At 89, still making art (and bread) with a message

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At 89, still making art (and bread) with a message
Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater is going strong and, at 89, so is he. But what will happen to his company when he is gone?

by Bob Morris

NEW YORK, NY.- Under an unforgiving sun during a heat wave in July, Peter Schumann, the 89-year-old artistic director of Bread and Puppet Theater, rang a hand bell on a rolling hillside in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Before him a post topped with a giant grasping papier-mâché hand towered high like a maypole. Two dozen performers encircled it.

“Walk slower, get closer to each other,” shouted Schumann, a tawny bearded man. More giant hands on poles rose up, seemingly reaching to the clouds in prayer. Then the group sang a dirge-like song as birds called from a nearby pine forest that is home to handmade memorial huts for friends and family. In two days, this surreal ritual was to be recreated in the debut of “The Heart of the Matter Circus and Pageant,” part of the 60-year-old company’s season of Sunday shows.

In July and August, the theater’s events run on weekends and are either free or modestly priced: indoor avant-garde performances, an outdoor circus featuring playful political sketches with towering effigy-like figures and a rowdy band, and side shows created by company members on compact stages are among the offerings.

Schumann, a German immigrant who has retained his accent, came to New York City in the 1960s and found a potent way to respond in the streets to the war in Vietnam and social injustice: towering papier-mâché and cardboard figures. Influenced by John Cage and Merce Cunningham and exposed to the happenings of Claes Oldenburg, Red Grooms and Allan Kaprow, he conceives his experimental collaborative pieces from a cauldron of ideas about the joys and ills of a conflicted capitalist world. Often they are drawn from the news, sometimes from legends. Some are reviewed well, others not. Schumann, uninterested in praise or media attention, keeps making them.

In addition to directing, he sculpts, paints (on discarded bedsheets, walls and cardboard), and creates posters, calendars and printed chapbooks. He also uses an outdoor oven to bake coarse sourdough rye bread to feed audiences that can grow to a thousand or more in August.

“We bring the starter for the dough everywhere we perform,” Schumann said on that pre-opening Friday last month while baking for about 50 summer company members. He knows that like his work, his bread can be challenging to chew, but hopefully nourishing and worth the trouble.

Lately, Bread and Puppet Theater, which performs all over the world, has been growing. Its domestic touring schedule — to colleges, theaters, city plazas and small towns via a school bus covered with Schumann’s celebratory images of everyday life (coffee cups, flowers, the occasional “Ah!”) — included 66 stops last fall with a company of 30, twice the size of previous years. Print sales are up, too. Renewed interest in live performance and the current political climate may explain it. But appreciation for the company’s sustainable, handmade tactility and poetic anti-authoritarianism is nothing new.

Howard Zinn, author of “A People’s History of the United States,” cited its “beauty, magic and power” in a blurb for “Rehearsing With Gods,” a 2004 book about the company. Grace Paley marched with the group starting in the 1960s, and wrote a poem inspired by its policy of speaking up and speaking out. Julie Taymor, who used natural materials, papier-mâché and puppets in the stage adaptation of “The Lion King,” referenced some of Schumann’s stock puppet figures in her 2007 Beatles movie, “Across the Universe.” Kiki Smith, a sculptor, in an interview on the Smithsonian’s archive website, talked about the company’s “epic and biblical qualities” and of seeing its performances often in her youth.

Guided by Schumann’s uncompromising views about greed, racism and militarism, the collective has questioned the World Bank, the treatment of Indigenous people and, to some in-house and public consternation, the providing of arms to Ukraine instead of ways to negotiate.

“To live in a war and be a refugee is a lifelong education,” Schumann said of a childhood in which he experienced bombings in Germany’s Silesia region, which is now part of Poland. “There’s no equivalent to it in the U.S.”

The printing press posters, chapbooks and calendars he designs drive his messages home and come from an uncompromising faith in “Cheap Art.” His manifesto about it states the importance of its unimportance — cheap, lightweight, undermining the sanctity of affluence and in opposition to the money-hungry “business of art.” For decades, his wife, Elka Schumann, who died in 2021, on a Sunday in August, oversaw the printing press that turns out countless pieces, all drawn with his bold and expressionistic hand and celebrating life while questioning abuses of power. (One poster of an iris reads “Resistance to the Empire”; a chapbook on courage urges “Dig through the dirt.”)

But for all the questions firing like flares at society, with Schumann’s humor and pathos, there is one — far more insular in focus — on the minds of those around him: What will happen to his company when he is gone?

“It’s been an ongoing conversation for 15 years, and we’re still figuring it out,” said his son Max Schumann, 59, an artist and the departing executive director of Printed Matter, a nonprofit based in New York City that sells artists’ books.

