Blogs by Ian Thal
Two Weeks with Bread & Puppet Theater, Part XIV
1/20/2004 7:22:58 AM
Anecdotes and observations regarding Bread & Puppet founder and director, Peter Schumann.
Before this opportunity to work with him, I had only knew Peter Schumann through transcripts of his lectures, manifestos on broadsheets, and academic accounts of his work where his role was that of as both inheritor of theatrical tradition, an interpreter of tradition, and an innovator within tradition. The articles by others show him as an artist who shapes the visual, performance and storytelling styles of his theater troupe. This Peter Schumann, is a figure from history texts about puppet theater. The histories rarely get at the person though.
In his own writings, he is a theorist who links his art with a commitment towards social justice and issues of war and peace. He accompanies these writings illustrations rooted in a history that stretches from the didactic allegories of medieval illuminated manuscripts to the international socialist printing presses to the subversive narratives of underground comix and sometimes these images threaten to subvert the accompanying text. Is it text or image that acompanies?
Of course, one way of learning about an artist like Schumann is to know his work or at least some of it in the detail I have sought to provide in the previous postings of this journal. One can liken this to the approach used by the natural philosophers on the attempt to know God through the functioning of the natural world (and thus beginning modern science.) I had the additional opportunity of being a volunteer member of the troupe (an experience to which the natural philosophers had no parallel.) This experience allowed some grasp of how he attends both to the details and the totality of the shows, his interests in both the sublime and the slapstick, even his role as a performer and leader-- aspects rarely mentioned in the articles I had read before. It also allowed for a level of focus that most theater writers do not have as I was effectively “embedded” (to borrow a term regarding journalists in Iraq) into the troupe.
I can't speak as to what Bread & Puppet or Schumann were like years in the past. Nothing I write should be taken as anything but a report on Bread & Puppet in November of 2003. I also should note that this writing project was never intended to have grown to such length. I never expected to do more than write down a few anecdotes.
Having read the illustrated works of Schumann the theorist of puppet theater before meeting him at the first rehearsal, I suppose that I expected someone more verbose. We rarely spoke at length perhaps out of shyness or perhaps he says most of what he needs to say through his art, but perhaps it was his gregarious nature or some mutual recognition that he would often greet me with a chuckle, a wink, a smile, or a thump on the back.
One late afternoon, in the hours before a show, I mention to Peter that I attended SUNY Purchase about a year and a half after he gave a lecture there (the lecture made it into a chapbook.) I add that it must have had some effect because when I arrived as a freshman, many of the ideas he expressed in that lecture seemed to have become entrenched in the culture of the school in which I began my trek towards adulthood. Peter noted how much fun he had when he was at Purchase and how he had played his fiddle when he lectured.
From there, he returned to kneading the dough for the sourdough bread he baked every day in the brick oven he had built in the parking lot behind the YMCA. Since the early days of B&P he has made fresh bread to share with the audience.
Friday evening of our the final weekend of the run, when we are but twenty paces from the theater on our way to a cast party, Peter points at my feet and says "You walk like Charlie!" I grin, as I know that he means Chaplin and certain that he has seen by the way that I move on stage that I know Charlie’s walk.
"You are wearing Charlie's boots!" I look down. My unusually large and beat up docs do look like something the tramp would have worn, though my feet are turned in while Chaplin's tramp walked with extreme turnout. Peter suddenly notices the difference, and corrects himself, "No, your feet go in..."
"Charlie walked with turn out, like this:" I say as I start emulating the Tramp walk, "but I have flat feet so I normally walk like this," look to the sidewalk and indicate my slightly turned in walk.
Emily says that I'm pigeon toed-- a phrase I had not heard since childhood. I walk better than I used to, but the boots are so worn away that my bad habits are returning. I return to my tramp walk and soon Peter joins me as we walk side by side down Mass Ave. The others follow us as we turn onto Magazine Street at Central Square, turned out and waddling together like a pair of Chaplins. He too looks like he could have been at home on a vaudeville stage or a Keystone one reeler. Both our height and proportions are much the same: a torso a little longer than average and legs just a little shorter. Later I write a poem about some of that walk.
At this point I have been working under his direction for two weeks, learning how he thinks about theater, politics, history, and philosophy, observing his sense of humor and his leadership, it seems like a conversation about the work would be superfluous, and that anything I might say about his show would be nothing more than an attempt to show that I am bright and he seems to keen an observer to have not made a fair evaluation of my intelligence by now. I am just happy to walk with him to the party and point out some of the little architectural. details that makes me enjoy the streets of Cambridgeport. We come upon a very elaborately designed nineteenth century house which bears the name “The London” in stained glass. The house was probably a hotel when first built. Peter exclaims, “If that is London, I can’t wait to see Marseilles on the next block!”
Once we arrive at the party we mingle with all of our friends and comrades. At one point one of the other volunteers gushes to Peter about how when she told her friends that she was going to perform in Bread & Puppet, one had announced that they studied his work in class. Peter smiles and seems amused, "they study me in university." Upon hearing this, Justin places a small coin in Peter's hand and they exchange bows. I wonder how many times this exchange has occurred and how much money Justin has lost.
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