Bread and Puppet Looks to Its Legacy


 | June 18, 2014

Peter Schumann has a hole in his sweater. On a Sunday morning in May, the founder and artistic director of Bread and Puppet Theater ushers a visitor into a house on the Glover farm where his family and the theater have resided since 1974. Schumann's face is bright and animated, framed by a mane of white hair; when he walks, his weight tilts forward, like he's peering down from the 10-foot stilts he routinely donned well into his seventies.

He lights up and laughs when his wife, Elka, suggests that he change his clothes. "But I want to make a puppet show!" Schumann declares. He tucks his hands through the wide tear in the belly of his wooly sweater, making his fingers dance to a lively tune that he hums.

Schumann, who turned 80 on June 11, has spent a lifetime staging shows and creating puppets from clothing scraps, cardboard and other found materials. In the 51 years since he founded Bread and Puppet on New York's Lower East Side, the company has gained international recognition for its distinctive papier-mâché puppets, massive outdoor performances and unabashedly political content — not to mention Schumann's practice of doling out homemade bread at every performance. B&P established itself as a fixture at antiwar protests during the Vietnam War era and is widely considered a pioneer of American avant-garde theater.

Not that the founder puts much stock in that. "Importance is politics; importance is money; importance is the various forms of war that are being waged," Schumann says. "Puppetry distinguishes itself from importance by being unimportant. And it doesn't have the ambition to be important."

Nonetheless, B&P has reach, not least owing to the droves of puppeteers and volunteers who have cycled through it over the years. Many have gone on to create puppet or radical theater companies, events and festivals of their own.

One such alumna is Trudi Cohen, a current board member and past puppeteer. Along with husband and fellow alum John Bell, she later helped found the Great Small Works collective in New York City and the HONK! Festival of activist street bands in Boston.

"I see Bread and Puppet everywhere, and people don't realize it," Cohen says. "The fact that puppets are not kids' things anymore, and protesting and parading and street theater in our country can be traced back to it ... I think the vast majority of people who love HONK! don't know it comes from Bread and Puppet. But for me, who dreamed it up, I know it's part of Bread and Puppet's legacy."

As B&P enters its sixth decade, and Schumann, the theater's undisputed creative force, enters his ninth, the Schumann family and the board are faced with the weight of that legacy. It raises an uncomfortable question, and a discussion that, in the words of one board member, "Peter's not into."

What, if anything, will become of Bread and Puppet Theater when Peter Schumann is no longer able to lead it, or is gone?

Entering B&P's grounds can feel rather like moving backward in time: down unpaved roads, out of cellphone range, back to the communes of the 1960s or the Eastern European vaudeville shows of the 19th century. For the hundreds who flock to Glover each summer — B&P's season kicked off last weekend, on June 15 — the farm itself has become a cultural institution.

Last year, B&P launched a 50th anniversary tour, which included revivals of historically noteworthy shows with original cast members. And Schumann, whose painting and sculpture oeuvre extends beyond the props and backdrops he makes for the theater, had a successful first solo museum show at the Queens Museum in New York City. "His work is both profound and playful in a way that grabs people at a basic human level," says curator Larissa Harris. "The work connects Europe with America, words with images, humor with pathos.

"I have never, ever seen an exhibition work like this," she adds. "I still don't have the words, exactly. I don't know the law that governs how it works."

The anniversary itself netted a fair amount of attention: B&P is among the longest-running nonprofit theater companies in the U.S., despite having rarely fundraised.

"It's really existed and survived using a totally different model than what anyone else does in this country," notes Clare Dolan, a board member and former puppeteer. "It keeps growing and existing not by having a development office and grant writing and all those things that most normal nonprofit companies do, but just by nature of thrift and intelligent use of resources."

B&P's ethos of self-sufficiency may be both a cornerstone of its group identity and one of the secrets of its longevity. "The company has always operated on a shoestring budget," notes Max Schumann, one of Peter and Elka's five children and a B&P board member. Food is grown in a large garden on the Glover farm; the shows are created using cheap, recycled or found materials. Revenue comes from ticket sales and the gift shop; B&P's print shop churns out banners, prints, posters and books.

