Puppets and circuses aren’t just for kids.
Just ask Linda Elbow, business and tour manager of the Bread and Puppet Theater: “They can be funny, or they can be dead serious,” she said.
The Bread and Puppet Theater is one of the oldest nonprofit theater companies in the country. Growing from founder Peter Schumann’s life-long love of puppetry, the theater began putting on children’s shows on New York’s Lower East Side in 1963. And with issues like rent, city life and politics becoming increasingly visible, the group’s just-for-kids theme didn’t last long.
There is a rich philosophy behind the Bread and Puppet name. Theater and art are not frivolities – they’re as essential as food and water. “Theater is different. It is more like bread, more like a necessity” than a luxury, Schumann said.
Schumann also has another philosophy: cheap art is key. Elbow agrees that keeping the cost of artistic endeavors low “makes them accessible.” Of the high cost of gallery rentals, art sales and exorbitant ticket prices, Elbow wondered, “Who are the people who can afford to buy this stuff? We feel the same way about theater. We do street theater. We’re in parades in the summertime. We perform in gymnasiums, parking lots and playgrounds to make stuff accessible.”
Indeed, outdoor performances have been important for Bread and Puppet since the beginning. Schumann once wrote that “puppets and masks should be played in the street. They are louder than the traffic,” and he still believes wholly in the puppet form. “Puppet theater is the theater of all means.”
At the time of its inception, Bread and Puppet was also able to draw some of its most potent material from the era’s climate of agitation. “It was the time of the Vietnam War,” Elbow said. Considering the stormy atmosphere of today’s political sphere, it seems the theater still has plenty of material to incorporate into its shows.
Bread and Puppet’s eight-foot-tall puppets, block-long demonstrations and abundance of beautiful choreography comprise their shows and captivates audiences with a mix of art and politics. Much has remained the same. “Most of (the shows) are on political and social themes,” Elbow said.
The main difference between the Bread and Puppet Theater at its beginning and the group’s current incarnation is its location. “It got started in New York City . but we’re located in Vermont, half an hour south of the Canadian border,” Elbow said of the group’s move north in 1970. The new location allowed Bread and Puppet to spread out, make their own bread and house their gigantic puppets in a renovated barn.
The title of this Sunday’s performance, the “Everything is Fine Circus,” is particularly evocative. “Sometimes we just give it a title that’s politically or socially suggestive,” Elbow said of the name, and this case could point to both the troupe’s restlessness that everything is indeed not fine with the world – as well as their entertainment mindset to emphasize the celebratory aspect of diversion.
If you’re brave enough to mix your edible, artistic and political sensibilities, expect to see a circus that can put Barnum and Bailey to shame.
“We’ve got blue horses and stilted puppets,” Elbow said. “We’ve got a brass band, too, so it’s just like any other circus,” Elbow said, “only the animals aren’t alive.” Just the spirit.
Bread and Puppet Theater
Sunday at 8 p.m.
At East Quad