Pictured is Peter Schumann, with many other puppeteers, opening the Total This and That Circus in Glover on July 28. Photo by Natalie Hormilla
by Natalie Hormilla
GLOVER — “The assessment is more important for the participants than for me.”
This is what Peter Schumann answers when asked what he thinks of Bread and Puppet Theater turning half a century old this summer.
Mr. Schumann has been the artistic director, or whatever you want to call him, of the theater since he founded it in New York City in 1963.
Bread and Puppet is often referred to as political theater. The company, comprised of a small cast of core employees who are complemented by a large set of mostly seasonal volunteers, puts on shows with strong, political themes, usually in protest of capitalism, corporatism, and imperialism. These shows, which Bread and Puppet refers to as “the circus,” happen here in Glover every Sunday for a couple months in summer. After each performance, audience members are treated to homemade bread, baked by Mr. Schumann himself.
Bread and Puppet also hosts a variety of other events at the Bread and Puppet farm — sometimes talks, sometimes shape-note sings, sometimes art exhibits — but it’s the Sunday circuses for which they’re best known.
Pictured is a scene from a Bread and Puppet circus which ran in the Chronicle on September 1, 1982. The caption read, “Giant washerwoman and garbage man puppets performed a square dance just before the grand finale of this year’s Bread and Puppet circus in Glover on Saturday and Sunday.” Photo by Jim Doyle
Local people, even if they’ve never been to the circus, will recognize Bread and Puppet’s trademark larger-than-life, papier-mâché puppets, some worn by people on stilts, which appear regularly in community parades. The company also tours around the world, appearing at events like festivals and rock concerts.
The Bread and Puppet Museum, housed in an old barn on the company’s farm, has long been a site frequented by visitors and natives of the Northeast Kingdom. The museum displays many of the old puppets from shows past, and has a small area where Bread and Puppet’s trademark posters, prints, and calendars may be purchased.
Bread and Puppet has been based here in Glover for most of its existence, but an eye to the whole world has informed its performances since the very beginning.
Mr. Schumann said he chooses the Bread and Puppet show themes using “things we’re totally upset by. We don’t choose them, they choose us.”
He says he focuses on issues for which there are no other outlets.
“You meet people who are so frustrated with the state of the world,” he said. “But there’s no outlet for them.”
He says the circus themes are the “result of the stupid New York Times, or whatever, these miserable news organs. What they don’t print, or talk about, is what we do, or what they only mention — things that need more mentioning.”
For an example, Mr. Schumann points to an edition of the New York Times from this past April. He says that the front page read something like, “Boston bomb outrage,” and that a story about the destruction of an Afghan village by U.S. drones was buried on page 35. He said the village was seen as just “collateral damage.”
Bread and Puppet circuses often refer to many different world incidents — the performance on July 28 paid respect to Operation Enduring Freedom, including the number of people killed, and a solo dance for Trayvon Martin, involving a black flag. Those acts were part of the “Total This and That Circus, Part One: This, Part Two: That,” which is the theme for Bread and Puppet’s fiftieth year.
“People come for obscure reasons, not the normal theater reasons, getting your money’s worth of giggles and tears. We don’t provide that. We don’t feel obliged,” Mr. Schumann said.
“It’s bread and puppet, and we mean that. The puppetry is to create the situation to share the bread, because without that you couldn’t persuade them, in a capitalist country, to come and eat bread. They’d be too skeptical.
“What we’re trying to sell is zero value,” he said, in reference to the free bread. “And that’s hard to sell, so we must make puppetry. It’s a trick.”
A bit of history
“The bread came before the theater,” said Elka Schumann, in an interview on the Bread and Puppet farm.
Ms. Schumann has been married to Mr. Schumann a long time, and is deeply involved in Bread and Puppet, and particularly in its music.
“Peter is the founder, the artist, and the director,” she said. “I gave support and criticism, I’ve nagged, and done all those things wives are famous for.”
Ms. Schumann said the famous Bread and Puppet bread is a Schumann family recipe.
“Peter learned it from his mom, sourdough rye. She baked it for the family until her death at over 100.”
She said the original recipe is pure rye, sourdough, salt and water. The original, all-rye bread used to be served to members of the circus audience. “But Peter kept noticing bread in the garbage with one bite taken out.”
So he created a recipe that is half rye berries and half whole-wheat flour.
“It’s more generally liked,” she said.
She said the rye berries are still ground by hand on the farm, using a mill from England.
The bread is baked in ovens built in a Quebecois style, with clay splashed on bent branches. “Sort of like a loosely woven basket,” she said. “It’s just a really simple, great place to bake over 100 loaves at a time.”
She said that Mr. Schumann bakes bread about four times per week in the summer. The bread is served at the circuses, but it’s also sold at some locations, and it is devoured by the puppeteers at the farm.
The Bread and Puppet bread is always served with aioli, which they started doing after encountering it while on tour in southern France. Ms. Schumann said the aioli is just mashed garlic with oil dribbled in.
But long before aioli and hundreds of loaves of bread at a time, came the puppet shows in New York City.