“This company has always been an iffy little enterprise that depends way too much on me,” his father said of Bread and Puppet, which has a million-dollar annual budget raised through touring, print sales, tickets and donations, but no direct corporate or government funding. “Is it sustainable when I’m gone and will people recognize it as important?”

Those questions remain unanswered as Schumann’s incessant creation of new work keeps the focus on the present.

INSIDE A BARN last month, a couple of hours after the rehearsal for the “Heart of the Matter” pageant, several dozen performers from around the world — paid puppeteers, interns, community volunteers — presented their proposed circus acts. Schumann typically reviews and critiques the sketches.

Most of the acts had a whimsical tone. A man imitating a bee (collapsing bee colonies the inspiration) did a frenetic waggle around a cardboard city that transformed itself into a tangle of dancing urbanites. An orca ambushed yachting billionaire puppets. When somber-looking tree figures appeared with a narrator reading facts about boreal forests versus the more flammable monoculture ones burning in nearby Canada, Schumann became agitated.

“It’s too cliche, something everyone already knows,” he shouted. “You have to stop using so many words and solve things puppetry-wise.” Then he jumped to his feet and started moving people and puppets around. He had puppeteers throw the trees and then dance with them, causing some confusion.

“It’s what you do, not what you say,” he said. “It’s puppetry, not preaching.”

He told them he would return in a half-hour to see a revision. Then, as dinnertime approached, he excused himself to help the kitchen staff make potato pancakes — a recipe from his war-torn childhood.

With admirable control, the puppeteers discussed how to rework their savaged piece, each giving the others time to suggest solutions. It was a utopian vision of collaboration, agile and practical — and typical of how the company functions.

“Peter has a strong directional voice,” said Ziggy Bird, 26, a company member who took notice of Schumann’s work in a theater history class at Temple University. “It’s never personal and some of the most beautiful moments come from frustration, which can be a kick in the pants.”

“Schools of art are teaching solo enterprises, but what people do here is the opposite — they collaborate,” Schumann said while smoking a cigar, drinking a can of beer and stirring a vat of potato pancake batter to be fried on an outdoor stovetop. This collaborative process has birthed companies far beyond Vermont, including Papermoon Puppet Theater in Indonesia, Y No Había Luz in Puerto Rico and Great Small Works in New York City.

“It’s a way of making art and living with a strong level of engagement and concern,” said Clare Dolan, a puppeteer and a Bread and Puppet Theater board member who assists Schumann. She was preparing a circus act about the sending of cluster bombs to Ukraine. “There are incredible ripples that come from Peter that show up in theaters, parades and art-making around the world.”

John Bell, the board’s president and a professor who runs the University of Connecticut’s Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, has been with the company since 1973, around the time it relocated to Vermont from New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood, first to Goddard College and then to the land in Glover.

“In a way Bread and Puppet is an art project of Peter’s and we are only here to help him realize it,” he said. “So we don’t know what will happen once he’s gone, especially because he believes in responding to the present.” While Schumann is “dealing with being an older person these days,” Bell added, the moment he starts working, his pace accelerates.

That seems an understatement.

At the dress rehearsal Saturday for the circus (canceled the next day because of a rainstorm that flooded Vermont) Schumann aggressively finessed the burning forest act and others. Later he performed in an indoor show billed as a mass, “Idiots of the World Unite Against the Idiot System”; it was a good-natured critique of everything from “the empire’s false sense of freedom” to a highway system that kills wild animals. He fiddled a hybrid violin and trumpet while making an abstract speech and then led the cast of 30 in an exasperated “Aaaagh.”

After that a quartet performed a Beethoven fugue.

Done listening, he drove his Subaru wagon up a dirt road to a studio to finish one of his “Heart of the Matter” paintings.

“He’s always had a manic creative energy and right now he’s been working with wild abandon, trying to squeeze it all in,” Max Schumann observed. “When our mother passed away, his grief was intense, but the work helped keep him alive.”

In fact, when Elka Schumann died, the circus and pageant carried on the same weekend.

Now Schumann lives without the life partner who helped make many things work at Bread and Puppet. He thinks about her often and visits the memorial he made to her in his pine forest — a sculptural relief of a couple embraced. At night he sometimes sits on his porch listening to the parties down on his farm, pleased about what he and his wife have inspired and sustained. Sometimes he joins in, dancing with abandon.

“Everyone’s busy planning my funeral, and I’ve already had a stroke and a second is probably on the way,” he said as he painted with a steady hand. “But I work and smoke cigars and drink beer anyway because I have no inclination to be healthy, only to enjoy what I do.”

He put the last paint stroke on his recycled bedsheet and stepped away.

“OK, this series is finished,” he said. “Now I can go on to what’s next.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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