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Bread and Puppet Theater Founder Peter Schumann on 50 Years of Art and Resistance

Thursday, 26 December 2013 11:20 By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! | Video Interview

Media

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of this country’s most beloved theater companies. Founded in New York City in 1963, the Bread and Puppet Theater’s first productions ranged from puppet shows for children to pieces opposing poor housing conditions. The group’s processions, involving monstrous puppets, some about 20 feet high, became a fixture of protests against the Vietnam War. "We don’t have playwrights in the theater. Our playwright is the daily news, is this — all this horror that happens," says theater founder Peter Schumann. "And it’s not so much that we want to do it, but we continuously get obliged to do it, because the goddamn media don’t say it. They are — they live by omission, rather than by reporting." In the early 1970s, Bread and Puppet moved to Glover, Vermont, where they transformed a former hay barn into a museum of puppets. Today, Bread and Puppet remains one of the longest-running nonprofit, self-supporting theater companies in the United States. We spend the hour with Schumann, asking him how the theater addresses the most urgent political issues of our time, from nuclear weapons to mass domestic surveillance. Soon to celebrate his 80th birthday, Schumann also discusses why he refuses to retire and the place of older people in our society.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Today, a special on art and resistance.

BREAD AND PUPPET MEMBER: Puppet show! Right this way!

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of this country’s most beloved theater companies. The Bread and Puppet Theater started here in New York City in 1963. Its first productions ranged from puppet shows for children to pieces protesting poor housing conditions. The group’s processions, involving monstrous puppets, some about 20 feet high, became a fixture of protests against the Vietnam War. In the early ’70s, Bread and Puppet moved to Glover, Vermont, where they transformed a former hay barn into a museum of puppets. Today, Bread and Puppet remains one of the longest-running nonprofit, self-supporting theater companies in the United States. It continues to use theater to protest the most urgent political issues of our time, from nuclear weapons to mass spying by the National Security Agency.

Well, for more, I’m joined right now by Peter Schumann himself, the founder and director of the Bread and Puppet Theater. His first solo museum exhibition is on display now at the Queens Museum. It’s called "The Shatterer."

Peter Schumann, welcome to Democracy Now!

PETER SCHUMANN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Fifty years of Bread and Puppet. Talk about how you started this very unusual theater company.

PETER SCHUMANN: My first gig here in the United States was a participation in War Resister League and Living Theatre producing a General Strike for Peace. That’s a big word for something that involved maybe 60, 80 or 100 people.

AMY GOODMAN: You come from Germany. You were born in what year?

PETER SCHUMANN: ’34.

AMY GOODMAN: 1934, as Nazism was rising.

PETER SCHUMANN: Under the Shatterer. Under the Shatterer.

AMY GOODMAN: The Shatterer.

PETER SCHUMANN: Born in the Shatterer period, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what life was like then and how you came to live in the United States.

PETER SCHUMANN: I was born in Silesia, in the outskirts, in a small town, Lubin. When the war ended, or came close to an end, we were bombarded by the Allies, and we heard the Russian tanks approaching, and everybody fled. And my family fled to the Baltic Sea, where they had some friends. It was called Schleswig-Holstein. And so, we lived as refugees for a few years on the farm, five kids. There we lived, having to make a new life, gleaning the fields, grinding the rye and wheat berries, making sourdough, making bread, in an old-fashioned village where they still had a communal bakery. So, everybody brought their loaves in one day a week to the big oven, and the baker baked them.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your family doing during the Nazi period?

PETER SCHUMANN: My father was a teacher, literature teacher at the high school. My mom was busy with five kids.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did your father think of Hitler?

PETER SCHUMANN: Whispering was the manner of speech. When adults came to my parents’ house, the kids were asked to leave. So, we were locked out of these conversations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you end up coming here?

PETER SCHUMANN: By the grace of my wife. We were married. We had two kids. She was a student in Munich on some scholarship. And we learned to know each other, and we came to visit. Then something happened, some glue in the seats or something, so we got stuck in New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, she is the granddaughter of Scott Nearing?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Nearing, who was—how would you describe Scott Nearing? Scott and Helen Nearing.

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, Scott, yeah, my god, he was an incredible influence on all of us. He was a radical that radically didn’t just rethink this system of society, but also invented a way of living apart from the normal dependencies. So, he moved to Vermont, started farming, started gardening, and inspired a lot of other people to do so. A whole movement of self-sustenance homestead making started through his activities.

AMY GOODMAN: And, as they called him, an advocate of simple living.

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, I would say so. It’s pretty true. He was.

AMY GOODMAN: So he was there in Vermont, but you came to New York City.

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And you began this theater. Why the title, the name of the theater, Bread and Puppet?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, because I was baking anyway. I had the habit of baking. I helped my mother baking. My mother always baked bread. We never knew that other bread was edible. That dark bread is very different from light breads because it’s sustenance. It’s a bread you can live off. And my starter is 150 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: You—at each event, you set up a brick oven to bake for the people who are coming to the performance?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, when we can, you know. Brick ovens that we build now on tour is one pallet of bricks. That’s 400 bricks. The secret is that you have to find real brick, meaning clay brick. And then we stack it. It’s called cantilevering. And you build a dome, and takes an hour to build an oven. No big—no big thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And put mortar—

PETER SCHUMANN: No mortar, no nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Nothing. You just stack it.

PETER SCHUMANN: Just stacking, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to a clip from the 2002 film, Ah! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet. It’s by DeeDee Halleck and Peter Schumann’s daughter, Tamar. In this clip, Elka Schumann, Peter’s wife, talks about the bread. She’s standing in front of the huge oven where the bread is baked.

ELKA SCHUMANN: We make—Peter Schumann, the director, learned how to bake this from a Polish servant girl in—or like babysitter, who helped his mother in Silesia. That’s a part of Germany that is now Poland. And they have very good rye bread, sourdough rye. And the grain, we have a grinder over there, and we grind the grain ourselves. And the bread is not at all like your supermarket bread. You really have to chew it. You really have to put some work into it. But then you get something very good for that. And when our theater is successful, we feel it’s the same way. You’ve got to think about—it doesn’t like tell you everything. It’s not like Wonder Bread: It’s just like there it is, here’s the story, this is what it means. You’ve got to do some figuring yourself in the theater, in our theater. And if the play is successful, then at the end you probably feel it was worth the work. And if it wasn’t successful, then you think, "What in the world was that about?"

AMY GOODMAN: Just an excerpt from a film about those ovens and about Bread and Puppet, most importantly. So talk about the title, Bread and Puppet.

PETER SCHUMANN: We just took a liking to that idea, that when people come to the theater, that we give them a piece of bread to eat.

AMY GOODMAN: You went from performing to making puppets. Why puppets?

PETER SCHUMANN: Why puppets? Umm, Mamma Mia, that’s hard to say. Me and my brother, and I think my sisters also, made always puppet shows when we were kids, when the—at any occasion, birthday party or whatever. There would be a bed sheet strung between two chairs, and then puppets would be taken out, and we would perform for each other. So, endless variants are possible to be performed.

