This year, Bread & Puppet Theater turns 50 years old. There are a bunch of tributes and reflections happening in local media, like this from VPR, but I wanted to add in my fond memories of this radical Vermont puppet crew.
As a life long Vermonter, growing up with “yippee” parents in Central Vermont, Bread & Puppet was the crowning event of every one of my childhood & teen summers – literally we went every year for 18 years, until 1998 when Peter stopped the summer circuses. As you can imagine, as a small child and even as a teenager, I rarely ever really understood all the political messages happening during the Resurrection Circus, the side shows, or the Pageant – but I would dare say more than half the adults in the massive audiences were at a loss too. That was the great thing though – the theater, puppets, and music were accessible to all ages on many levels. B&P made you feel like you were part of the family.
The colors, sights, sounds, and smells of Bread & Puppet are forever etched into my memory as some of what makes Vermont, Vermont. My parents had a reverent respect for B&P and that meant not just going to the summer shows, but also to their many other events, parades, and even joining B&P at demonstrations in Vermont and beyond when they needed extra volunteers to carry banners or be puppets.
A few of my favorite antidotal stories of B&P include:
Saving the pine forest:
One summer, I was maybe ten or eleven years old, and I was sitting in their massive pine forest. It was during the side shows – the few hours before the afternoon circus – and there were some strung out Phish heads sitting in a circle off to my right. Even at that age, I knew they were not in their right minds. I watched in horror as they all lit up a cigarette or joint (who knows which it was) and started passing it around the circle. You see, it was forbidden to smoke in the pine forest due to the high risk of fire. There were signs everywhere. I looked around for an adult to interfere, but no one seemed to be noticing. I immediately felt panicked that something bad would happen to Bread & Puppet and so I lept into action, running toward the circle and in my most authoritative voice scolded them and said, “there is no smoking in the Pine Forest, you have to leave.” The circle looked up at me perplexed, but I held my ground and stared at them. To my shock, they all immediately got up and left. I felt such relief – not for myself, but for “saving” the pine forest from what I was sure would be its demise.
My only time on stilts.
While I was in middle school, my sister & I joined a traveling summer “camp” called Village Harmony. It was a three-week experience that involved one week of rehearsal in the north east kingdom and then two weeks of a tour around Vermont, singing & playing shape note music. We were both just 13 at the time, so the whole experience was the definition of “epic.” We were pretty homesick by the time we were on tour, but were both eager for our three-day stay at Bread & Puppet, where we were to perform with one of their mid summer pine forest pieces. I remember that it was a surreal experience to be on the farm without the larger circus hoopla. We were just hanging out at the Mora/Schumann’s house – literally in their back yard, in their kitchen, and just wandering around.
Despite that, we never say Peter. He was kind of like the Wizard of Oz – you knew he was there, but you just never saw him in person. That was until one afternoon, where I found myself alone in the back yard reading a book. I looked up and there he was. Just standing there, all in white (a standard B&P outfit), with two pairs of stilts. When he saw me look up he said in a thick German accent – “do you know how to walk on stilts?” I was shocked he was talking to me & immediate terrified. This was Peter Shumann, the guy who routinely walked and danced around on 12 foot stilts and he was asking me if I did too. I was embarrassed but admitted I didn’t. Without another word, he walked up to me and handed me a pair of stilts (very short ones) and went over to a picnic table, sat down & started tying the fabric around his knees on his pair. He looked back at me & waved me over. Put on the spot now, I knew there was no saying no, so I went over and sat next to him and put on the stilts.
Once we were laced up, it was time to stand up. I looked to Peter for some guidance, but all he did was stand right up and start walking around. I thought to myself, “well, I better just do it.” I wobbled to my feat and stood shaking and too nervous to walk. The thing about stilts though is that you can’t help yourself, you sort of have to walk to stay standing, so I just started stumbling gingerly forward. Peter turned around and said, “stop walking, you have to learn to fall first.” “What?!” I thought to myself. “Why would I want to intentionally fall?” But, Peter was insistant. He came over to me and demonstrated falling – you let your knees hit first and then your arms/hands. I realized that the homemade stilts had heavily padded knees just for this purpose, so I followed suit and fell. Peter looked at me & said, “good, now get back up.”
“It’s all B Flat.”
By the time I got to high school, Bread & Puppet became a chance for me & my sister to try and become more involved. Never much the theater performers, we instead sought the famous B&P marching band and attempted to join one summer. This involved hauling up to Glover a few times over a summer to “rehearse” with the rag tag group of musicians who lived and worked on the B&P farm. Our very first practice, both my sister and I were super nervous. We showed up at the hay barn and were directed up to the attic – a place long roped off with a “staff only” sign over the many years of wandering through this part of the museum & workshop. When we got to the top of the stairs we were immediately intimidated – we were by far the youngest musicians and there were only about six of us total. We dutifully sat down and took out our instruments, my sister her flute & for me, my trombone. The rest of the players included a drum, a saxophone, a trumpet, and a “noise maker” – not exactly the marching band we were used to from Spaulding High School.
The trumpet player started the practice by asking what song we should play. Someone suggested “when the saints” – B&P’s theme song – and they immediately started in. My sister & I stared blankly at each other. There was no sheet music! What notes were we supposed to play? After a few bars, the adults stopped & asked why we weren’t playing. “We don’t know the notes,” I said. “Don’t worry about that,” said the trumpet player. “Just play B falt and you will figure it out.” That was it. I never followed through that summer, but my sister went on to play in the band that summer, dressed all in white, walking in to the amphitheater while the B&P buses sped around the bend. It was one of the first times I remember being really proud of my sister.