Issue 54, February 2006
By Janelle Jones
“Theatre is . . . like bread . . . like a necessity. Theatre is a form of religion. It is fun.” This is how Peter Schumann, the founder of Bread and Puppet Theatre, described theatre in its ideal form in 1968. Since that time, Schumann’s views and the company he formed to enact them have changed, but his essential motive remains: to provide a visually rich, street theatre brand of politics.
The puppetry of Bread and Puppet Theatre forces the audience to question social and political constructs. In its mission statement, the theatre group professes, “We believe in Puppet Theatre as a wholesome and powerful language that can touch men, women and children alike, and we hope that our plays are true and are saying what has to be said, and that they add to your enjoyment and enlightenment.”
With an apprenticeship program every month, the company not only provides audiences worldwide with a chance to experience its unique variety of theatre, but it also allows anyone to participate.
In November 2005, Bread and Puppet performed “The Passion of the Correct Moment” in Cambridge, MA. With caricatures of political figures and assistance from volunteers and the audience, the company played out the drama of the current international situation.
“I was torn between overwhelming depression and laughter at the absurdity of our current political situation,” said Alia Ghabra, 21, of Brighton, MA. “But seeing how many people attended the performance left me with some hope.”
The ironic mixture of tragedy and comic absurdity inspired Ghabra to help with The National Circus of the Correct Moment, a lighter version performed in the afternoon for children.
“The kids loved it because of all the exaggerated puppets,” said Ghabra after performing in the production. “Having a mask helped me with nerves, but I still ended up getting close to the group that I worked with.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Bread and Puppet Theatre is its ability to borrow from other disciplines. It embraces music from acts such as the Prisoner-of-War Orchestra and uses elaborate dance and human motions, papier-mache, and audience inclusion. According to Lisa Elbow, Bread and Puppet’s touring manager, the act “draws upon every art form not to show it off, but to show anyone can do it.”
Schumann describes the puppet forms as “socially embedded sculptures” which are most important and easy to understand in the context they are created. They represent concepts or ideas of simple common sense rather than complex art forms with limiting rules. As an extension of sculpture, the unique forms (such as a towering “Uncle Fatso” character who represents Western capitalism) do more than traditional sculpture by telling a story on the street. “We do street theatre wherever we go,” adds Elbow.
“Puppet Theatre is the theatre of all means,” Schumann states almost religiously. “Puppets and masks should be played in the street. They are louder than the traffic. They don’t teach problems, but they scream and dance and hit each other on the head and display life in its clearest terms.”
Schumann realizes the potential in puppetry by examining cultural boundaries. To do this, he has explored opportunities for expansion from Nicaragua to Russia. In the 1990s, Schumann wrote The Old Art of Puppetry in the New World Order that describes the state of puppet theatre by examining its possibilities for a Russian audience, emphasizing that ideas associated with puppetry as an art form are not bound by any culture.
As with any art form, to get a viewer to think critically about an issue, the artist must first attract the viewer in a way that lets her in. In this regard, puppetry has an advantage over many forms of politically charged art since the medium is silly, though the topics are serious.
Puppetry pokes fun at all targets and oversized caricatured faces with absurd hands add an element of humor that questions the social constructs of authority and responsibility. This lack of seriousness forces the viewer to rethink the topic at hand.
In the piece Brother Marx Nativity, Schumann, the director, interspersed events from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew with quotes from Karl Marx. Apart from Biblical and Marxist readings, the absence of other dialogue let the expressive papier-mache masks, marionettes, and intricate costume and lighting do the talking. Bread and Puppet performed this piece in New York City for the 2004 holiday season, and although it deals with controversial issues by pairing allusions of Christianity with communism, the message conveyed more than shock-value puppetry. With touching scenes, such as the birth and first steps of a calf, the show served as a powerful testimony to the resiliency of hope and the power of human nature.
A distinctive element in puppet theatre comes from the emphasis on action over dialogue, forcing the audience to see the implications of each movement that a puppet makes. While traditional theatre concentrates on acting, puppetry all but dismisses it. A naturalistic technique employed by theatre seeks to evoke a sympathetic human response. Yet puppetry makes this obsolete behind the elaborate masks of implied emotion. Nonetheless, these puppet “actors” become complex to some audiences in the wake of undefined actions that cannot be understood as easily as actions in conventional theater.
“Before, all arts wanted to be something real and needed, and have something to do in people’s lives—to be something that people need, in their personal lives and in their communal lives. They used to serve funerals, they used to serve weddings, they used to serve childbirths. Now all of these functions are taken care of by society in a very commercial and controllable way, so the arts have come to fulfill a sort of elitist function,” wrote Schumann in his book.
With his emphasis on performing in the street, Schumann uses his visually rich brand of political theatre to push the boundaries of art. The company achieves a creative and theatrical standard by dramatizing a political message in a humorous and accessible way, taking it to the streets so any spectator can enjoy the displays.
Other articles by Janelle Jones.