AMY GOODMAN: But your puppets got bigger and bigger.

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, that came from New York City, from being here and realizing, when you play out in the street, that the little stuff is too little. So want to be bigger, and bigger meant really bigger. So we kept growing them to larger sizes and, yeah, still growing.

AMY GOODMAN: You need many, many people to human these puppets, because they’re so big, to carry, to enliven them. Explain. What is the process you go through? Who gets involved?

PETER SCHUMANN: The folks who come, I think, are people who are dissatisfied with distributing leaflets, carrying pre-painted posters and slogans, and are happy to have the opportunity to become an inside of a larger thing, of a sculpture that is multiheaded and gigantic and is rolling through the street and has its own language that persuades people visually, doesn’t need language but speaks by itself. So, we found it easy to find people, either directly at the demonstration—for example, the one that you mentioned—that you mentioned in Washington at the occasion of the Afghan invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, this was a march in 2001 where I interviewed you.

PETER SCHUMANN: Right, and we took two or three hundred puppets to that demo. And we worked on the outskirts of the speeches that were being delivered at that time, and asked people to join us. We had about 15 friends who would choreograph a group of 30 or 40 people into particular movements with these puppets. And we walked around on the outskirt doing these practices. And when the march started, we headed together. We could pull all of that together and could do this big street dance.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that moment in 2001, because I bumped into you at this protest. I was covering it, and I asked you to talk about the 9/11 attacks.

PETER SCHUMANN: Beyond the absolute horror of thinking of all these people collapsing under the buildings, it’s—what was attacked there were two symbols of the New World Order. And naturally, not a tiny minority of terrorists, but a gigantic part of the world is basically in the background of such an attack. We have been taking this arrogant stance of the number one country and the number one culture. We export our culture into every hut around the globe, boasting with our riches, eating up 80 percent of the resources of the planet for a relatively small group of consumers. And then we think that goes by just as if it wasn’t, and it doesn’t. All the anger and hate and horror by those who are being terrorized by us continuously concentrates into such an attack.

PETER SCHUMANN: I remember that, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: That was, what, 13 years—that was 12 years ago. And you’re still marching.

PETER SCHUMANN: I remember that, yeah. It’s amazing. Nothing seemed to have been learned from it. The interpretations of 9/11 were absurdly amiss, and typically the official news organs and so forth couldn’t find any way of explaining to people what happened there and what was bombarded there. It was always taken as an attack as if the civilians, who were the fallout and the horror in it, were the—had been the target. They were not the target. The target was the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And these were the collateral damage that America took so much care to explain to people that war produces—collateral damage. So there it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Peter Schumann, founder of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. We’ll continue our conversation in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our special hour-long program on one of this country’s most cherished and celebrated theater companies, Bread and Puppet. You may not be familiar with the company, but familiar with the puppets that often appear in protests and parades all over the country. I recently sat down with the founder and director, Peter Schumann. I asked him about why he left New York, where he started Bread and Puppet 50 years ago, in 1963, and headed to Vermont.

PETER SCHUMANN: We had an offer from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, to be theater-in-residence. We always wanted to live in the countryside, and we said, "Hurray! Now we can go to the countryside." We always—we wanted to, what Scott, what Elka’s grandpa did, you know, to go and grow potatoes. So here was a chance to grow potatoes and make puppet shows.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you did each summer and what you tried to accomplish.

PETER SCHUMANN: We called it Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, and we meant it to be all-embracing and huge and to be everything from carnival and circus to the lyrical concentration point of any abstract and intense style of thinking that you might do publicly. And it became—it developed its shape in that matter. So we started on Cate Farm at the Goddard campus in the same year we moved there, in ’70, and then continued when we moved to Glover four years later into a landscape that included a natural amphitheater, an old gravel pit, and allowed us to perform without electrical amplification. And it grew and grew, and we started to separate the different elements of the show more and more. So we called part of it sideshow, part of it circus and part of it pageant, ’til finally now we are going back to melting it all together into one show.

AMY GOODMAN: So, thousands and thousands of people would come from around the country and around the world in the summer, until 1998. Describe what happened then. What stopped this?

PETER SCHUMANN: I think it was a self-defeating mass gathering. We ended up getting 40,000 and 45,000 people per spectacle. And just the logistical difficulty of all this was fantastic. And then, finally, there happened a piece of horror where a man, a drunken man, killed a drunken man. So, but anyway, it became for us the—the way out of making these massive spectacles, which weren’t only our spectacle anymore. They sort of became spectacles in their own right in imitating American mass meetings, with all the drug traffic and all the ado of bands who were hired for the campgrounds to entertain the people who didn’t even attend the circus itself. Too much ado. Good riddance.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you stopped those mass, mass gatherings, but you continue every week performances.

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: First, can you talk about the stilts, how you came to be the man on stilts, and what you’re doing with that?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, stilting, I learned stilting from a monk, a former monk from France, who had worked in Languedoc, I think, is the area where they have shepherds who are professionally on stilts because the ground is wet and rocky, and the way of guarding sheep is easier done from stilts. And they have the funny habit of spinning wool on stilts. So they do not only stilt; they have a third stilt that has a little seat, so they also sit on their stilts, and they do spinning—

AMY GOODMAN: Wow!

PETER SCHUMANN: —and making—producing something on their stilts. So, anyway, that monk showed us how to build stilts. Then we all got hooked, and we tried—

AMY GOODMAN: How do you build them?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, from two-by-twos or from cedar poles, whatever we had. It was easy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, perhaps harder than building it is, of course, walking on stilts. Aren’t yours like 20 feet high?

PETER SCHUMANN: No, they are more like 10-and-a-half feet from the foot down.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how do you get up on them?

PETER SCHUMANN: I sit on top of one of our school buses, and I put a box on that, because it isn’t quite tall enough. Yeah, a box on top of a school bus. [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: And then, how do you go from once you tie them around your feet to standing?

PETER SCHUMANN: You just lift yourself up, and the rest is balance. You wiggle from one foot to the other, like we will do when we walk. Same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever fallen?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it hurt?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, I’ve broken a few things.

AMY GOODMAN: But talk about the power of stilting. I mean, what is the message of stilts?

PETER SCHUMANN: I think, in the very beginning, we just loved the danciness that you can get from stilts. It’s just—it’s a fun technique of being up and above everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Schumann, why do you play Uncle Sam?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, we need to make fun of Uncle Sam. I think it’s very important. That figure, he’s like Santa. Santa and Uncle Sam, we love those ridiculous figures, to nose them and to—

AMY GOODMAN: To thumb your nose at them?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, and—yeah, I think the public deserves them in this form.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the other characters you’ve developed?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, in our theater, everybody does everything. And characters are usually gigantic groups of characters instead of singular characters. We have groups that we call Grey Ladies. We have groups that we call Uncle Fatsoes. The first Uncle Fatso I built with kids. And the kids called him Uncle Fatso, just a big landlord with a big top hat, big fat nose, no grin, and cigar hand one hand, and the other hand we made so that it could be detached and that the kids could run it and punch something with it. So it was an activated marionette hand that could go on its own, went away and did its job and then came back to Uncle Fatso.

