Flags soar high over the audience in the finale act of the Heart of the Matter Circus.
Phill Lehan/Courtesy photo
Flags soar high over the audience in the finale act of the Heart of the Matter Circus.

Sixty years of addressing ‘the urgency of the day’

Bread and Puppet Theater will perform ‘The Heart of the Matter Circus,’ an ‘outdoor spectacle of puppetry and performance’

PUTNEY — Bread and Puppet Theater Cofounder and Director Peter Schumann, 89, bakes bread for each performance ahead of time, using a sourdough starter that is 150 years old.

Think of all the loaves he's baked in the last 59 years as the company celebrates its 60th anniversary this summer, and how much history each loaf represents.

"It's a type of bread that you can't find in the grocery store; it uses an old way of baking. People are usually pleasantly surprised by its flavor, and it requires you to chew," says Ziggy Bird, 25, a resident company puppeteer who lives and works on the farm in Glover where Bread and Puppet has been in residence since 1974.

"The bread is related to much of the art which the theater produces," Bird says. "We want you to chew on and to think about it and consider it. The serving of bread after a performance says that art is just as important as food is in our lives," she notes.

Local performance

Bring a picnic blanket and folding chairs to see the show as the Next Stage Bandwagon Summer Series presents Bread and Puppet Theater's "The Heart of the Matter Circus" on Thursday, Aug. 24, at 6 p.m., at the Grammar School.

The Commons caught up with Bird, 25, who moved to the Bread & Puppet farm in Glover two years ago from Philadelphia, to discuss the art of baking sourdough, the company's 60th anniversary, and the lasting impact its artists have made right here in Vermont and all over the country.

"I moved here two years ago to work with Bread and Puppet. It's a fantastic place! I studied theater at Temple University in Pennsylvania, and with B&P I was drawn to a very transformative vision about how theater could be made," she says.

"Bread and Puppet exposed me to a different kind of art making. I became interested in the communal nature of the farm and how we make art out of reclaimed materials. How an old piece of cardboard and donated paint is really powerful," adds Bird.

'Nonsensical, somber, and joyful'

"The Heart of the Matter Circus" includes stilt dancers, puppetry, 15-foot-tall puppets, and papier-mâché beasts of all sizes accompanied by the riotous Bread and Puppet Circus Brass Band, which plays all of their music in what Bird describes as "a joyful expression of art making."

She explains that its collection of New Orleans–inspired music by various musicians has grown over a long span of time.

"Bread and Puppet tackles many different topics of the day. There is poetry, no words on some vignettes, and dance. It's nonsensical, somber, and joyful," Bird notes.

Each show is about one hour long and features 20 vignettes, each running from 2 to 5 minutes.

Glover Farm and a legacy

Bread and Puppet Theater was founded in 1963 by Peter and Elka Schumann - on the lower east side of Manhattan.

"They moved to Glover, Vermont in 1974 and have been located there ever since," says Bird.

On their campus in Glover, there is a museum, a press, a "cheap art emporium," and an enormous barn that houses all of the company's 15-foot-tall puppets and assorted gear from 60 years of continuous live shows and performances all over the United States. Hundreds of performers and puppeteers call themselves Bread and Puppet alumni.

The 30 members of the troupe, including puppeteers, musicians, and tech crew, pack onto "a very special old school bus" that has been "painted wildly" by Peter Schumann, Bird says.

"We take it all over the country," she continues, calling the bus "an outdoor spectacle of puppetry and performance where we set up a circus ring in each outdoor location and use the bus as a backdrop."

"Cofounder Elka Schumann passed away on Aug. 1, 2021 but we've continued performing and making many things in her honor and continue to think of her in our work," Bird adds.

She describes the Bread and Puppet museum as "Elka's vision and idea."

"She saw the need to create a space where all the things of the theater could be housed when not being performed," Bird says. "We took over an old dairy farm which her parents purchased and passed down to her. A large handmade barn constructed in 1863 is completely full to the brim with puppets."

At the Bread and Puppet press, they make all of the posters, books, postcards, pamphlets, and banners. Any Bread and Puppet image on a poster or banner was hand-carved in Masonite by cofounder Peter Schumann. "They are relief printed onto paper or fabric and painted by hand by many volunteers. We sell our press at all of our shows," Bird notes.

Bread and Puppet co-founder Peter Schumann no longer does interviews because of his advancing age, but his remarks on the occasion of the company's 50th anniversary in 2012 are captured on its website.

The puppet show, Schumann said, "is not only a puppet show, but an eating-bread-together event."

"We ask our hosts not only for performing space, but also for 400 bricks, firewood, and fire permits to build and use itinerant bread ovens as part of our productions," Schumann said.

"From the beginning of the Bread and Puppet enterprises, we decided to make two types of shows: inside shows meant for the viewer's inside, and outside shows for the unrelenting political street," she continued.

Both types of shows, he said, "address the urgencies of the day as they come upon us."

"During these five decades of puppetry, thousands of dancing and music-making puppet operators have assisted in the invasion of streets and plazas all over the globe, or they've come to Vermont to be part of Our Domestic Resurrection Circus and other summer shows," Schumann continued.

"By the grace of the Whatever {3/4} Almighty [sic], we have survived and even sometimes thrived, doing hundreds of sculpture happenings and esoteric musicals with activist ingredients, and we hope to continue for a few minutes longer."

'Over the moon with joy'

Bread and Puppet Theater's "The Heart of the Matter Circus" is on Thursday, August 24 at 6 p.m. at the Grammar School, 159 Grammar School Lane, in Putney.

Keith Marks, executive director of Next Stage Arts Project, says in an email to The Commons, hailed Bread and Puppet for exhibiting "decades worth of artistic integrity, sharing their messages through the use of large scale puppetry."

He said the nonprofit performing arts venue "is over the moon with joy" to present Heart of the Matter Circus as part of its Bandwagon Summer Series, "an opportunity to present cultural offerings from around the world, including highlighting the incredible talent existing right around the corner."

Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Kids 12 and under are free. Next Stage will provide a beer, wine, and cocktail cash bar, and food by Crossroads Tacos will be available for purchase. Bring lawn chairs or blankets for outdoor seating on the field.

As always, sourdough rye with aioli will be offered after the performance, and The Bread and Puppet Press and Cheap Art Emporium will be open.

For more information and advance tickets, visit nextstagearts.org or call 802-387-0102. For more information about Bread and Puppet, visit breadandpuppet.org.

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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