Art is like good bread! the Why cheap art? manifesto

The Dopp farm is like a lot of old family spreads in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The barn that used to house dairy cows shows its age and hard use, but it's been fixed up by the new owners. It's not a farm anymore, not as it used to be, but one suspects the Dopps would be pleased if they could visit their former home in early August each year when the Bread and Puppet Theater presents its annual Domestic Resurrection Circus.

It was held this year on Aug. 10 and 11. The Friday before, Peter Schumann, founder and artistic director, was down in the rolling hayfields on the edge of a former gravel pit-turned-amphitheater which more than once during the past decade has seated the circus's 15,000 to 20,000 spectators.

He was keeping a fire going in the large clay oven he had built this spring for baking sourdough rye bread, which, like the spectacle itself, is a gift to the multitudes who come each year.

In 1963, Peter was a self-described ``normal, frustrated city artist.'' Then he decided to put bread and puppets together.

``All art is faced with starving children and apocalyptic politics. All art is ashamed and angry and desolate because of its impotence in the face of reality. To inject bread baking into art production seemed like a healthy thing to do,'' he says.

The Bread and Puppet Theater is made up of eight paid core members, including Peter Schumann and his wife, Elke. Around this core are hundreds of volunteer puppeteers. Most of the money they need comes from sales in a barn-museum filled with giant puppets, masks, painted backdrops, and graphic art, organized into hundreds of worlds that re-create past shows and play at endless themes woven with strands from traditional drama and pure fantasy. In one corner of the museum stands a table with certificates of artistic excellence from the governor of Vermont, the Queen of the Netherlands, and several marionette groups, plus a number of Off Broadway Obie awards.

Each June the ranks of volunteers begin to swell as old and new friends of all ages and many nationalities run away to join this circus. It is a labor-intensive, perhaps even a ``third world,'' kind of operation, which uses such basic local materials that it seems the group could create the show from the beginning -- anywhere. Yet one suspects this is the perfect location. The stage is some 15 acres and embraces hills and even the sky as setting for the puppets to play within.

Each day begins about noon with music, poetry, and theater scattered about the field and nearby forest. The theme this year was Nicaragua and Bach. As in Carl Sandberg's story for children about a taxicab marrying a skyscraper, the juxtaposition of symbols in this setting opens possibilities that don't normally make any sense. Previous years' themes included St. Francis of Assisi and nuclear holocaust.

But these themes are served up in a way that prods rather than pushes the spectator, suggests rather than forces him, to consider the political and personal implications of the visual imagery writ large.

As the puppeteers busily decorate the amphitheater with banners and props for the coming extravaganza, Peter casts an eye across his theatrical empire and says:

``Land should be productive. If you have land, you should use it to help your neighbors. You should raise cows to feed them or you should make puppet shows. This land yields many bushels of puppet shows.''

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