AMY GOODMAN: At the—your mass gatherings, your mass pageants, at the very end, the burning of one of the puppets, what was the significance of that? And who is the puppet?

PETER SCHUMANN: During a lot of these Domestic Resurrection Pageants, we built some Evel Knievel gigantic thing that was meant for burning. So these were either apocalyptic horseback riders or giant pieces of imitation machinery, robots of sorts, that sometimes we attached, in public and with public help, a lot of words of what should be burned onto them and that then were set ablaze by Mother Earth, who comes in. She is a big puppet that takes about 60 to 80 people to operate. And she comes, and she has a torch in hand, and the torch gets lit. And then she gets approached to that monster thing that did all the killing before, and she burns it. And then people do dances around there and make—use it as a bonfire.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s the power of fire for you, the symbolism of fire?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, this particular fire is the opposite of the bread oven fire. I love my bread oven fire. I sit there. I smoke my cigar or not. And you be by yourself. I think in India there’s a proverb where they said humans will never tire of watching fire or elephants. And that’s what it is: can never tire of looking into flames.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Peter Schumann. I want to go to this video blog. It’s called "Stuck in Vermont," part of Seven Days newspaper. They interviewed some of the younger generation of Bread and Puppet performers in August at the Total This and That Circus up in Glover, Vermont. Here’s what they said about being part of Bread and Puppet.

GREG CORBINO: Being a part of the theater, I’m very aware that I’m a part of something that is so much bigger than me and that has such an incredible history. I think that’s what brought me here in the first place.

JESS SHANE: That’s kind of part of the reason like why I was interested, because Bread and Puppet was one of the first big American companies to do this and to get kind of a recognition. And puppets are just amazing. Puppets are like the cheapest, fastest, awesomest way to like make some political theater and get out in the world. When you have something like a puppet, you’re disarmed, because you think it’s like a kids’ thing. And then it’s suddenly a really important message, and then it hits you right in the stomach.

AMY GOODMAN: How, Peter Schumann, do you incorporate the new crises and scandals, like the NSA spying on everyone, like drone strikes?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, we don’t have playwrights in the theater. Our playwright is the daily news, is this—all this horror that happens. And it’s not so much that we want to do it, but we continuously get obliged to do it, because the goddamn media don’t say it. They are—they live by omission, rather than by reporting. So these omissions—I mean, you are the glorious exception to this, so we listen to Democracy Now!, or we read the other radically unincorporated news media things that are still around. So, it’s—it’s not for the fun of it, really; it’s for—that service needs to be rendered to the public. If you’re an artist, you can’t slip into this situation of nonparticipation. you have to. I mean, it’s speech, what you build, whether it’s from papier-mâché or music. But what you build is an address, so the address has to make that sense that the public needs it.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned that last year you stopped doing some things. What did you stop doing?

PETER SCHUMANN: Stilting.

AMY GOODMAN: Just stilting. Why did you stop?

PETER SCHUMANN: Too old.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, if I would fall off the stilts, my body wouldn’t take that very well anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are you now?

PETER SCHUMANN: Seventy-nine.

AMY GOODMAN: When do you turn 80?

PETER SCHUMANN: Next summer.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Peter Schumann, founder of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Today, Bread and Puppet remains one of the longest-running nonprofit, self-supporting theater companies in the United States. It continues to use theater to protest the most urgent political issues of our time, from nuclear weapons and war to mass NSA spying. Peter Schumann’s first solo museum exhibition is on display now at the Queens Museum in New York; it’s called "The Shatterer." And we’ll talk about that in our next segment. We’ll also talk about why Peter Schumann feels or how he feels about older people and how they’re treated in our society. We’ll continue our conversation with the legendary theater founder in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we go back now to our interview with Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

AMY GOODMAN: You now have a new installation at the Queens Museum, which is astounding, from the floor to the walls to the ceilings, almost every inch covered. It’s all black-and-white?

PETER SCHUMANN: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s called "The Shatterer."

PETER SCHUMANN: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Why "The Shatterer"?

PETER SCHUMANN: When the first atomic bomb was exploded, Oppenheimer, the chief architect of that bomb and of that group of scientists, remembered a line from the Bhagavad Gita. And he happened to be a knowledgeable student of Sanksrit, so he knew the original. And that line goes like this: "Life, the splendor a thousand suns blazing all at once, resembling the exulted soul, is become Death, the shatterer of worlds." So that sprang to his mind as the interpretation for what he had participated in building there. And I think it never went away from him. I think he suffered from remembering that line ’til the end of his days.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about "The Shatterer," the kind of poets and—the kind of puppets and the artwork—you did huge murals, as well—that you have made today.

PETER SCHUMANN: The exhibit, which is really inspired by Jonathan Berger’s insistence on me doing that, so he needs to get that credit there. And also the museum, the Queens Museum. I haven’t got any exhibits in America, basically. I don’t know. People don’t want that kind of art.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of art?

PETER SCHUMANN: With political messages and with "Wah!" attacking and yelling at them. They want something more docile or more fashionable or whatever that is.

And the exhibit has different routes in it. One route is peasant revolution, 14th, 15th—15th, 16th century in Germany, very important revolutions that never became revolution because of the reformers, because of Luther and Zwingli and so forth, who sided with the aristocrats against the peasants. The uprisings were tremendous, and they—in the Black Forest, in the Upper Rhine Valley, in the Vosges in France, Alsace—the uprisings with thousands of men and women who—peasants who realized that with their pitchforks and hay rakes, they could rake these knights off their fancy horses and beat the pulp out of them and win the battles. And they did. They did win quite a few battles against those landowners, ’til the big reformers turned against them.

AMY GOODMAN: In "The Shatterer," the exhibit at the Queens Museum, a part of it is a library, your books.

PETER SCHUMANN: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, because I make books all the time. At the Printed Matter thing, my son Max made that exhibit. He has, I think, 420 titles of books from those 50 years. It’s all along the—I think we started making little books, as we made little books on the news. We took something out of The New York Times usually and made it into a little book, and then we went out with a cardboard box around the neck to Astor Place, which is a big move-around place for people going from one subway to the other, and we sold them one for 25 cents, two for 10 cents, three for five cents.

AMY GOODMAN: Don’t you make comic books for your grandson?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, yeah, I make books for my grandchildren every year. For my kids, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Why comics?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, because life is comical. So, what—that’s what comes to mind, you know? You draw, and you make stories, and they become comics.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think of this digital age, when people are completely getting away from books and paper, and yet you still make part of your exhibit your library, with real paper and real covers?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, I really love that fact, that you can touch them, that you can turn them, that you write in the—in the Queens Museum right now, I went in. I was baking outside at my little brick oven. And I went in to check out—because it was a kids’ day, I went in to see how the kids would look at the exhibit. And they had closed off the library part. And I asked them, "Why?" And they said because one cover had come off of one of the books when the kids turned the pages. So I opened it, and we put a piece of tape on the thing. I mean, they are falling apart. That’s OK. You know, they are books that—they are not meant forever. They are meant for looking and leafing through, and there will be damage, yeah. That’s all right.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there’s power in the Internet?

