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Peter Schumann's puppets speak out on big issues

As a boy Peter Schumann carried his hand puppets with him when he fled the Russians. Now he's one of the foremost practitioners of experimental puppet theater in the world.

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    PUPPETS WITH A PURPOSE: Peter Schumann is founder and director of the experimental Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, Vt.
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Peter Schumann – baker, puppeteer, and founder and director of the Bread and Puppet Theater – began playing with puppets some 75 years ago in Silesia, now part of Poland, when he was just a boy.

He was 10 years old in 1944 when the rumbling of Russian tanks accompanied by the crackle and pop of artillery fire forced his family to flee their home. “Every night we saw what we called ‘Christmas trees’ in the sky,” Mr. Schumann recalls as he rolls lumps of raw dough on a rough table next to his Quebec-style clay oven on a gray autumn day in Glover, Vt.

“The Allies used the ‘Christmas trees’ to illuminate the ground beneath their bombers to find their targets,” he continues. “They were beautiful fireworks. But when we saw them light up in the sky, we knew that bombs would fall.”

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When the Schumanns fled, each child was allowed to bring only a few items.

“I brought bread, a book of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and hand puppets,” Schumann recalls. “Eventually we got on an overcrowded train. People were hanging like grapes from the train.... We were the lucky ones who made it out.”

The items Schumann chose to pack are telling: Refugees carry only those things that matter most to them.

Flash forward to July 23, 2014. Schumann had become one of the foremost practitioners of experimental puppet theater in the world. After reading reports on the escalating situation in Gaza, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was playing out with devastating results, Schumann felt the need to respond.

He halted Bread and Puppet Theater’s summer program, three shows performed weekly from June through September, and he decided to remount “Fire,” a silent play for a combination of masked performers and mannequins that he’d created in response to America’s involvement in Vietnam back in 1965-66.

The show, now called “Fire: Emergency Performance for Gaza,” would challenge his collaborators. But they agreed to perform it the following Friday, leaving little more than a day for rehearsals.

“It’s not an easy play to do,” Schumann explains. “It’s so concentrated – the movement, the degree of focus required of the performers and the audience. It’s a piece where you can’t think of anything else. Otherwise you can’t do it.”

The majority of Schumann’s performers had no experience with that kind of theater. But he has always worked with little time, scant resources, untrained performers, and, perhaps most important, a singular devotion to his cause.

Schumann and his wife, Elka, had moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1961. Judith Malina, who cofounded The Living Theatre with her partner, Julian Beck, offered Schumann a performance space in the East Village.

“I knew Peter was a great artist the first time we met,” Ms. Malina says. “An artist has to have some idea of what they’re fighting for, and what they’re against. Peter Schumann has always known.”

In 1963, Schumann founded the Bread and Puppet Theater in New York City. He also worked a series of odd jobs to support his family, but he knew that more than anything he needed to devote his life to his art.

After years of struggle, Schumann finally combined a way to make a living and his desire to make art by working with underprivileged children in New York. “We did big workshops with kids in Harlem, South Bronx, and Bedford-Stuyvesant,” he says. “But it always felt like, when the project was finished, I was walking out on those kids.

“I remember going back to central Harlem after working with the kids there. The gangs were too powerful. The kids were imprisoned on their own block, so I took them to Coney Island one day to see the ocean. It was amazing. They lived so close to the sea, but they had never seen it.”

Schumann had first performed “Fire” in 1965 because, as he puts it, “The horror of what America did in Vietnam, and the Buddhist monks’ response, setting themselves ablaze, was so shockingly hurtful....” His voice trails off. “We wanted the littlest movements, the littlest bursts of outrage, the simplest gestures as possible. We needed the deepest, simplest possible means to communicate that horror.”

Schumann and company faced criticism.

“Naturally, there were confrontations,” he says. “When we did ‘Fire’ in Atlanta, as part of a student uprising at Emory [University], a police helicopter dropped tear gas on us. But we had a circus tent that protected us. The play made some people angry.

“Still, we had to do it.”

Why did he have to do it? Schumann’s eyes light up. “The wrongs have to be attacked,” he says.

Christian Dupavillon – who at the time was curator of the Nancy Theatre Festival in France – was beside himself after attending a performance.

“The imagery, the use of silence, it was shocking,” Mr. Dupavillon recalls 50 years later, now living in Cambridge, Mass. “I’ll never forget it. After the show, I immediately invited Schumann to perform ‘Fire’ at Nancy. The show was perpetually sold out.”

By 1968 “Fire” was a success. Indeed, it afforded Schumann and the Bread and Puppet Theater needed financial stability.

John Bell, director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry in Storrs, Conn., worked with Bread  and Puppet from 1975 to 1985. He says Schumann totally changed puppetry in the United States.

“I was taught to put distance between yourself and the material, in the way that Shakespeare and Ibsen did,” Dr. Bell says. “They removed themselves from their own time and place and put their problems somewhere else.

“Peter made it possible to make shows about who we are, the problems we face.”

Schumann resists the idea that he’s made a significant contribution to the worlds of theater and activism. But the Rev. Dr. Robert Brashear, pastor of West Park Presbyterian Church in New York, disagrees with him.

“For one reason or another, Mr. Schumann’s work goes largely unnoticed,” he says in a phone interview. “And yet I remember seeing Bread and Puppet pieces at so many protests and social action events over the years. He’s completely changed the visual aspect of social change. Really, Mr. Schumann’s work has become the defining visual imagery used in protests today.”

Today Schumann’s focus remains on his work. He doesn’t seek recognition. To bake bread, to feed the audience, and to make puppet shows that shout and claw at human follies seems to be enough for him.

After the company’s first performance of “Fire: Emergency Performance for Gaza,” Schumann stood among the audience in the theater’s museum. It was a warm Friday night in July. The audience had silently gathered after the show to eat sourdough rye bread, slathered with aioli.

“These performers did an amazing job,” Schumann says to a friend. “They’ve never done this kind of work. And with only one rehearsal, they couldn’t have done better.”

The performers’ success depends upon their ability to connect with the material, he says. “The play will affect the audience on the condition that it affects the performer. The performer who is effective at what he does isn’t effective because of his performing skills, but because of his commitment to what he’s doing there, performing.”

The same may be said of Schumann’s career. The source of his success lies in his commitment to his work. Some of the performers discovered this in themselves while performing “Fire: Emergency Performance for Gaza.” But Schumann had begun to discover it when he was a boy with his puppets, looking out the window of a cramped train, creeping across the German countryside.

• Learn more at http://breadandpuppet.org.

How to take action

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Cultural Canvas Thailand supports the town of Chiang Mai, Thailand, through artistic outreach. Take action: Volunteer in an art program.

Supporting Kids In Peru is a nonprofit group helping economically disadvantaged children realize their right to an education. Take action: Volunteer as an arts and theater leader.

South African Education and Environment Project USA raises funds for projects in South Africa. Take action: Support arts lessons for students in Cape Town’s impoverished schools.

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