by Rebecca M. Alvin
To see Bread and Puppet perform is the only way to truly understand what separates it from other performances. Intrinsically tied to politics, yet never didactic, dogmatic, or dull; extraordinary puppets made from ordinary objects and papier-mâché; depth and complexity married to the primitive, visceral response that makes these shows truly appropriate for any age—Bread and Puppet is art for the people without sacrificing an inch of complexity or meaning.
Outer Cape audiences will get to see Bread and Puppet again this weekend at two events for Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill, both the culmination of a weeklong puppetry workshop the group offered at Castle Hill this past week. Musician, poet, and puppeteer Joshua Krugman, who has been with Bread and Puppet for three years now, explains Friday night’s event, the Whatforward Circus as follows: “It’s a giant puppet show that is powered by a Dixieland brass band and that addresses many current, pertinent social and political issues, often using traditional circus tropes. So for example, there is a strongman act in the traditional circus act. And instead of a real weighted barbell, we have a cardboard barbell and in our case, one of the bells [of the barbell] says ‘Debt’ and the other one says ‘Colonization.’ And it’s an act about the Puerto Rican debt crisis and the U.S.’s fiscal control board…these corporate administrators who have been set up to impose their austerity measures on Puerto Rico.” He adds there will also be two two-person puppet tigers and dancing horses and other such attractions.
It’s not uncommon to see larger than life puppets in parades and political protests, but many of these instances of public puppetry are born out of the work of this legendary puppetry troupe. The performance art group, which began on the Lower East Side in New York City in the 1960s and then moved up to Vermont in 1970, where it has been ever since, was the brainchild of German émigré Peter Schumann, a sculptor, dancer, and baker.
Although the organization began with regular street protests of the Vietnam War, the range of issues Bread and Puppet has taken on over the years is quite wide. In fact, it extends to the world of art itself, which can often be exclusive and just as driven by money as corporations, politics, and the entertainment industry. To that end, the troupe operates in a communal living situation in Glover, Vermont. The puppeteers work and live together, put on community shows, often for free or on a sliding scale, and work with people interested in learning the art and craft of puppetry through their fellowship program, as well as touring worldwide.
Schumann has been a critic of the elitism of the “high art” world, proudly engaging in work as an artisan in the “low art” tradition. Just as his political philosophy was shaped by growing up in Germany during World War II, his creative philosophy rejects the naturalism of method acting and other ways of allowing audiences to escape into the lives of fictional characters. The work doesn’t try to replicate reality. It tries to explore truth through methods that don’t allow us to fully identify with characters, but rather keep us at a necessary critical distance through puppets and masks.
Bread and Puppet takes on contemporary issues with the kind of old-world feel that comes from puppet storytelling. At the gala on Saturday, they will perform cantastorias tthey have created, combining the rich heritage of that form with the particular concerns of today.
“Cantastorias are an ancient form of public performance that uses pictures to help tell a story, and they often employ song and dance and puppetry to aid in the compelling presentation of a narrative that’s based on the pictures,” explains Krugman. The form was used to tell the news in Europe prior to the advent of widely distributed newspapers. “People would make cantastorias very quickly and head out into the countryside and deliver the news in that way and get paid by people in the streets to do that.” In other cultures, such as in India, the form was used to tell religious epics and family genealogies.
Krugman says, “Bread and Puppet uses it for street theater purposes in a protest context, to get a point across quickly, to explain why people are protesting or to sort of gather the energy of people who are protesting something.”
Krugman came to Bread and Puppet as an adult, but like many, he first saw them as a child. He recalls, “I found it really impressive how they could use relatively simple materials—cardboard and paper and twigs and sticks—and make really aesthetically powerful objects and also human bodies…[It showed] that art can have a unique role in creating consciousness about political action, which is based in movement, and art can move people, you know, and can set their hearts and bodies in motion to do what needs to be done. This is art that manages to gain aesthetic force from its political subject matter and also gain force for its political message through its aesthetic power; neither one diminishes the other. I don’t know how it works, but it does.”
Sculptures in motion telling stories that need to be told and eliciting emotion not through making us forget we are watching a show but through inviting us to participate in a story, even as we remain in the audience: this is how Bread and Puppet has worked for over 50 years.
What can you expect at the circus? Krugman says, “Expect a colorful, fast paced, fun, funny, beautiful puppet spectacle… There’s nothing really like it. It’s hard to explain, but there will be big puppets, there will be a large painted backdrop mounted on our daffodil school bus, and it should be very fun for all.”
Bread and Puppet Theater will perform WhatForward Circus at Edgewood Farms, 3 Edgewood Way, Truro, Friday, August 26 at 6 p.m. Tickets for the event are $30. In addition, they will perform as honorees along with State Sen. Dan Wolf at the annual Castle Hill Gala, also at Edgewood Farms, Saturday, August 27, 6 – 10 p.m. Tickets ($350/$300 members) for this event must be purchased in advance and include a raw bar and cocktails, a delicious Farm to Table Dinner will be served, under the tent, by Cosmos Catering followed by dancing to the inspired music of Boston-based group The Allnighters. 508.349.7511. castlehill.org.