PETER SCHUMANN: Maybe, but I haven’t discovered it, because I don’t have it. So—

AMY GOODMAN: You haven’t—

PETER SCHUMANN: —I don’t desire it.

AMY GOODMAN: You haven’t logged on at all?

PETER SCHUMANN: No.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the free art store in Vermont?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, it’s—we started doing cheap art—we called it "cheap art"—in the '70s sometimes, and we just decided, "Let's make little cookie-size paintings and take them in the streets, and park the bus. So we invented a lot of sloganeering outside the bus. And then, not just kids, but grown-ups came. And we sold stuff to—five cents, 10 cents, at affordable prices.

AMY GOODMAN: I know you don’t like to log on, but, look, here I went to Bread and Puppet: Cheap Art and Political Theater. Can you read the—this is in big letters here—"The Cheap Art Manifesto"?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, sure. Yeah, we have quite a few of those. "The WHY CHEAP ART? manifesto."

"PEOPLE have been THINKING too long that
ART is a PRIVILEGE of the MUSEUMS & the
RICH. ART IS NOT BUSINESS !
It does not belong to banks & fancy investors
ART IS FOOD . You cant EAT it BUT it FEEDS
you. ART has to be CHEAP & available to
EVERYBODY ...
ART IS CHEAP !
HURRAH!"

AMY GOODMAN: What do you still want to do? What do you still want to accomplish, Peter Schumann?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, I never did totally what I think I set out to do, the combining of the musics and the sculptures and the languages that are available when you do public address art. Very challenging. Right now in the church, in "The Shatterers" show, we change the show every day. It’s every day a new show. And that’s the nature of it. So—but to—we are not changing it because we feel it needs to be varied; we are changing because we are still looking how to do it. And that’s sort of the rest of puppetry. It’s a huge field of ancient bulk, ancient festivals that are in there. The whole carnival is in there. The whole idea of carnival is in there. The whole history of sculpture is in there. The whole history of crazy poetry is in there, of nonsense. And how to make that into a one thing is evasive. It’s difficult. Doesn’t happen.

AMY GOODMAN: A kind of unified theory.

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah. And it doesn’t quite happen. So you always taste a little more here, cut a little more off there. In the end, you say, "Hey, we have to do it again tomorrow." So, it’s how it goes.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to take people on a little tour of the museum in Vermont, playing a clip again from that film, Ah! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet. This is your wife, Elka, giving a tour of the museum in Glover, Vermont.

ELKA SCHUMANN: So this is a Sicilian marionette, and it was in a play about the Crusades. And every night of the year, 365 episodes would be played out in the course of a year showing the Crusades. The history of puppetry is really very, very ancient and goes back to, I think, the roots of drama, literature. The earliest theaters were probably reenactments of hunts, using animal skins and animal masks and using that as magic to try to ensure a good hunt or a good harvest.

AMY GOODMAN: By the way, what’s the secret to a successful marriage? How long have you and Elka been married?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, my god, 55 years, probably.

AMY GOODMAN: Fifty-five years. That’s—

PETER SCHUMANN: Something like that, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —way longer than many people have been divorced.

PETER SCHUMANN: No.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the secret?

PETER SCHUMANN: I don’t know. I guess we like each other, and we appreciate our together work. And she is so much involved. She is not only my spouse; she is also my censorship office. You know, she’s the one who cuts out things, and she says, "No good!"

AMY GOODMAN: And do you agree with her when she says it?

PETER SCHUMANN: No, no, I don’t agree. No, we also fight that out. It’s agreeing or not agreeing, can be going either way.

AMY GOODMAN: So fighting is an important ingredient in a successful marriage?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, it is. I think so. Probably. Now, I’m not—I’m probably not welcome by my censorship office.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the place of older people in society in the United States?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, they don’t have enough to do. Society doesn’t have any place for them. And I don’t get it. Why? I mean, when I see them, I think of my mother-in-law and other older women who I met in my life, especially women. That they were so unemployed, so unused by society, is beyond my comprehension. They are so powerful. They are so able to do things. And they—and society doesn’t find a way of bowing to that concentrated power and employing it. It doesn’t do it. It discards them. It leaves them out.

AMY GOODMAN: What could be done?

PETER SCHUMANN: I mean, look in—look in older society. There are many societies where older people have automatically a role as being older people with more experience. This doesn’t exist in this society. This is a society of youngsters and of pushy middle-aged characters, and the rest is not so welcome. The kids are not welcome, and the olds are not welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of retirement, that concept? What does it mean to you?

PETER SCHUMANN: I don’t know what—I really don’t know what it means. Because why? Retire from what? From yourself, or from what?

AMY GOODMAN: How do you see young people? You’re continually working with all different generations in your artistry, in your puppetry. Do you think people are less educated or more educated today, even as they can reach out around the world through, for example, the Internet?

PETER SCHUMANN: They are very definitely less educated. Very definitely, their knowledge—when I just think of the kids who come to us, coming from art schools, from colleges, from universities so often, but their knowledge of musics and literatures and arts in the world is minimal, is deploringly small. And a lot of them are with us and work with us because they find that there are open doors to various aspects of just that, of musics and of other languages than the one that’s educated, that’s supposed to be communication but is so much less.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what message do you have for young people and older people?

PETER SCHUMANN: We find the young people who come to us a very encouraging bunch—the desire to participate, the desire to work together, the whole desire for artists to get out of the art education as a solo education for some acrobatic job, but rather to do something together that matches with other peoples putting things together, and then, because of this producing it together, becomes more open and bigger, that this is deep and true in young people and that they are pursuing it just as the—what did they call it? The uprisers? The—you know, the people who did the—

AMY GOODMAN: The Occupy movement?

PETER SCHUMANN: The Occupy movement. It’s not gone. It’s just asleep. And that’s these people who listen to your news, to the non-existing news that are all over the place. And they have to do something with it. It’s not good enough to just analyze it or complain it, or what have you. It has to be transformed, has to be put in a grinding bag, ground up, made into something, and then produce with it. And they do that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Occupy continues to give you hope?

PETER SCHUMANN: Totally, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Schumann, I want to thank you for joining us here on Democracy Now!

