Peter Shumann Receives Activism Award
I extend my greetings and warm welcome to all the village that is in this room ‐‐ Goddard past, present and future. Before I present this award to Peter Schumann, I want to especially welcome and acknowledge Elka Schumann a woman who in her own right has touched and made a difference in the lives of so many.
Many of us here today share the experience of awe, vulnerability and gratitude, as we have looked skyward to see a man dancing fluidly, while perched precariously high above the fray, artfully cloaked in our national symbols.
On his, what appear to these eyes to be, 150 foot stilts Peter Schumann courageously and deftly navigates spaces where few of us dare to go ‐‐ a vantage point where he clearly and astutely sees the forest for the trees. The height to which he travels, the risks he takes in doing so, benefit us all as we are gifted with a critical perspective not easily accessed when living amidst the trees.
We are here today to celebrate, to honor and to thank artist, activist Peter Schumann for his willingness to risk these heights, few people are.
In preparing for this award ceremony I had the deliciously synchronistic pleasure of reading an essay by Chris Hedges titled How to Think. Hedges speaks eloquently about the vital role of artists in society to confront unexamined assumptions. He tells us that just as individuals do, human societies tend to see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy narratives that, if not challenged, lead to destruction.
Hedges asserts that Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades—that just about covers everyone in this tent tonight-- must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. He points out that these artist renegades serve as prophets and are therefore dismissed, labeled by the power elites as subversive. Given the harsh realities of Peter’s earlier life I would add that soicety’s wrath does not stop at dismissing the voices of subversives, as we know about so many who have suffered at the hands of those who would silence them.
Reading Hedge’s essay confirmed for me what we know here at Goddard and most particularly in this MFAIA program that visionary artists like Peter Schumann are our sharpest eyes, our keenest ears, our most adept linguists as they see that which has been made invisible or unwelcome, they hear the voices missing from our dominant narratives and they speak in languages that pierce unconsciousness and translate slick sound bites into nuanced and deeper understandings of our world.
In a cautionary voice Hedges also describes the threat of destruction to human societies that do not protect this sacred space. This space is essential particularly today in a polarized world of simplistic messages, where daily we are bombarded by glib words and images that can keep us from knowing the complexity of our individual and collective realities.
Schumann is a master creator of such spaces. His life has been devoted to nurturing, cultivating and demanding this sacred space in our society. He knows the imperative for doing so. He witnessed first hand the thin veneer of democracy give way to fascism.
He also knows the artist’s impatience with what Hedge’s terms the “stultifying halls of academia” where in places other than of course at Goddard, mediocrity is often triumphant. It is what led him to eschew the classroom of his youth and join the circus.
In fact, Peter created the circus--Bread and Puppet was “born” in 1963 and we are privileged that in 1970 they accepted the invitation to come to Goddard and be the College’s first theater-in-residence.
Peter, you were so much more than that… Today we recognize the vital role that the circus, Bread and Puppet served in evolving Goddard’s activist mission to take imaginative and responsible action in the world.
During their time at Goddard, hundreds of students participated in workshops, parades, demonstrations and toured with the Theater. As we begin to celebrate our 150th anniversary we honor the importance of your part in our evolution.
Many of our alumni still work with or have strong connections to the Theater. Your art has advanced Goddard’s commitment to prepare an informed citizenry to hold dear and protect the space of a participatory democracy.
Over the course of its 50-year history, Bread and Puppet Theater has participated in thousands of protests, parades, marches, pageants and circuses across the globe. But more importantly through the powerful medium of art has woken up audiences all over the world to the subtle and not so subtle oppressions that continue to plague us. The company has inspired countless activists and artists to take imaginative action with the goal of creating a more just and sustainable future.
This award is more than a reflection of our gratitude. I hope it speaks loudly and clearly about the central importance of your life’s commitments. You have protected “the” space in our society.
The space where art captivates our senses, bypassing well honed denial filters and helps us make meaning of that which we suffer and is not easily named.
The space in which sound wakes us up to listen beyond the noise,
The space in which vision sees behind the scrim.
The space where voice truth-speaks.
We are deeply grateful and honored by your presence today.
Before presenting the award I want to read from a letter I received from Governor Peter Shumlin in recognition of you, Peter and this day: “I was pleased to learn that you will be honoring Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theatre, with the second annual Presidential Award for Activism. For nearly 50 years, Peter Schumann and the Bread and Puppet Theatre have inspired generations with their artistry and activism. With exquisite puppets and commanding performances, Peter has used his powerful voice to entertain, educate and encourage meaningful action, Like Goddard College , Bread and Puppet theatre challenges us to use our imagination, ask questions and express ourselves.”
On that high note let me invite Peter to stand at the podium for the presentation of the award .