The theater's most valuable resource, though, is the people who show up to lend a hand. "A huge part of how the theater sustains itself is volunteers," Max Schumann says, leading a visitor on a tour of buildings with puppets and masks stacked to the ceilings. "The scale and production of Bread and Puppet relies on them. Peter is manically prolific, but he needs all of them."

For volunteers, and especially for the core group of resident puppeteers, life at B&P has always been far more than a performing gig. Puppeteers make masks, pitch in with gardening, cook meals, set up accommodation for visiting groups and generally work to make the collective living and creative environment function. That, for many, is a big part of the attraction.

"It's truly a community and, for the most part, practices what it preaches," says puppeteer Katherine Nook, 26. A member of the resident company for the past three years, she previously worked with the Living Theatre in New York City. "It's so rare to find a group that doesn't just make political theater, it lives it," she says.

That's been the goal over the decades.

"[Bread and Puppet] was also a lifestyle," adds Cohen. Along with Bell, she was part of a six-person group that, from the early '70s to the mid-'80s, was B&P's longest-lasting resident company. "It was the intense work ethic. The pleasure of running around with puppets. Sharing food and home and the outdoors," Cohen continues. "We share that. We have that."

Aside from the Schumann family, a resident company with up to six members has traditionally lived on the grounds of the "Dopp Farm," as the property was known before it became home to B&P in 1974. (At the time, the farm belonged to Elka's father, John Nearing; her grandfather is Scott Nearing, who with his wife, Helen, penned the back-to-the-land classic Living the Good Life and other books.)

In the summer, dozens more members of B&P's extended community arrive to help with the shows. Hundreds stream in on Sundays to watch the performances. That informal structure, with an ebb and flow of people coming to and leaving Glover depending on the theater's needs and the season, has sustained B&P's activities for years.

But some changes are looming. "We're currently looking at changing how the internal structure of the theater operates," says Nook, who assists with administrative responsibilities in addition to performing. "Before, a resident company lived here year-round and went on tour. But now, we're changing to having a company on a tour-by-tour basis."

Hence, after this summer season, the theater will dissolve its resident company. Nook characterizes the shift as a natural consequence of Schumann's aging and his recent burst of creative activity. The hope, it seems, is that the change will give staff more time to book and advertise shows in larger venues to accommodate Schumann's new work, and give him the freedom to create at his own pace without a set group of performers in mind.

"I feel so blessed and lucky to have worked with Peter," Nook says. "He's given such a gift to the world, and now ... it's this community's duty to make his desires possible."

Peter Schumann doesn't remember the first time he made a puppet come to life. When he was growing up in the 1930s in the German town of Silesia (now part of Poland), his family was friendly with a group of traditional, street-performing puppeteers; the kids had a collection of puppets. "Whenever we had a birthday or an occasion for a celebration, we would put a bed sheet between two chairs and do puppet shows for each other," says Schumann. "To make fun of things."

For him, humor would become a powerful antidote to challenging times. Before he turned 10, World War II had displaced Schumann's family to a refugee camp. There, he recalls, conflicts routinely erupted among townspeople, refugees and soldiers stationed there.

On a whim one day, as he recalls, Schumann and his brother invited the refugees, the villagers and the army together under one roof for a puppet show. "I have no recollection what that was about, but it was good," he says. "Total foolishness. So, total puppet show. Total nonsense."

After the war, Schumann turned to painting and dancing. He met Elka, an American on a Fulbright Scholarship in West Germany, in 1955. They moved together to New York in 1961, when Schumann was 27. He quickly fell in with Lower Manhattan's experimental performing-arts groups, such as the Living Theatre and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Schumann's early works in New York fused dance, puppetry, music and text, using traditional European vaudeville tactics to stage public political performances. In those days, his works had "modest titles," as he now jokes, such as "Dance of Death" and "Story of the World."