PETER SCHUMANN: Thank you, too. Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Schumann, founder of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Peter Schumann’s first solo museum exhibition is on display now at the Queens Museum in New York. It’s called "The Shatterer." The exhibit consists of two new large-scale, immersive installations created specifically for the museum’s new galleries, combining painting, drawing, papier-mâché, sculpture, handmade books. A very special thanks to Karen Ranucci.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

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Bread and Puppet Theater Founder Peter Schumann on 50 Years of Art and Resistance

Thursday, 26 December 2013 11:20 By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! | Video Interview

Media

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of this country’s most beloved theater companies. Founded in New York City in 1963, the Bread and Puppet Theater’s first productions ranged from puppet shows for children to pieces opposing poor housing conditions. The group’s processions, involving monstrous puppets, some about 20 feet high, became a fixture of protests against the Vietnam War. "We don’t have playwrights in the theater. Our playwright is the daily news, is this — all this horror that happens," says theater founder Peter Schumann. "And it’s not so much that we want to do it, but we continuously get obliged to do it, because the goddamn media don’t say it. They are — they live by omission, rather than by reporting." In the early 1970s, Bread and Puppet moved to Glover, Vermont, where they transformed a former hay barn into a museum of puppets. Today, Bread and Puppet remains one of the longest-running nonprofit, self-supporting theater companies in the United States. We spend the hour with Schumann, asking him how the theater addresses the most urgent political issues of our time, from nuclear weapons to mass domestic surveillance. Soon to celebrate his 80th birthday, Schumann also discusses why he refuses to retire and the place of older people in our society.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Today, a special on art and resistance.

BREAD AND PUPPET MEMBER: Puppet show! Right this way!

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of this country’s most beloved theater companies. The Bread and Puppet Theater started here in New York City in 1963. Its first productions ranged from puppet shows for children to pieces protesting poor housing conditions. The group’s processions, involving monstrous puppets, some about 20 feet high, became a fixture of protests against the Vietnam War. In the early ’70s, Bread and Puppet moved to Glover, Vermont, where they transformed a former hay barn into a museum of puppets. Today, Bread and Puppet remains one of the longest-running nonprofit, self-supporting theater companies in the United States. It continues to use theater to protest the most urgent political issues of our time, from nuclear weapons to mass spying by the National Security Agency.

Well, for more, I’m joined right now by Peter Schumann himself, the founder and director of the Bread and Puppet Theater. His first solo museum exhibition is on display now at the Queens Museum. It’s called "The Shatterer."

Peter Schumann, welcome to Democracy Now!

PETER SCHUMANN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Fifty years of Bread and Puppet. Talk about how you started this very unusual theater company.

PETER SCHUMANN: My first gig here in the United States was a participation in War Resister League and Living Theatre producing a General Strike for Peace. That’s a big word for something that involved maybe 60, 80 or 100 people.

AMY GOODMAN: You come from Germany. You were born in what year?

PETER SCHUMANN: ’34.

AMY GOODMAN: 1934, as Nazism was rising.

PETER SCHUMANN: Under the Shatterer. Under the Shatterer.

AMY GOODMAN: The Shatterer.

PETER SCHUMANN: Born in the Shatterer period, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what life was like then and how you came to live in the United States.

PETER SCHUMANN: I was born in Silesia, in the outskirts, in a small town, Lubin. When the war ended, or came close to an end, we were bombarded by the Allies, and we heard the Russian tanks approaching, and everybody fled. And my family fled to the Baltic Sea, where they had some friends. It was called Schleswig-Holstein. And so, we lived as refugees for a few years on the farm, five kids. There we lived, having to make a new life, gleaning the fields, grinding the rye and wheat berries, making sourdough, making bread, in an old-fashioned village where they still had a communal bakery. So, everybody brought their loaves in one day a week to the big oven, and the baker baked them.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your family doing during the Nazi period?

PETER SCHUMANN: My father was a teacher, literature teacher at the high school. My mom was busy with five kids.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did your father think of Hitler?

PETER SCHUMANN: Whispering was the manner of speech. When adults came to my parents’ house, the kids were asked to leave. So, we were locked out of these conversations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you end up coming here?

PETER SCHUMANN: By the grace of my wife. We were married. We had two kids. She was a student in Munich on some scholarship. And we learned to know each other, and we came to visit. Then something happened, some glue in the seats or something, so we got stuck in New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, she is the granddaughter of Scott Nearing?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Nearing, who was—how would you describe Scott Nearing? Scott and Helen Nearing.

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, Scott, yeah, my god, he was an incredible influence on all of us. He was a radical that radically didn’t just rethink this system of society, but also invented a way of living apart from the normal dependencies. So, he moved to Vermont, started farming, started gardening, and inspired a lot of other people to do so. A whole movement of self-sustenance homestead making started through his activities.

AMY GOODMAN: And, as they called him, an advocate of simple living.

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, I would say so. It’s pretty true. He was.

AMY GOODMAN: So he was there in Vermont, but you came to New York City.

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And you began this theater. Why the title, the name of the theater, Bread and Puppet?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, because I was baking anyway. I had the habit of baking. I helped my mother baking. My mother always baked bread. We never knew that other bread was edible. That dark bread is very different from light breads because it’s sustenance. It’s a bread you can live off. And my starter is 150 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: You—at each event, you set up a brick oven to bake for the people who are coming to the performance?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, when we can, you know. Brick ovens that we build now on tour is one pallet of bricks. That’s 400 bricks. The secret is that you have to find real brick, meaning clay brick. And then we stack it. It’s called cantilevering. And you build a dome, and takes an hour to build an oven. No big—no big thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And put mortar—

PETER SCHUMANN: No mortar, no nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Nothing. You just stack it.

PETER SCHUMANN: Just stacking, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to a clip from the 2002 film, Ah! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet. It’s by DeeDee Halleck and Peter Schumann’s daughter, Tamar. In this clip, Elka Schumann, Peter’s wife, talks about the bread. She’s standing in front of the huge oven where the bread is baked.

ELKA SCHUMANN: We make—Peter Schumann, the director, learned how to bake this from a Polish servant girl in—or like babysitter, who helped his mother in Silesia. That’s a part of Germany that is now Poland. And they have very good rye bread, sourdough rye. And the grain, we have a grinder over there, and we grind the grain ourselves. And the bread is not at all like your supermarket bread. You really have to chew it. You really have to put some work into it. But then you get something very good for that. And when our theater is successful, we feel it’s the same way. You’ve got to think about—it doesn’t like tell you everything. It’s not like Wonder Bread: It’s just like there it is, here’s the story, this is what it means. You’ve got to do some figuring yourself in the theater, in our theater. And if the play is successful, then at the end you probably feel it was worth the work. And if it wasn’t successful, then you think, "What in the world was that about?"

AMY GOODMAN: Just an excerpt from a film about those ovens and about Bread and Puppet, most importantly. So talk about the title, Bread and Puppet.

PETER SCHUMANN: We just took a liking to that idea, that when people come to the theater, that we give them a piece of bread to eat.

AMY GOODMAN: You went from performing to making puppets. Why puppets?

PETER SCHUMANN: Why puppets? Umm, Mamma Mia, that’s hard to say. Me and my brother, and I think my sisters also, made always puppet shows when we were kids, when the—at any occasion, birthday party or whatever. There would be a bed sheet strung between two chairs, and then puppets would be taken out, and we would perform for each other. So, endless variants are possible to be performed.

