For more than 40 years, Peter Schumann has been Vermont’s visionary puppet master, stilt walker and inspired maestro of insurgent political pageantry.
Sunday, the founder of Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover showed that his flair hasn’t dimmed in all those decades, delivering a graduation speech – of sorts – that no one at Goddard College will soon forget.
“I am a baker with a mission. I bake sourdough rye not-for-sale bread!” he began, fiddling a violin in the crook of his left arm for discordant musical punctuation, launching into a passionate eight-minute performance/manifesto/artists statement.
Extolling puppetry “for human ridicule and art” and bread as part of “community making,” Schumann in his chant-like peroration said he remained committed to the “intense flame of burning issues.”
His duty, he said, was to “transform the heat into public message art.”
It was a performance that perfectly exemplified why Schumann Sunday received Goddard College’s 2nd Annual President’s Award for Activism from President Barbara Vaccar at the commencement ceremony for Master of Fine Arts graduates. Speaking under a multi-peaked white tent, Vaccar praised the German-born founder of Bread & Puppet Theater for using “the powerful medium of art to wake up audiences around the world.”
In reference to his audacious stilt-walking on towering 12-foot legs in an American flag outfit, she said Schumann, “Courageously and deftly navigates spaces where few of us dare to go and from that vantage point, he clearly and astutely sees the forest for the trees.”
“Artists and renegades” like Schumann, she said, “serve often as prophets and are dismissed.” But their role is critical in a free society “to confront unexamined assumptions” and take a deeper look at our national myths.
The celebration of Schumann’s commitment to social justice, as Goddard launches its 150th year anniversary celebrations, also was a reminder that the college played an important role in Schumann’s art.
Schumann, whose family became refugees in Europe after Hitler’s downfall in 1944, came to the United States in 1961 and founded Bread & Puppet Circus in New York City in 1963. In 1970, amid the Vietnam anti-war political ferment, he was invited by Goddard then-President Gerald Witherspoon to set up a theater-in-residence at the college.
For Schumann, it was an offer he gladly accepted.
“Nine years in New York City was too much,” he said in an interview.
The college went out of its way to make him feel at home and facilitate his art, letting him live at the college’s Cate Farm, renovating a barn so Bread & Puppet could perform and sculpt its giant masks and puppets year-round, and letting students and faculty work and travel with the circus.
“It was a fantastic opportunity for us,” said Schumann, whose introduction to Vermont was in 1962, when he came to the Putney School to do theater while his wife Elka taught Russian.
Goddard’s role in bringing in bright people to a hotbed of radical ferment meant Schumann met a community of like-minded souls, some of whom came to Sunday’s event, like author Marc Estrin and renowned rye-bread baker Jules Rabin, both of whom were professors teaching at Goddard in the 1970s.
Schumann said he was “very very glad at this Goddard College invitation and connection,” noting the college’s role in cementing his ties to Vermont as a place to carry out his vision. The one thing he says Goddard can’t claim is inspiring his pairing of bread, one of the most basic and delicious foodstuffs, with puppetry.
As many Vermonters know, Rabin and his wife Helen virtually single-handedly launched Vermont’s artisan bread revolution by building a wood-fired stone oven in the 1980s to make hearty French sourdoughs. Schumann said that his connection to dense rye bread goes back long before that, and anyway, his was German style, not French.
“I learned that from my mom as a kid, I helped her bake bread when I was 6 years old,” he said with a laugh.
Schumann’s award drew veterans from his days at Goddard. Avram Patt, now general manager of Washington Electric Cooperative in East Montpelier, was one of those lucky to be part of Schumann’s ground-breaking “circus” performances. He had just finished his first semester at Goddard and “did not want to go back to New York City.”
Patt says he saw a sign that Rabin had hung up inviting 10 students to join Bread & Puppet, offering room and board for the summer.
“Honestly, the first thing I saw was room and board,” he said, but added. “I thought that would be an interesting way to spend a couple months.”
He ended up working with Bread & Puppet for two years, including a tour in Europe. Schumann’s genius was in taking puppets and developing their use in trenchant political theater, and also in being a demanding director who was also open to collaborative work with his troupe, he said.
“The show is made up in rehearsal,” he explained.
Talented musician Steven Light of Marshfield, one of the founders of Fyre & Lightning Consort, was at Goddard in 1973 and began playing percussion for Schumann. He worked with Bread & Puppet for seven years.
“It was just incredibly inspiring to be part of it,” he said, saying Schumann always had a clear vision of what he wanted and a unique approach.
“You can sort of tell from his ‘speech’ yesterday, he’s his own character,” said Light.
Schumann left Goddard in 1974 and moved to the current site of Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, where his remarkable two-day “Domestic Resurrection Circus” drew thousands for a magical long day and evening pageant of political theater each summer until 1998. The event was canceled after it grew over-sized, flooding tiny Glover with some 30,000 people. The end came after a man tragically was struck and died at the pageant.
Today in his 70s, Schumann still plies his art and attracts troupe members for summer performances and tours to Europe and around the U.S. Summer shows are Friday nights and Sunday afternoons in Glover (http://breadandpuppet.org/summer-schedule).
Puppetry, always a politicized art form that was subversive and made fun of officials, still appeals to him after 50 years of pointed commentary. As he said in his speech, it’s a way to allow issues to be “poured into the public eating bowl.”
And, he said proudly, “We still make our living from performing,” not from grants or wealthy donors.
Correction: The manner in which a man died at a Bread & Puppet pageant was incorrected in an earlier version of this story. The man was not stabbed.