The Puppeteer Pod
It’s Monday on a fall afternoon, when I arrive at the Bread & Puppet Theater on the Heights Road, also known as RT 122 in Glover Vermont. I can hear the puppeteers chatting and doing dishes in the kitchen on their day off. Two veteran puppeteers agreed to sit in the backyard and chat with me about how Bread & Puppet show-making has recalibrated throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Our masks are on and it’s a sunny day surrounded by the aura of the puppet museum and fall foliage.
Joshua Krugman hails from Massachusetts and Connecticut. He has been in the B&P theater company for six years. Amelia Castillo is from Chile (and Canada). This coming year will be her 5th in the company. Combined with three farm workers, a total of twelve people are “in the pod” at Bread & Puppet.
Joshua, Amelia, and I talk about how the summer progressed with the impact of Covid, about B&P’s connection to Goddard College, and the role of art in honoring the dead.
Insurrection + Resurrection
For the first time since they began their summer programs in Glover, Bread & Puppet shows were ticketed, invitation-only events. A committee was formed to make the summer shows as safe as possible, with ushers being attentive to the phrasing of every painted sign, every announcement, and even the show’s description in promotion. The original idea to host a bigger audience that moved from place to place was not going to be possible, they determined, since the puppeteers decided they could not control the crowd’s density as it moved.
Joshua and Amelia acknowledge that it was Clare Dolan, a mentor “geezer” puppeteer, who took the reins of the summer planning committee and made the Bread & Puppet Insurrection + Resurrection Services Circus possible in the pandemic.
Stilt-dancer, painted banner show maker, and neighbor for over 20 years Clare is the founder of the Museum of Everyday Life, is just down the road from the Bread & Puppet Museum on the edge of the Glover town line. A registered nurse, it was Clare who was the go-to authority on operating safely within the parameters of state regulations for gatherings in outdoor locations.
Was it difficult to perform for much smaller audiences who are far less vocal and socially-distanced?
“Small audiences don’t respond the same way we are used to and someway we can’t ask for that.” Amelia responds, “We used to have a circus act where the audience would blow down a puppet, and we’d shout “Blow harder!” so obviously we can’t do that anymore.”
“Performers feed off the energy of the public.” Joshua adds, “The audience feeds off each other. The audience engagement is much less perceptible.”
“At the same time people are so excited and moved to be in a space with other people.” Amelia says, “In conversation with them after the show we get all this great feedback and what it all meant to them. When things are so different, but when a familiar thing occurs, they appreciate it so much more.”
“We always want to deliver the strongest show. You may not see it land at first. Some of our audiences on tour are less familiar with the rowdiness that can happen at the shows. And then to find out that people are having a deep experience, and everything is just connecting differently.” says Joshua. “I think the important lesson from the summer is trust in what’s being communicated and bringing everything you have to the table and to the performance regardless of the response.”
A Legacy of Artistic Resilience
Starting in the late 1960s in the Lower East Side of NYC, protesting “rats, rents, and the Vietnam war”, Bread & Puppet moved to Cate farm in Plainfield VT and became the puppet troupe-in-residence at Goddard in 1970. It was at Goddard that student Trudi Cohen joined the troupe and met John Bell (who did not graduate but is considered one of Goddard’s 1970s “non-student resident alums”). The two puppeteers later married in the back yard of Bread & Puppet and started their own toy theater company based in Brooklyn- Great Small Works.
John Bell on Goddard’s influence on Bread & Puppet: “Goddard’s open-minded, self-reliant, self-defined approaches to learning and doing were paralleled by Bread & Puppet’s own sense of theater as an always-evolving, constantly self-renewing series of experiments.”
Trudi Cohen on being a student at Goddard in the 1970s: “As a student, I was reading ideas about progressive schooling and dynamic non-institutional ways of learning, while at the same time living the philosophy within Goddard’s unique educational practice. I learned how to be a critical thinker, I was encouraged to find and share my own voice.”
“These people are like our superheroes.” Amelia says of John and Trudi, “But they are also our friends and mentors. We get to hang out with them and have them jump into our shows.
“At a certain point we realized John and Trudi were quarantined long enough they could actually join our pod and the show. John just jumped into four or five different acts with a couple of rehearsals. Trudi played the bass drum.”
A House that Tries to be Haunted
“Peter has said that the core role of the artist is to perform services for the dead,” says Joshua, “to help the living understand their relationship with the dead and to help the dead speak to the living and to help the living carry on with this work of the revolution. So our show was called Insurrection + Resurrection Services. The resurrection is asking how can the dead speak to the living and what is the meaning of the dead to the living. And insurrection being against the system with results in the unnecessary death from both the virus and police brutality.”
Peter Schumann, Bread & Puppet’s founder and director, joins us in his baker’s apron, floppy knit hat and mask that covers his frosty white beard. He speaks about the role of technology in the theater and life, and the work of the puppeteer.
“Art, ancient tradition and the needs of reality avoid themselves by means of technology.” He says, “There is a line from Emily Dickinson: Nature is a haunted house but Art is a house that tries to be haunted.”
Schumann accepted Goddard’s Presidential Award for Activism in 2012, when he offered his graduation commencement speech in the form of his signature fiddle lecture. The Presidential Award for Activism was created to recognize Goddard alumni or individuals who have made significant contributions in the field of social justice and who embody the mission and values of Goddard College.
“A puppeteer must have both arrogance and modesty.” Schumann says, “Arrogance that we will change the world and the modesty to do that with limited resources, low salaries, using materials out of the garbage.”
The New Legacy
Joshua and Amelia tell me what they think their particular company’s legacy will be from this pandemic-influenced era of Bread & Puppet.
In the last few years, B&P built a visa program so foreigners can work with touring companies and gain summer employment in Glover. Amelia is working at Bread & Puppet on that visa.
They are proud of their prolific touring, re-establishing international connections and booking multiple inter-generational, and racially-diverse performing companies at the same time. At one point two years ago, there was a touring company of 40+ puppeteers in three vehicles crossing the U.S., while a local group performed at the farm in Glover, another toured Europe, and Peter set up painting exhibits around Vermont.
After 50+ years of Bread & Puppet, new audiences are still enraptured by its prolific, cheap, and impactful protest theater.
Finally, Joshua and Amelia are proud that their company has also taken on the digitization of the Bread & Puppet photo and video archive, as well as scripts and other media. They acknowledge for the first time in the history of Bread & Puppet companies, that social media helps them promote and bring audiences together. With 12k followers on Instagram and climbing, the sphere of B&P’s influence reaches a daily global community.
“We’re not trying to be influencers,” says Joshua. “We’re trying to do it in a way aligned with our cheap and political aesthetic. Ultimately, just trying to get them to come see a puppet show.”
Through their recent socially-distanced performances Bread & Puppet is resolved to inspire yet another generation of resilient artists, even throughout the confines of a global pandemic.
Like Bread & Puppet, Goddard College has shown its resilience with 150 years of learner-driven education. Our BA, MA, and MFA programs are flexible for artists, activists, and community organizers to bring their whole self into low-residency and online learning environments. Ready to live and work toward your true passion? Inquire at Get Info
Written by Ben t. Matchstick (MFAIA ‘15), Digital Media Coordinator for Goddard College