AMY GOODMAN: But your puppets got bigger and bigger.

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, that came from New York City, from being here and realizing, when you play out in the street, that the little stuff is too little. So want to be bigger, and bigger meant really bigger. So we kept growing them to larger sizes and, yeah, still growing.

AMY GOODMAN: You need many, many people to human these puppets, because they’re so big, to carry, to enliven them. Explain. What is the process you go through? Who gets involved?

PETER SCHUMANN: The folks who come, I think, are people who are dissatisfied with distributing leaflets, carrying pre-painted posters and slogans, and are happy to have the opportunity to become an inside of a larger thing, of a sculpture that is multiheaded and gigantic and is rolling through the street and has its own language that persuades people visually, doesn’t need language but speaks by itself. So, we found it easy to find people, either directly at the demonstration—for example, the one that you mentioned—that you mentioned in Washington at the occasion of the Afghan invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, this was a march in 2001 where I interviewed you.

PETER SCHUMANN: Right, and we took two or three hundred puppets to that demo. And we worked on the outskirts of the speeches that were being delivered at that time, and asked people to join us. We had about 15 friends who would choreograph a group of 30 or 40 people into particular movements with these puppets. And we walked around on the outskirt doing these practices. And when the march started, we headed together. We could pull all of that together and could do this big street dance.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that moment in 2001, because I bumped into you at this protest. I was covering it, and I asked you to talk about the 9/11 attacks.

PETER SCHUMANN: Beyond the absolute horror of thinking of all these people collapsing under the buildings, it’s—what was attacked there were two symbols of the New World Order. And naturally, not a tiny minority of terrorists, but a gigantic part of the world is basically in the background of such an attack. We have been taking this arrogant stance of the number one country and the number one culture. We export our culture into every hut around the globe, boasting with our riches, eating up 80 percent of the resources of the planet for a relatively small group of consumers. And then we think that goes by just as if it wasn’t, and it doesn’t. All the anger and hate and horror by those who are being terrorized by us continuously concentrates into such an attack.

PETER SCHUMANN: I remember that, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: That was, what, 13 years—that was 12 years ago. And you’re still marching.

PETER SCHUMANN: I remember that, yeah. It’s amazing. Nothing seemed to have been learned from it. The interpretations of 9/11 were absurdly amiss, and typically the official news organs and so forth couldn’t find any way of explaining to people what happened there and what was bombarded there. It was always taken as an attack as if the civilians, who were the fallout and the horror in it, were the—had been the target. They were not the target. The target was the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And these were the collateral damage that America took so much care to explain to people that war produces—collateral damage. So there it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Peter Schumann, founder of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. We’ll continue our conversation in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our special hour-long program on one of this country’s most cherished and celebrated theater companies, Bread and Puppet. You may not be familiar with the company, but familiar with the puppets that often appear in protests and parades all over the country. I recently sat down with the founder and director, Peter Schumann. I asked him about why he left New York, where he started Bread and Puppet 50 years ago, in 1963, and headed to Vermont.

PETER SCHUMANN: We had an offer from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, to be theater-in-residence. We always wanted to live in the countryside, and we said, "Hurray! Now we can go to the countryside." We always—we wanted to, what Scott, what Elka’s grandpa did, you know, to go and grow potatoes. So here was a chance to grow potatoes and make puppet shows.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you did each summer and what you tried to accomplish.

PETER SCHUMANN: We called it Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, and we meant it to be all-embracing and huge and to be everything from carnival and circus to the lyrical concentration point of any abstract and intense style of thinking that you might do publicly. And it became—it developed its shape in that matter. So we started on Cate Farm at the Goddard campus in the same year we moved there, in ’70, and then continued when we moved to Glover four years later into a landscape that included a natural amphitheater, an old gravel pit, and allowed us to perform without electrical amplification. And it grew and grew, and we started to separate the different elements of the show more and more. So we called part of it sideshow, part of it circus and part of it pageant, ’til finally now we are going back to melting it all together into one show.

AMY GOODMAN: So, thousands and thousands of people would come from around the country and around the world in the summer, until 1998. Describe what happened then. What stopped this?

PETER SCHUMANN: I think it was a self-defeating mass gathering. We ended up getting 40,000 and 45,000 people per spectacle. And just the logistical difficulty of all this was fantastic. And then, finally, there happened a piece of horror where a man, a drunken man, killed a drunken man. So, but anyway, it became for us the—the way out of making these massive spectacles, which weren’t only our spectacle anymore. They sort of became spectacles in their own right in imitating American mass meetings, with all the drug traffic and all the ado of bands who were hired for the campgrounds to entertain the people who didn’t even attend the circus itself. Too much ado. Good riddance.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you stopped those mass, mass gatherings, but you continue every week performances.

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: First, can you talk about the stilts, how you came to be the man on stilts, and what you’re doing with that?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, stilting, I learned stilting from a monk, a former monk from France, who had worked in Languedoc, I think, is the area where they have shepherds who are professionally on stilts because the ground is wet and rocky, and the way of guarding sheep is easier done from stilts. And they have the funny habit of spinning wool on stilts. So they do not only stilt; they have a third stilt that has a little seat, so they also sit on their stilts, and they do spinning—

AMY GOODMAN: Wow!

PETER SCHUMANN: —and making—producing something on their stilts. So, anyway, that monk showed us how to build stilts. Then we all got hooked, and we tried—

AMY GOODMAN: How do you build them?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, from two-by-twos or from cedar poles, whatever we had. It was easy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, perhaps harder than building it is, of course, walking on stilts. Aren’t yours like 20 feet high?

PETER SCHUMANN: No, they are more like 10-and-a-half feet from the foot down.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how do you get up on them?

PETER SCHUMANN: I sit on top of one of our school buses, and I put a box on that, because it isn’t quite tall enough. Yeah, a box on top of a school bus. [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: And then, how do you go from once you tie them around your feet to standing?

PETER SCHUMANN: You just lift yourself up, and the rest is balance. You wiggle from one foot to the other, like we will do when we walk. Same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever fallen?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it hurt?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, I’ve broken a few things.

AMY GOODMAN: But talk about the power of stilting. I mean, what is the message of stilts?

PETER SCHUMANN: I think, in the very beginning, we just loved the danciness that you can get from stilts. It’s just—it’s a fun technique of being up and above everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Schumann, why do you play Uncle Sam?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, we need to make fun of Uncle Sam. I think it’s very important. That figure, he’s like Santa. Santa and Uncle Sam, we love those ridiculous figures, to nose them and to—

AMY GOODMAN: To thumb your nose at them?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, and—yeah, I think the public deserves them in this form.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the other characters you’ve developed?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, in our theater, everybody does everything. And characters are usually gigantic groups of characters instead of singular characters. We have groups that we call Grey Ladies. We have groups that we call Uncle Fatsoes. The first Uncle Fatso I built with kids. And the kids called him Uncle Fatso, just a big landlord with a big top hat, big fat nose, no grin, and cigar hand one hand, and the other hand we made so that it could be detached and that the kids could run it and punch something with it. So it was an activated marionette hand that could go on its own, went away and did its job and then came back to Uncle Fatso.

