch.
We found our needs being served in the outdoor kitchen of the farmhouse. On the menu was bean stew, brown rice, a pile of garden greens, chicken-liver pâté and Bread and Puppet’s signature bread with their ever-potent garlic aioli. We ate from our generous portions by the wooden swing, where all the children played. It was a hearty midday meal and afterwards we meandered to one of our favorite features of the property — the pine forest. And I would assert, THE pine forest. This place is epic. It is old. The pines tower and the undergrowth has been tended out leaving the forest floor open and padded only by a bed of dried needles. Farther back are the reliquaries: tiny wooden houses, each one a shrine of sorts for Bread and Puppet performers who have passed. It’s pure magic and fodder for a wild imagination. As the little ones played, I lay down under the giant pines for a rest.
The day became quite hot and along with it the preshow energy was brewing. The entire company, including the volunteers, were united in their whites as the show-goers trickled in and set down their blankets. The show began with the running of the flags, and the skits ticked off one by one with remarkable ease. I made it on and off the bus again relieved and without loosing my lunch. The kids came on for their final “We are the kids! And we are here in the Northeast Kingdom to make humanity great again!” and the whole cast ran out, looping the ring, flags flying, and made our collective bow.
After the circus, the volunteers joined the audience for the remaining part of the pageant. This is the more conceptual, ethereal portion of the show that takes place in the pines and the sweeping upper meadow. Standing on a sloped incline, watching the colossal puppets move across the landscape in their majestic dance, I was reminded of the first time I had seen this place when I was 17, how lucky I had been then and how lucky I was 21 years later, sharing this with my family. I was glad we did this. My kids were glad. And we will do it again next year.
At its core, Bread and Puppet is an inclusive experience. And anyone who has ever wanted to unapologetically run around barefoot and raise their voices in the name of political justice or for the sake of cheap art — you have a creative home. Show up on a Saturday with your kids if you so choose and join a community rehearsal. It doesn’t matter what you look like — beautiful or bedraggled, thin or fat, disabled or discontent. No auditions, no experience necessary. If you’re human and you’re willing, you’re in. Just wear white.