Paul Zaloom graduated from Goddard College in 1973. His degree, he says, was in puppetry, though he had no professors who taught him that specific subject. So how did he do it?
Zaloom, like many Goddard graduates, followed the progressive education model to “learn by doing”. It began when he joined up with the Schumann family on Cate Farm in Plainfield, where Bread & Puppet Theater was beginning to put its roots down in Vermont, as a theater-in-residence at Goddard College.
His senior thesis was titled, simply, “Puppeteer”. In it, Zaloom chronicles the young life of a performer emerging through the Bread & Puppet aesthetic. After graduation, Zaloom took to the road, using the Bread & Puppet model. Inventing shows, booking venues, touring.
Latchkey kids of the 90s might recognize Zaloom from his gig as the zany scientist Beakman in Beakman’s World, which appeared on television screens everywhere from 1992-1998 and still runs in syndication around the planet. The show gave Zaloom an international audience and he still performs on stage live as Beakman. The show is still immensely popular in Brazil and Mexico.
Zaloom’s “puppetry degree” has been a process of lifelong learning and exploring dozens of techniques. Toy theater, rod puppets, marionettes, shadow puppets, overhead projections, Bunraku-style puppets, cantastoria (storytelling with pictures), hand puppets, and ventriloquism.1
His solo work is best known for what is called “object theater”, which is much more than a comedian with props. In Zaloom’s tabletop world, objects take on lives themselves, are characters each with distinct personalities and voices. And there can be hundreds of objects/characters in a single show, and Zaloom navigates “toy cars, action figures, dolls, wind-ups, tchotchkes, weird junk, and rubbish” with high-energy voices, gags, riffs, and social and political commentary, whether he’s embodying a goofy 80s action figure or a cheese grater.
Paul Zaloom joined the Bread & Puppet Theater when he was a 19 year old student at Goddard College. He continues to work with the Bread & Puppet Theater every summer at their farm in Glover Vermont.
Zaloom is equally at ease in a burlap buffalo puppet, in the Sacred Harp chorus (bass section), or in the role of the ringleader, as he was in the Our Domestic Resurrection Circus for decades until that weekend-long event ended in 1998.
For his senior study at Goddard, he directed the rod puppet show “The King Story” which is one of a handful of “street shows” that is still performed today by Bread & Puppet.
When asked about the recent passing of Elka Schumann (August 2021), co-founder of Bread & Puppet, and wife of artistic director Peter Schumann, Zaloom said, “Elka was always very kind and supportive. Sometimes we knocked heads a little bit about things. Over time you have all kinds of things that you have in a relationship with people.”
“But we were very close. I adored her. She was a wonderful inspiration and a beautiful friend. She’s responsible for the print shop and the posters, the museum, and so many aspects of Bread & Puppet that she championed, that she founded, that she worked for. I just adored Elka, I really did.”
TRANSMISSION FROM THE PLANET CAUCAZOID
Zaloom tells the story about his own white fragility. While participating in a national gathering of performance venue operators, funders, and workshop hosts, Zaloom watched as the artists of color presented their pitches. Each was telling a story of their identity, history, and personal struggles.
Zaloom’s un-illuminated first thought was “What about ME?” he said. “But a second later, I thought, whoa, that’s really messed up.”
His pitch was the next day, so in his hotel room that night he cobbled together a new idea. His new pitch would address his own white fragility moment. Part ventriloquism act, part toy theater, “White Like Me: A Honky Dory Puppet Show”, tells the story of White Man, a “superhero” from the Planet Caucazoid who comes to Earth to “civilize it”. In the end, White Man becomes a minority and “flips out.”
“In a way it was like making fun of myself,” Zaloom said.
GRATEFUL TO GODDARD
“Goddard was the most unconventional,” Zaloom says, “It was more self-motivated.”
“The whole idea of education providing resources and opportunities for people to invent themselves I think is really powerful. That’s what progressive education has really done. I was an exchange student at Putney School for my last term in high school and it was interesting going to the first really progressive high school in America and experiencing the way that they operate and reading Summerhill (by A.S. Neill) and George Dennison’s book The Lives of Children. I was always really interested in education and experiential education so Goddard was kind of a natural fit for me.”
“I think the thing about Goddard is if you’re a motivated person and you have a certain amount of self-direction, but maybe you haven’t figured everything out, it’s a great opportunity to try to find your way in the world. And the resources were there and the support was there.”
“So I’m very grateful for that.” Zaloom said, “I can’t even tell you how lucky I am that I landed at that place.”
Goddard is grateful for you too, Paul Zaloom!
WATCH THE INTERVIEW WITH PAUL ZALOOM ON YOUTUBE or Play below: