Theatre Across Borders

Community through Puppets

By Aria Sharma
24, Trinidad

In many ways, theatre and community seem one and the same to me, but maybe that it an idealistic view. Theatre drew me to it at age 9 with the magic of storytelling and the wonder of The Sound of Music. However, I stayed because of the kooky family of colourful artists I gained in the process. At age 24, I still find no greater thrill or comfort than building a show with a group of people, learning lines together, singing show tunes before call time, whispering “Break a leg” in the wings, holding hands for curtain call, and tearfully hugging the life out of each other on closing night. I mean, people say you are a part of the ‘theatre community’ for a reason. However, what if we take my self-proclaimed ‘idealistic view’ and multiplied it by a hundred? What would that look like? I would argue that it would look a lot like the Bread and Puppet Theatre.

Puppets housed at the Bread & Puppets Museum in Vermont

The Bread and Puppet Theatre was founded in 1963 by the prolific Peter Schumann in New York. The theatre began withrod-puppet and hand puppet shows for children but slowly became bigger and bigger. Their shows soon had huge puppets that would require multiple puppeteers to handle, sculptures, dance and music. Through these puppet shows, pageants and circuses, the theatre spoke on political and social issues plaguing the community and country at large. The subject matter always spoke to the moment and even led them to stage a block-long procession during the Vietnam war where hundreds of people from the community took part in protesting America’s involvement. Though they relocated to a farm in Vermont in 1974, the theatre’s focus on community engagement only heightened. Community members and new volunteers lived on the farm, farmed the land, and created theatre together. Some puppeteers began their involvement with the theatre as toddlers and still come back as adults.

To this day, the converted 140-year-old hay farm in Vermont houses the Bread and Puppet theatre; people and puppets alike. It continues to be one of the oldest, nonprofit, self-supporting theatrical companies in America. The theatre tours its shows around the American continent based on invitations. If you invite them, they will come and set up their mini-circus outside. They accept money through donations and by audience members purchasing their homemade sourdough rye bread, hand printed posters and publications. This connection between bread, theatre, and nonprofit work pushes the Bread and Puppet Theatre into another level of commitment to community-centered art.

 

        “We give you a piece of bread with the puppet show because our bread and theatre belong together. For a long time the theatre arts have been separated from the stomach… The bread shall remind you of the sacrament of eating.” – Peter Schumann, founder of the
Bread and Puppet Theatre.

The production Shatterer of Worlds, photo by Mark Dannenhauer
The Total This and That Circus in 2013, photo by Mark Dannenhauer

I was lucky enough to experience one of the Bread and Puppet Theatre’s touring shows at my university, University of Toronto Mississauga. I will never forget that this bus full of people driving onto the grass in front of the university and tumbling out with flags that they stuck into the earth to create a performance space. Company members greeted curious passers-by as they off loaded their unique puppet creations and set up their tables to showcase their wares. It was immediate, engaging and full of spectacle. They invited me to take off my shoes and sit on the grass with them as they began their brilliant performance.

 

As an audience you were not meant to sit passively but become a part of the show; become a performer in your own right. As I looked around all I saw were smiling faces. In a campus where students usually only came for their classes and left soon after, I suddenly witnessed strangers laughing and talking with each other. It all came to a head at the end of the show when performers came into the audience and shared their famous bread with us. In that moment - standing barefooted in the grass, eating homemade bread and chatting with strangers - I never felt more at home on that campus. We witnessed something extraordinary, participated in it, and supped together at the end. We found community in the wonder of puppets and could not wait to offer them our donations for they transformed a group

of singular ‘I’s into a ‘we’.

Aria’s homemade sock puppet duo, Midge and Eli, who does weekly sing-a-longs for children over Zoom, photo by Aria Sharma.

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