"I was a real war child," Schumann says. "And everything was about the aftermath of war, for me."

On his property in Glover, Schumann has placed a couple of chairs just outside the newest building: a painting studio that friends recently built in celebration of his 80th birthday. For the first time, he has a heated space to paint in during the winter.

The future, from a conceptual as well as a practical standpoint, is not a topic on which Schumann likes to dwell. "I don't want to be depressing," he tells his visitor. "You are young ... there needs to be nothing depressing about that. Even if the calculations point toward the unlikelihood of any of us surviving these times." Making plans for the years to come seems, he says, "a slightly ridiculous business."

Nevertheless, squinting into the early summer sun and taking occasional puffs from a cigar, Schumann gestures to the vast expanse of B&P's property and allows, "It would be nice if some things remained."

From an artistic standpoint, it's nearly impossible to separate B&P from its founder. But the theater also exists as a nonprofit organization with a 25-person board, several rotating seats and 12 voting members at any given time, according to Dolan. Peter and Elka Schumann are two of those board members; there are two seats for their five children. The siblings take turns serving on the board.

The discussion of how to further B&P's legacy, according to everyone interviewed for this article, began several years ago. Initially, Cohen recalls, Schumann himself approached the board. "He wanted to preserve his work in some way," she says. "The legacy, the scripts, the materials, whatever it was that he invented — where was that going to go? His ideas and paintings and pieces of art. And I think we still don't know."

Delving into the nuts and bolts of that transition proved difficult. The board established a sustainability fund to preserve yet-to-be-determined aspects of B&P, which could include the theater company, countless puppets and costumes, the printing press, the museum, and various structures on the property, which is owned by the Schumann family.

Complicating matters is the fact that many of the company's artifacts are made of organic material that disintegrates over time.

"We're grappling with that now," says Cohen. "We're establishing the fund to preserve these things, but what's preservable, even with the fund? And who owns it? That's the other question."

A third question: What is there? Over the years, countless banners, masks and props have been created and picked up and used and recycled; nobody is entirely sure what is stored in the various buildings on the property, or in what condition those items might be — or what they're worth in monetary terms.

That question, at least, will soon be answered. This summer, a $7,020 conservation assessment grant from the national Heritage Preservation foundation will bring a pair of museum assessors to catalog and appraise B&P's collection. Dolan, who wrote the grant, comments that it was controversial on the board, given that B&P has generally avoided outside funding. Its anti- materialist philosophy, too, complicates the idea of preserving the art; the first whiff of commodity fetishism seems to set off alarms.

"Peter is a big advocate for the impermanence of objects and letting things crumble," Dolan says. "He jokes a lot about how everything should be recycled in a large sense, just rot and fall into the ground, and I think that, yes, that's true, and we all believe that, but there's a bit of a middle ground."

At the moment, it seems, all have concurred that the museum should be catalogued as a first step and preserved for the public. The rest, though, is still up in the air. When it comes to the theater, B&P has never performed a show that Schumann himself did not conceive and direct.

"Even with a script and a manual in hand, it would be very hard to reproduce," Cohen says. "So, is there a future? Maybe not. Maybe Bread and Puppet is the thing that happens when Peter Schumann is in the room. It's quite possible we'll come to that conclusion."

Schumann himself is unsure what purpose the continued existence of the theater serves. "The shows, the way we do them, I don't know if they are transportable to other generations or meaningful or anything," he says, adding that the point of the performance — and protest — has always been "in itself." He harbors no illusions that his puppets changed the course of wars.

"No, the value is in itself," Schumann says. "The value is for yourself."

For his part, the master puppeteer prefers to create anew in the present rather than look toward the unknowable future. "Luther said something smart," Schumann offers, referring to the 16th-century German religious leader Martin Luther. "He said, 'And if I knew that the world ends tomorrow, I would still plant my little apple tree today.' It's good, huh? Naturally! What else should we do?"

Bread and Puppet Theater performs in Glover on Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m. through June 29 and from July 13 to August 24. Donations. For other shows and museum tours,   From