Mr. and Ms. Schumann lived in the Lower East Side in the early 1960s. They had a loft on Delancey Street, within walking distance of their home, and it was there that Mr. Schumann began his puppet career.
Ms. Schumann said that Mr. Schumann had dreamed up a new sort of dance as a high school student in his native Germany. The dance would include ordinary gestures, like walking and then stopping, done by a group of people all very focused on what they were doing.
“There was no interest in this in Germany, in the ’50s, in something so strange,” she said.
But then they came to New York.
“In New York City he met this whole world of avant-garde artists,” Ms. Schumann said. “Then he went to a puppet festival of the Puppeteers of America, who had a very orthodox style. But there was a group there from Sicily with marionettes with simple technology, which Peter liked. Their plays were retellings of the Crusades. It put puppetry in a totally different light.”
That was 1961.
Mr. Schumann would put on puppet shows for kids in his Delancey Street loft. Before long, he moved on to bigger puppets.
This photo ran in the September 1, 1982, edition of the Chronicle. The caption read, “The giant apes — operated by puppeteers on four stilts — are among the more imposing features of the afternoon Bread and Puppet circus.” Photo by Jim Doyle
“And then right away he made huge masks, and had the puppeteers inside the whole figures, and then later they got so big they needed two people — one person manipulating and one inside,” Ms. Schumann said.
“In the U.S., in the early ’60s, there was a real openness in the air to strange kinds of theater,” Ms. Schumann said. “There was an audience for those things.”
“There were immediately volunteers who wanted to express political feelings, who wanted to do more than attend meetings and hold a sign.”
Bread and Puppet became known for protest against the Vietnam War. Their first tour abroad was for the piece, “Fire,” which was about three Americans who set themselves on fire in protest to the war. Bread and Puppet performed the piece in their loft and in a New York City church.
“A French talent scout saw it and invited Bread and Puppet to Nancy, France, in 1968, for a big festival,” Ms. Schumann said.
“We were somehow riding this wave of protest, anti-war feelings, general turmoil of society. Things were moving away from talking head monologue in theater, to spectacle and audience participation.”
Bread and Puppet’s big puppets were a hit, and the company was invited to many big festivals from there. Ms. Schumann said that they traveled to Europe several times per year over the next decade to perform.
In the early ’70s, Goddard College in Plainfield invited Bread and Puppet to be the school’s theater in residence. The Schumanns stayed at a nearby farm, the Cate Farm, during the four-year appointment.
The invitation was a welcome one. The Schumanns had been living in New York City with their five children, and had been longing for the countryside.
“It felt so good to have a home in the country, and to have gardens,” Ms. Schumann said.
Bread and Puppet’s stop at Goddard was an important one. It was there, in 1974, that they performed the first of their annual “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus.”
“That was the prototype,” Ms. Schumann said.
Different versions of that circus would be performed from then on, every summer, until 1998.
But the circus would not live on in Plainfield. “We were there until the college politely implied that this was temporary faculty housing,” Ms. Schumann said. They paid no rent and made no salary, “but had a beautiful facility,” she said.
As luck would have it, Ms. Schumann’s parents had recently bought the old Dopp farm in Glover. Restoration of old buildings turned out to be more than they bargained for, so they let their daughter and son-in-law move onto the farm with their family. It was there that the circus, which became a major two-day event, would continue.
The Domestic Resurrection circus was the result of two to four months of work each summer, Ms. Schumann said. The circuses were performed by the core company and many volunteers, sometimes off the street.
The Glover farm had a ready-made amphitheater in which the circuses were, and still are, performed. The space was originally a gravel pit.
This is a shot of the circus and the crowd at Bread and Puppet from the August 17, 1983, edition of the Chronicle. The photo accompanied an article that wrote about the fact that show goers left almost no litter behind after the circus weekend, despite a crowd estimated at 15,000 on each day. File photo
“Scores of trucks would take gravel away, and it went to I-91,” Ms. Schumann said. “It was supposed to be filled back in, but Peter said, ‘don’t touch a thing!’ It was perfect for the circuses.”
The first circus in Glover was in 1975, the same year the Bread and Puppet Museum opened.
Over the years, the Bread and Puppet circus, held in late August, would become a major attraction for people from all over the world.
The annual Our Domestic Resurrection Circus was something like an allegorical play dealing with good versus evil, involving giant papier-mâché puppets, stilts, and a big brass band.
It was a show where you would see Governor Madeline Kunin in the crowd, or Congressman Bernie Sanders in the performance itself, on election years.
The circus was a weekend event which drew crowds of tens of thousands to a town in which fewer than one thousand people resided.
This meant many cars, and many tents, stationed near the Bread and Puppet farm, located off Route 122.
A Chronicle article from August 17, 1983, reads that the circus “left a line of parked cars that stretched 11 miles along routes 122 and 16 in Glover, and filled several hayfields and gravel pits that were pressed into weekend service as parking lots. Because the circus is free, nobody knows how many people came. But Deputy Sheriff Ray Young of Glover measured the miles of cars, made some calculations, and estimated crowds of 15,000 on both Saturday and Sunday.”