AMY GOODMAN: At the—your mass gatherings, your mass pageants, at the very end, the burning of one of the puppets, what was the significance of that? And who is the puppet?

PETER SCHUMANN: During a lot of these Domestic Resurrection Pageants, we built some Evel Knievel gigantic thing that was meant for burning. So these were either apocalyptic horseback riders or giant pieces of imitation machinery, robots of sorts, that sometimes we attached, in public and with public help, a lot of words of what should be burned onto them and that then were set ablaze by Mother Earth, who comes in. She is a big puppet that takes about 60 to 80 people to operate. And she comes, and she has a torch in hand, and the torch gets lit. And then she gets approached to that monster thing that did all the killing before, and she burns it. And then people do dances around there and make—use it as a bonfire.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s the power of fire for you, the symbolism of fire?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, this particular fire is the opposite of the bread oven fire. I love my bread oven fire. I sit there. I smoke my cigar or not. And you be by yourself. I think in India there’s a proverb where they said humans will never tire of watching fire or elephants. And that’s what it is: can never tire of looking into flames.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Peter Schumann. I want to go to this video blog. It’s called "Stuck in Vermont," part of Seven Days newspaper. They interviewed some of the younger generation of Bread and Puppet performers in August at the Total This and That Circus up in Glover, Vermont. Here’s what they said about being part of Bread and Puppet.

GREG CORBINO: Being a part of the theater, I’m very aware that I’m a part of something that is so much bigger than me and that has such an incredible history. I think that’s what brought me here in the first place.

JESS SHANE: That’s kind of part of the reason like why I was interested, because Bread and Puppet was one of the first big American companies to do this and to get kind of a recognition. And puppets are just amazing. Puppets are like the cheapest, fastest, awesomest way to like make some political theater and get out in the world. When you have something like a puppet, you’re disarmed, because you think it’s like a kids’ thing. And then it’s suddenly a really important message, and then it hits you right in the stomach.

AMY GOODMAN: How, Peter Schumann, do you incorporate the new crises and scandals, like the NSA spying on everyone, like drone strikes?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, we don’t have playwrights in the theater. Our playwright is the daily news, is this—all this horror that happens. And it’s not so much that we want to do it, but we continuously get obliged to do it, because the goddamn media don’t say it. They are—they live by omission, rather than by reporting. So these omissions—I mean, you are the glorious exception to this, so we listen to Democracy Now!, or we read the other radically unincorporated news media things that are still around. So, it’s—it’s not for the fun of it, really; it’s for—that service needs to be rendered to the public. If you’re an artist, you can’t slip into this situation of nonparticipation. you have to. I mean, it’s speech, what you build, whether it’s from papier-mâché or music. But what you build is an address, so the address has to make that sense that the public needs it.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned that last year you stopped doing some things. What did you stop doing?

PETER SCHUMANN: Stilting.

AMY GOODMAN: Just stilting. Why did you stop?

PETER SCHUMANN: Too old.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, if I would fall off the stilts, my body wouldn’t take that very well anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are you now?

PETER SCHUMANN: Seventy-nine.

AMY GOODMAN: When do you turn 80?

PETER SCHUMANN: Next summer.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Peter Schumann, founder of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Today, Bread and Puppet remains one of the longest-running nonprofit, self-supporting theater companies in the United States. It continues to use theater to protest the most urgent political issues of our time, from nuclear weapons and war to mass NSA spying. Peter Schumann’s first solo museum exhibition is on display now at the Queens Museum in New York; it’s called "The Shatterer." And we’ll talk about that in our next segment. We’ll also talk about why Peter Schumann feels or how he feels about older people and how they’re treated in our society. We’ll continue our conversation with the legendary theater founder in a moment.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we go back now to our interview with Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

AMY GOODMAN: You now have a new installation at the Queens Museum, which is astounding, from the floor to the walls to the ceilings, almost every inch covered. It’s all black-and-white?

PETER SCHUMANN: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s called "The Shatterer."

PETER SCHUMANN: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Why "The Shatterer"?

PETER SCHUMANN: When the first atomic bomb was exploded, Oppenheimer, the chief architect of that bomb and of that group of scientists, remembered a line from the Bhagavad Gita. And he happened to be a knowledgeable student of Sanksrit, so he knew the original. And that line goes like this: "Life, the splendor a thousand suns blazing all at once, resembling the exulted soul, is become Death, the shatterer of worlds." So that sprang to his mind as the interpretation for what he had participated in building there. And I think it never went away from him. I think he suffered from remembering that line ’til the end of his days.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about "The Shatterer," the kind of poets and—the kind of puppets and the artwork—you did huge murals, as well—that you have made today.

PETER SCHUMANN: The exhibit, which is really inspired by Jonathan Berger’s insistence on me doing that, so he needs to get that credit there. And also the museum, the Queens Museum. I haven’t got any exhibits in America, basically. I don’t know. People don’t want that kind of art.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of art?

PETER SCHUMANN: With political messages and with "Wah!" attacking and yelling at them. They want something more docile or more fashionable or whatever that is.

And the exhibit has different routes in it. One route is peasant revolution, 14th, 15th—15th, 16th century in Germany, very important revolutions that never became revolution because of the reformers, because of Luther and Zwingli and so forth, who sided with the aristocrats against the peasants. The uprisings were tremendous, and they—in the Black Forest, in the Upper Rhine Valley, in the Vosges in France, Alsace—the uprisings with thousands of men and women who—peasants who realized that with their pitchforks and hay rakes, they could rake these knights off their fancy horses and beat the pulp out of them and win the battles. And they did. They did win quite a few battles against those landowners, ’til the big reformers turned against them.

AMY GOODMAN: In "The Shatterer," the exhibit at the Queens Museum, a part of it is a library, your books.

PETER SCHUMANN: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, because I make books all the time. At the Printed Matter thing, my son Max made that exhibit. He has, I think, 420 titles of books from those 50 years. It’s all along the—I think we started making little books, as we made little books on the news. We took something out of The New York Times usually and made it into a little book, and then we went out with a cardboard box around the neck to Astor Place, which is a big move-around place for people going from one subway to the other, and we sold them one for 25 cents, two for 10 cents, three for five cents.

AMY GOODMAN: Don’t you make comic books for your grandson?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, yeah, I make books for my grandchildren every year. For my kids, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Why comics?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, because life is comical. So, what—that’s what comes to mind, you know? You draw, and you make stories, and they become comics.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think of this digital age, when people are completely getting away from books and paper, and yet you still make part of your exhibit your library, with real paper and real covers?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, I really love that fact, that you can touch them, that you can turn them, that you write in the—in the Queens Museum right now, I went in. I was baking outside at my little brick oven. And I went in to check out—because it was a kids’ day, I went in to see how the kids would look at the exhibit. And they had closed off the library part. And I asked them, "Why?" And they said because one cover had come off of one of the books when the kids turned the pages. So I opened it, and we put a piece of tape on the thing. I mean, they are falling apart. That’s OK. You know, they are books that—they are not meant forever. They are meant for looking and leafing through, and there will be damage, yeah. That’s all right.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there’s power in the Internet?

