Puppets in the Woods

Recently I was working on a puppet project for school, and  I started to think about one of my first puppet experiences, which is the first time I went to the Bread and Puppet Theater. First of all, they have a really interesting history. You can now find them in Glover, Vermont, but they began in Greenwich Village, Manhattan in the 1960s. Bread and Puppet is a group of non-commercial artists who build humongous puppets (and small ones too) for political performance art. They became known for their anti-war demonstrations during Vietnam and still uphold their philosophy that “art is political, whether you like it or not”. Even as the theater gained recognition, Bread and Puppet remained a low-budget and highly-principled operation, organizing cheap political theater and baking their puppets and sourdough bread in Cobb ovens. Eventually the popularity of Greenwich Village and Soho pushed out a lot of the artists who created it’s identity and Bread & Puppet moved up to the quieter and cheaper Vermont. Actually, they’re briefly shown in the movie, “Across the Universe” during the “Benefit of Mr. Kite” number when the gang goes on a literal acid trip up to the Bread and Puppet theater. The absurdity of the puppet performances in reality is a little too close to most movie portrayals of an LSD trip though, so actually it is difficult to tell which bizarre things are supposed to be acid hallucinations and which are genuine Bread and Puppet performance.

I found out about Bread and Puppet when I was about 8 years old, and I didn’t know anything about it’s political roots. I found out because my family was vacationing in Vermont one summer and my mother (who is a talented textile artist and gets a lot of her inspiration from folk and naive art) wanted to go see one of their weekend performances. I understood that we were going to a farm and some kind of art museum and that the title suggested that there might be some bread involved. When we arrived, my sisters and I jumped out of the hot, roadtrip-stinky mini-van and ran up to a pretty cool looking barn. Outside there is an old, painted psychedelic school bus, but to our disappointment we weren’t allowed to play in it. Ok, so we went into the barn/museum instead. Outside, this sign is posted everywhere.

Inside, my mother shooed us ahead into the museum while she asked the workers about the artwork. Let me just say, I have NEVER BEEN SO SCARED IN MY LIFE. I thought I had died and gone to a Bogeymen re-union in some forgotten ring of hell. There are clay and papier mache heads in there the size of people arranged in sad nativities. Oversized heads and body parts wearing burlap sacks with grime purposefully decorating the wrinkles of their intense, deep faces. Most of the puppets either wear draped sheets or nothing at all. The colors that gave the puppets colorful streaks looked like they were melting off by some agonizing thought that they all shared. The entire collection is carefully arranged in dioramas in a dimly-lit barn. Once you enter the maze, you have to walk through the entire museum before you pop out back in the entrance where my mother was still flipping through woodcut prints. As a kid, this is the most horrifying experience that I associate with any vacation. We did get to see a performance on the grassy amphitheater hill and years later the family even went back to see a Puppet Banquet in the woods. I’ve since come to appreciate the mission and even the style of Bread and Puppet theater, even if I can’t bring myself to be the type of artist who lives hand to mouth on a commune in rural Vermont. They’re pretty cool, if you don’t know them, check it out.

This is one of the more tame ones

This is one of the more tame ones

Bread and Puppet Theater

Across the Universe Bread and Puppet Scene

-Aubrey

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Puppets in the Woods

  1. zazaglen

    Very interesting! I’ve always wondered where the big political puppet came from.

    Last night, I went to the international festival of marionnettes and saw a very strange “puppet” show called “Le frère de la sansue” of “Tragédies microscopiques”. So, yes, microscopic: all the action happens on a 40 x 40 cm table. The two actors sat on each side of the table and moved the puppets magnetically from underneath the table, all the while animating their characters with “therapeutic shrieking”. It was a very, very macabre show. You follow a dilapidated boy puppet through a wasteland which, halfway through, transforms into a swamp-like hell. He witnesses disturbing lagoon creatures dismember each other, wailing and screeching the whole time. Once the boy returns to the wasteland, he is taken by a dismembered hand down to the swampy hell… or so we think.

    You may think that you cannot make much of an impact with such a small table, but I left the show traumatized and wondering what the heck had just happened.

    This puppet company “presents deformed characters, which are destined to face the wounds of a wrecked destiny”.

    And this company’s aim? “Le FRÈRE DE LA SANGSUE’s aim is to pulverise emotion by the transcendence of suspected oscillation.” Photos here.

    Weird…

  2. Actually, they’re briefly shown in the movie, “Across the Universe” during the “Benefit of Mr. Kite” number when the gang goes on a literal acid trip up to the Bread and Puppet theater. The absurdity of the puppet performances in reality is a little too close to most movie portrayals of an LSD trip though, so actually it is difficult to tell which bizarre things are supposed to be acid hallucinations and which are genuine Bread and Puppet performance.

    That’s not Bread and Puppet. Director Julie Taymor attempted to hire Bread and Puppet for the film, or at least rent the puppets. Peter Schumann refused and said something to the effect of “make your own.” Taymor did so, and it resulted in what amounted to a major dispute within the American puppetry world– a dispute that was eventually resolved. The puppets are similar enough to B&P but stylistically somewhat different if one is familiar with the originals.

  3. Hey, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, anyway cool blog, I bookmarked you. 🙂

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