Radical Puppets! Bread and Puppet Performs "Fire" at Reed

In 1965, Bread and Puppet was two years old. It grew from founder Peter Schumann’s trailer-converted puppet-stage and street corner performances into an ensemble that was actively participating in protests of the Vietnam War, parading colossal ten to fifteen feet tall puppets through the streets of New York City. They also created a show intended for smaller spaces and more intimate performances entitled Fire, which is an hour long performance dedicated to several Americans who protested the Vietnam war by self-immolating, killing themselves by setting themselves on fire. The play, with the original masks from 1965, was performed at Reed from October 16–18.

The play portrays a week in a Vietnamese village during wartime. The actors and the puppet figures they hold have matching moonlike white papier-mâché masks with somber and soulful expressions that are stark contrast to their dark black robes and hoods, which obscure the bodies of the puppeteers and blur the line between actor and puppet making them into one continuous being. Their set embodies Bread and Puppet’s tradition of what they call “Cheap Art” —  simple scaffolding with exposed edges, pipes, and concrete blocks, holds a curtain that is pulled across to reveal the scenes. The sound of the performance was not produced by the Performing Arts Building’s state of the art sound system. Instead Bread and Puppet brought their own homemade instruments to play, create mood, and mark the passage of a day. Their decision to make sound on stage as opposed to playing a recording adds further to the intimacy of the performance.

They move painfully slowly and with a precise intention. The only words the audience heard throughout the play was an announcement at the beginning giving a few lines of necessary historical context, and the only text is the days of the week, scribbled on scraps of cardboard. Everything is sound without language. Each day in the week begins in tableau and then the small movements become visible as the audience watches the events unfold. The audience slows to the pace of the actors on the stage, examining every motion they make.

We see figures passing water and bread to one another, dancing, and then the war. We see the fire, a red cloth, that ravages the town and the new figures that enter, the Butchers. They are harsh and unforgiving representations of bureaucrats, styled with oversized chins and noses, white faces and gloved hands, top hats that cover their eyes, and impeccable business suits. We see them plot the destruction of this village and the horrible death of its inhabitants. Near the end the Butchers construct a cage built of logs and chicken wire around the lone figure of villager, who unfurls red tape around herself in silence, recreating self-immolation.

Historically, Fire ended with silent audiences in America and uproarious audiences in France. At Reed, Fire received a slow and momentum-gathering clap from a pensive audience, who were uncomfortable with the story ending. At the end of the show, Bread and Puppet does not offer a clean and happy ending, but they do offer bread. They make it themselves and give it to audiences for free as part of their manifesto as a theater project, “ART IS FOOD. . . Art has to be CHEAP & available to EVERYBODY. . . Art is like good bread! Art is like green trees! Art is like white clouds in blue sky! ART IS CHEAP!”

The politics of Bread and Puppet theater are evident in their creations. “They’re made from trash” one member of the ensemble says after the show in the talk-back session. The puppets are not capitalistic commodities. They are recycled from other Bread and Puppet shows. The Butchers reappear in many shows as a specter of greed, domination, and oppression. Yet, as valued as they are by their fans and audiences, the puppets are made on a shoestring budget — sometimes with real shoestrings — and with love for their imperfections. Along with the movement against the Vietnam War, Bread and Puppet has actively participated in demonstrations and movements against the war in Afghanistan, the Zapatista uprising, the Earth First! movement, and many more.

Radical Performativity

The presence of the members of Bread and Puppet in the PAB is startling. They’re easily mistaken for a group of rambunctious students. When asked how they were moving the puppets and set around on their tour, they answered, “We have a truck and a car — one for the puppets and one for us.” They asked me where they might be able to borrow some tents.

This ensemble of six came from Glover, Vermont, where Bread and Puppet made a theatre home base and farm in 1975. They are on a west coast tour while other members of the group hold down the farm. The farm has hosted chickens, a cow, a sheep, some pigs, some puppeteers, many puppet animals, and volunteer apprentices in the summer. They have a large natural amphitheater, a print shop where they print their own zines and stories with woodcut blocks, and a museum storing five decades of puppets, masks, drawings, sets, and all sorts of ‘cheap art.’ These works draw from their long and continued history as political theater makers.

Their politics have led them to international acclaim and police opposition. During the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, members of Bread and Puppet were among seventy-nine people to be arrested by a SWAT team in a warehouse where they were crafting and keeping their puppets. The event was covered by the Associated Press, which years later revealed that there "was tense talk of terrorist plots being hatched in the 'puppetista' headquarters, of bomb building and anarchist-fueled mayhem."  Linda Elbow, company manager for Bread & Puppet, is quoted saying, "the cops went into the studio. . . arrested people, and took the puppets. So, now, puppets are criminals."

They don’t wholly dispute the claims. In a self-published zine titled The Radicality of Puppet Theater, Peter Schumann writes that puppetry “is also, by definition of its most persuasive characteristics, an anarchic art, subversive and untamable by nature, an art which is easier researched in police records than in theater chronicles, an art which by fate and spirit does not aspire to represent governments or civilizations, but prefers its own secret and demeaning stature in society, representing, more or less, the demons of that society and definitely not its institutions.” The Bread and Puppet theatre is a non-profit that retains autonomy by receiving no government funding and no corporate sponsorship.

Bread Head

Some of the customs Bread and Puppet has picked up by performing in protests, parades, and prisons seem out of place in our still-new PAB. They greet the audience with the Bread and Puppet Brass Band and the entire ensemble plays instruments learned from their time as volunteer apprentices on the Vermont farm. They perform a small cantastoria (a short story that is told and sung while gesturing to images) while the audience waits in line to go into the theater, switching the usual dynamic of the audience waiting for the performers to be ready. Most notable is the bread that they’ve baked and distributed for fifty years, their signature gift and their way of creating community among themselves and their audiences.

After their first of three shows at Reed, when asked why these ensemble members wanted to be part of Bread and Puppet, one member said this:

“One doesn't know exactly what one accomplishes when doing this kind of art or engaging with any activist work that is artistic. . . but there is still a call to do it because it's what you can do and you don’t know what the world would be like if you didn’t. . . but I suspect it would be bleaker."