Bread and Puppet TheaterBread and Puppet Theater is one of the oldest nonprofit self- supporting theatrical companies in the United States. It was founded in 1963 by Peter Schumann on New York City's Lower East Side. Besides producing rod- and hand-puppet shows for children, the early concerns of the company were rents, rats, police, and other problems of that ilk. More complex theater pieces, in which sculpture, music, dance and language were equal partners, followed. The puppets grew bigger and bigger. Bread and Puppet Theater is one of the oldest nonprofit self- supporting theatrical companies in the United States. It was founded in 1963 by Peter Schumann on New York City's Lower East Side. Besides producing rod- and hand-puppet shows for children, the early concerns of the company were rents, rats, police, and other problems of that ilk. More complex theater pieces, in which sculpture, music, dance and language were equal partners, followed. The puppets grew bigger and bigger. Annual presentations for Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and Memorial Day often included children and adults from the community as participants. Many performances were done in the street.
During the Vietnam War, Bread and Puppet staged block-long processions and pageants involving hundreds of people. The theater was briefly located in Coney Island, in a building that formerly housed Boston's hotel and restaurant. The insider's history, Coney Island: Lost and Found by Charles Denson relates, "The theater became a hangout for curious young people who stopped in to see the avant-garde productions. A children's workshop on bread and puppet making was held on weekends... Before each weekend performance, the puppeteers used to 'bally' on the streets of Coney Island. Oddly dressed performers beating drums marched down Surf Avenue with giant dancing marionettes, attracting a crowd that followed them to the theater. Bally was a traditional Coney art form that hadn't been used since the days of the sideshows in the 1950's, and no one knew what to make of it."
In 1970, Bread & Puppet moved to Vermont as theater-in- residence at Goddard College, combining puppetry with gardening and bread baking in a serious way, learning to live in the countryside and letting itself be influenced by the experience. In 1974 the Theater moved to a farm in Glover in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The 140-year-old hay barn was transformed into a museum for veteran puppets. "Our Domestic Resurrection Circus," a two-day outdoor festival of puppetry shows, was presented annually through 1998.
Through invitations by Grace Paley, Bread and Puppet Theater became a frequent attraction at anti-Vietnam War events in the '60s and '70s. By the '80s, the puppets had become emblematic of activist pacifism and a sine qua non of American political theater, as exemplified by the massive, ascending figures that are burned into the memory of anyone who marched with or saw the haunting June 12, 1982 Disarmament Parade in New York City.
Since its move to Glover, VT, Theater for the New City has been the company's New York home. It has performed one or more productions at TNC each year since 1981. Peter Schumann writes, "Bread & Puppet gratefully acknowledges Crystal Field and Theater for the New City for presenting our often less than popular out-of-this-world puppetry since time immemorial. Our theater was born in New York City, was kicked out of New York City but has returned annually, thanks to the generous spirit of Theater for the New City."
The company makes its income from touring new and old productions throughout the United States and abroad, and from sales of Bread & Puppet Press's posters and publications. Internationally, Bread and Puppet Theater performs massive spectacles with hundreds of participants, sometimes devoted to social, political, and environmental issues, and sometimes simply to the trials of everyday life. The traveling puppet shows range from tightly composed theater pieces presented by members of the company, to extensive outdoor pageants which require the participation of many volunteers. At most performances, the company distributes bread and aioli (garlic sauce) to the audience.
Peter Schumann was born in 1934 in Silesia. He is married to Elka Leigh Scott and they live in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. They have five children and five grandchildren.