This is a shot of the crowd at the 1997 Bread and Puppet circus. This photo has not run in the Chronicle previously. Photo by Cécile Daurat
By 1998, the crowd estimate reached 30,000.
The people brought with them traffic, but they also brought business.
“Oh mister, talk about busy,” said Jimmy Currier, who owns Currier’s Quality Market on Route 16 in Glover, a short distance down the road from Bread and Puppet.
“That was the busiest day of the year, when the old circuses were on for a weekend, years ago. It was unreal.
“If a show was out, and you came into Currier’s, all you could see was heads,” he said. “And on the street there were so many people.”
He said that Currier’s would get a tractor-trailer of just ice for the show goers, along with plenty of beer, wine, fruit, and produce for salads.
“They weren’t the bologna type.”
“If I remember, the juice section would get wiped out, tons of water, cases of water. Sold it all. We would have somebody pumping gas,” he said.
“The Busy Bee, the little diner across the street, Edna Chamberlain ran it, and she was right out straight,” he said. “Course you got to remember there were a lot of food booths, but Edna was very busy.”
Mr. Currier said that he liked the excitement the circus brought. Not everyone in town shared this sentiment.
“I do know there were some people in town that did not like it. I could hear grumbling,” he said. “I never discussed it with anybody, but I could hear grumbling. Some did not like it. Flat out right.”
Mr. Currier said he never had any issues in the store, even with so many strangers around.
“The Bread and Puppet people were really docile,” he said. “Always courteous, never wise.”
“I don’t really think there was ever any trouble, ever, until the wrong people started coming,” he said.
“It was always a very family-oriented environment, and even to the end, the environment on the farm itself was very family friendly,” said Randy Williams, an EMT who was captain of the Glover Ambulance Squad when the big circuses were still around. “But the campgrounds did take on a life of their own.”
“All the fields surrounding Bread and Puppet were camping areas,” Mr. Williams said. “Even the gravel pit, Thompson’s gravel pit, back behind Bread and Puppet, that was a big parking area.”
Mr. Williams helped treat many people for a variety of issues during the circus weekends.
“We were getting like ten ambulance calls a day, which for us was overwhelming, and in fact we’d have to call in Barton ambulance to take some of the calls,” he said. “We only had one ambulance, and we were being run ragged, because it was 24/7 with all the campers.”
Eventually, the Glover Ambulance Squad set up a tent right in the Bread and Puppet field.
“Over a period of several years, this tent escalated in size, and we eventually put up an old army tent that was, I believe, 30 by 50 or something like that,” he said. “It really for all intents and purposes was a MASH unit tent.”
“And we got a lot of visits. Over the weekend, we would treat over 100 people,” he said. “I mean most of it was just real benign stuff, like heat problems.”
Mr. Williams even went around to all the campground areas and lined up landing zones for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock helicopter, in the event of a major emergency, like a big fire.
“We never had to use that service, but it just illustrates how elaborate our setup was.”
Over the years, the number of people who showed up just to party grew. Some people would need to be treated for drinking too much, or overdosing on drugs.
“We had people that had never done LSD before, and somebody gave them some down at the campground and they came wandering up to the field and had no earthly idea where they were, and they got freaked out because they didn’t understand what was happening to their body and their mind,” he said. “We’d take them to the tent, let them lay down for a couple hours, and generally they’d be fine.”
“Part of the reason that that evolved, we understand from talking to people that were doing this, was they saw Bread and Puppet as a fun thing to do between say a Phish concert in Boston and a Grateful Dead concert in Montreal. They would stop over for the weekend and party at Bread and Puppet, and many of them never even went up to see what Bread and Puppet was. They just paid their money and camped and partied, and they ended up dancing in the fires, and eating the local mushrooms which caused some major health issues, so it was a whole other scene when all that started to happen.”
Mr. Williams said he had several patients who gave that explanation when asked why they were at Bread and Puppet.
“Peter had been concerned about it for years, that the traffic was bad, dogs were an issue, there were all kinds of things that started to progress,” said Betsy Day, who is also an EMT who worked at the Bread and Puppet circuses. “And every year they tried to solve it in a different way, and every year the crowd got bigger.”
The final weekend-long Our Domestic Resurrection Circus was held in 1998. That year, a man named Michael Sarazin died after having been punched in the head at one of the nearby campgrounds.
Some people blamed alcohol and drugs, some people blamed Phish, some people blamed bad luck, but one thing was for sure — it spelled the end of the major circus.
This photo ran in the August 13, 1997, edition of the Chronicle. The caption read, “A dance of freedom by giant white birds happens at the end of the pageant. A gigantic puppet holds the people in its arms and sets fire to a machine of oppression.” Photo by Cécile Daurat
In an announcement in the Chronicle on August 19, 1998, Mr. Schumann said that Mr. Sarazin’s death “makes the continuation of the event impossible.”
Bread and Puppet would continue to give smaller shows throughout the ensuing summers.
“I’ve always thought very highly of Peter for calling it, because of that,” said Mr. Williams. “Because you had to remember that the one weekend circus pageant was their major fund-raiser for the year. But it was obviously, philosophically, the right thing to do.”
Mr. Williams also pointed out that many other people benefited financially from the circuses.