PETER SCHUMANN: Maybe, but I haven’t discovered it, because I don’t have it. So—

AMY GOODMAN: You haven’t—

PETER SCHUMANN: —I don’t desire it.

AMY GOODMAN: You haven’t logged on at all?

PETER SCHUMANN: No.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the free art store in Vermont?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, it’s—we started doing cheap art—we called it "cheap art"—in the '70s sometimes, and we just decided, "Let's make little cookie-size paintings and take them in the streets, and park the bus. So we invented a lot of sloganeering outside the bus. And then, not just kids, but grown-ups came. And we sold stuff to—five cents, 10 cents, at affordable prices.

AMY GOODMAN: I know you don’t like to log on, but, look, here I went to Bread and Puppet: Cheap Art and Political Theater. Can you read the—this is in big letters here—"The Cheap Art Manifesto"?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, sure. Yeah, we have quite a few of those. "The WHY CHEAP ART? manifesto."

"PEOPLE have been THINKING too long that
ART is a PRIVILEGE of the MUSEUMS & the
RICH. ART IS NOT BUSINESS !
It does not belong to banks & fancy investors
ART IS FOOD . You cant EAT it BUT it FEEDS
you. ART has to be CHEAP & available to
EVERYBODY ...
ART IS CHEAP !
HURRAH!"

AMY GOODMAN: What do you still want to do? What do you still want to accomplish, Peter Schumann?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, I never did totally what I think I set out to do, the combining of the musics and the sculptures and the languages that are available when you do public address art. Very challenging. Right now in the church, in "The Shatterers" show, we change the show every day. It’s every day a new show. And that’s the nature of it. So—but to—we are not changing it because we feel it needs to be varied; we are changing because we are still looking how to do it. And that’s sort of the rest of puppetry. It’s a huge field of ancient bulk, ancient festivals that are in there. The whole carnival is in there. The whole idea of carnival is in there. The whole history of sculpture is in there. The whole history of crazy poetry is in there, of nonsense. And how to make that into a one thing is evasive. It’s difficult. Doesn’t happen.

AMY GOODMAN: A kind of unified theory.

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah. And it doesn’t quite happen. So you always taste a little more here, cut a little more off there. In the end, you say, "Hey, we have to do it again tomorrow." So, it’s how it goes.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to take people on a little tour of the museum in Vermont, playing a clip again from that film, Ah! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet. This is your wife, Elka, giving a tour of the museum in Glover, Vermont.

ELKA SCHUMANN: So this is a Sicilian marionette, and it was in a play about the Crusades. And every night of the year, 365 episodes would be played out in the course of a year showing the Crusades. The history of puppetry is really very, very ancient and goes back to, I think, the roots of drama, literature. The earliest theaters were probably reenactments of hunts, using animal skins and animal masks and using that as magic to try to ensure a good hunt or a good harvest.

AMY GOODMAN: By the way, what’s the secret to a successful marriage? How long have you and Elka been married?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh, my god, 55 years, probably.

AMY GOODMAN: Fifty-five years. That’s—

PETER SCHUMANN: Something like that, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —way longer than many people have been divorced.

PETER SCHUMANN: No.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the secret?

PETER SCHUMANN: I don’t know. I guess we like each other, and we appreciate our together work. And she is so much involved. She is not only my spouse; she is also my censorship office. You know, she’s the one who cuts out things, and she says, "No good!"

AMY GOODMAN: And do you agree with her when she says it?

PETER SCHUMANN: No, no, I don’t agree. No, we also fight that out. It’s agreeing or not agreeing, can be going either way.

AMY GOODMAN: So fighting is an important ingredient in a successful marriage?

PETER SCHUMANN: Yeah, it is. I think so. Probably. Now, I’m not—I’m probably not welcome by my censorship office.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the place of older people in society in the United States?

PETER SCHUMANN: Well, they don’t have enough to do. Society doesn’t have any place for them. And I don’t get it. Why? I mean, when I see them, I think of my mother-in-law and other older women who I met in my life, especially women. That they were so unemployed, so unused by society, is beyond my comprehension. They are so powerful. They are so able to do things. And they—and society doesn’t find a way of bowing to that concentrated power and employing it. It doesn’t do it. It discards them. It leaves them out.

AMY GOODMAN: What could be done?

PETER SCHUMANN: I mean, look in—look in older society. There are many societies where older people have automatically a role as being older people with more experience. This doesn’t exist in this society. This is a society of youngsters and of pushy middle-aged characters, and the rest is not so welcome. The kids are not welcome, and the olds are not welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of retirement, that concept? What does it mean to you?

PETER SCHUMANN: I don’t know what—I really don’t know what it means. Because why? Retire from what? From yourself, or from what?

AMY GOODMAN: How do you see young people? You’re continually working with all different generations in your artistry, in your puppetry. Do you think people are less educated or more educated today, even as they can reach out around the world through, for example, the Internet?

PETER SCHUMANN: They are very definitely less educated. Very definitely, their knowledge—when I just think of the kids who come to us, coming from art schools, from colleges, from universities so often, but their knowledge of musics and literatures and arts in the world is minimal, is deploringly small. And a lot of them are with us and work with us because they find that there are open doors to various aspects of just that, of musics and of other languages than the one that’s educated, that’s supposed to be communication but is so much less.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what message do you have for young people and older people?

PETER SCHUMANN: We find the young people who come to us a very encouraging bunch—the desire to participate, the desire to work together, the whole desire for artists to get out of the art education as a solo education for some acrobatic job, but rather to do something together that matches with other peoples putting things together, and then, because of this producing it together, becomes more open and bigger, that this is deep and true in young people and that they are pursuing it just as the—what did they call it? The uprisers? The—you know, the people who did the—

AMY GOODMAN: The Occupy movement?

PETER SCHUMANN: The Occupy movement. It’s not gone. It’s just asleep. And that’s these people who listen to your news, to the non-existing news that are all over the place. And they have to do something with it. It’s not good enough to just analyze it or complain it, or what have you. It has to be transformed, has to be put in a grinding bag, ground up, made into something, and then produce with it. And they do that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Occupy continues to give you hope?

PETER SCHUMANN: Totally, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Schumann, I want to thank you for joining us here on Democracy Now!

PETER SCHUMANN: Thank you, too. Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Schumann, founder of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Peter Schumann’s first solo museum exhibition is on display now at the Queens Museum in New York. It’s called "The Shatterer." The exhibit consists of two new large-scale, immersive installations created specifically for the museum’s new galleries, combining painting, drawing, papier-mâché, sculpture, handmade books. A very special thanks to Karen Ranucci.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

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