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.