Peter Schumann interviewed

by Marc Estrin

(reprinted with permission of the author)

Marc: So, Peter, a lot of people were upset that the Circus, which had been going since 1970, was going to end. What it was that made that decision?

Peter: The exact motivation was the total shock at the killing of the father of four children, and the need for an immediate response to that by the theater. But this was only the culmination a lot of things leading up to that — trouble and mischief we have heard complaints about for some years. We had discussed other forms of Circuses before this happened — going back to a one day event, thereby eliminating the need for camp grounds, but this wouldn’t have helped any more at this stage.

Marc: Had the killing not occurred, do you think the need for change would have made this decision anyway?

Peter: It might have. But it would have come as the result of long discussions. And that is a big difference.

Marc: How was the decision was reached?

Peter: We had three meetings on the farm — one right after the Circus for performers to say our thank-yous; second, a meeting with the campground owners and other community people involved. Even though they felt really bad about what happened, they still voted for continuation.

Marc: Because they make money out of it?

Peter: Yes. And then we had a third meeting of our own, and at that meeting it seemed to me apparent to me there was no way around it –that we couldn’t continue.

Marc: Did it seem that way to other puppeteers?

Peter: People responded strongly to that on both. But I personally didn’t feel I could go on when this news sank in.

Marc: So this decision was consistent with some feeling among puppeteers, but finally it was your decision to stop and change it.

Peter: Yes.

Marc: What was the reaction of the community, the people who make money off it?

Peter: Well, naturally big camp owners were disappointed and felt it’s wrong to decide that way, but we got plenty of letters from the community who say “Thank you for the wise decision, we thought it couldn’t go on like this.” Quite a bit more of those than the ones who say “Oh, how could you do this, how could you stop it?”

Marc: How are the relations between Bread and Puppet and the town going to be affected by this decision?

Peter: I don’t know that. I don’t know what the town is. Some people claim to be the town who are not the town at all, like one of the Selectmen who has really nasty presentations to make when he talks about Bread and Puppet, and claims if we hadn’t closed down, he would have closed down us, which technically speaking, he cannot do because it’s not his land. Naturally we want to be on good terms with the town. The people who live here have pretty much supported our doing this, and have participated in great numbers. I think this man talks only for him and his cronies who are in political disagreement with what we do here.

Marc: Have things changed since you first came to Glover — the way you’re treated, and thought of, and accepted?

Peter: We have often been astonished of how generally welcoming and friendly the atmosphere in Glover is. Naturally there are exceptions like that one selectman and some others, but overall we have experienced lots of examples of good will and support — much, much more than the opposite. In the Northeast Kingdom and Vermont in general there are families who travel pretty far to come for either a performance, or bring their kids for a rehearsals, to partake in a family community, a community of generations. A lot of the grownups we have working with us now worked with us as babies or tiny little toddlers.

Marc: So what’s going to happen now?

Peter: We want to make this big mass and mass participation event into an event with smaller masses, but saying basically what wants to be said. Instead of gathering people for one or two afternoons or evenings in one place, I can easily imagine that we create habits that make people come every summer Friday for an Insurrection Mass with Funeral Marches for Rotten Ideas, or every Saturday for a Kid’s Circus, and so on. How will we distribute these shows into the year, from June until October? We’ll figure this out piece-by-piece. We have to work with the weather, and also want to make it possible for the people who come from very far to be here when there’s meaningful work for them to do. But it will be spread out. It won’t be this craze of four weeks, dropping everything we do and getting something out there. Instead, we will hopefully be able to continue our gardening through the summer, to spread the shows and allow us to do our normal chores and normal lives.

Marc: What’s going to happened with touring?

Peter: It has to change. We don’t want to do it so much anymore. We want to try to live more on the farm to make more use of it. I don’t see any reason why we should go to fancy New York City to compete in their terribly misshapen form of theater competition. We can perform here. We have our land, our buildings, and people do come. Searching for audiences is a bit silly. Why search if we can do things here, and integrate local folks and schools and colleges, and make it a more wiser event? We certainly haven’t had much contact with any of the colleges in Vermont or the high schools or the elementary schools, and that’s a pity. Why do we have to travel as far as Kentucky or France or Poland to make such contacts? It can also be done here and we are available. We don’t write for grants, and we are trying to live off donations and poster sales. How that will work when you spread it out over a season we don’t know yet. This is precarious. But we are also always trying to improve our little bits of agriculture, and to find more tricks of living cheaper. We’ve never spent as little on materials as we did this year. We’re using only paper maché and materials that we find, that people donate to us, that we collect from places where we know junk is hanging around, and going to the garbage.

Marc: Without the Circus poster and banner sales, things will get tighter. Is it conceivable that they will get beyond the limit where you can really support the theater?

Peter: It is conceivable. So if we get a good contract during the summer, we want to be big enough to split into two groups and have a group continue to work here and another group accept that invitation.

Marc: But do you also want to increase the poster and other art for Bread and Puppet folks and get them out there?

Peter: Definitely.

Marc: You’d be trading one distorted Art market for another. You’d have to do marketing.

Peter: It doesn’t quite compare to what you call marketing because it is this low profile offering that resembles the publicity we do when we do shows here. Maybe the museum is the actual gathering place where more will have to come, with more offered. But see, that is not really the question, Marc. The finances we are very willing to take chances with. If something is not possible, again we have to go. It always means more work. But the real gist of the thing is art as practice, as common practice. Acrobatism in art is something that is disgusting to me and has nothing to do with community and community-building. The interest of being inclusive — we have sort of developed models for this — these models can be intensified and expanded upon. They can be made bigger and teach us more. By the same token, plays can be designed incredibly simpler, Circus acts with dozens of kids participating is no problem. We do it on tours all the time. That’s the real spirit behind it — that it’s not so much for a crowd of people who sit, but it’s for a crowd of people who want to partake in this thing, to be something better than just onlookers, to make it into something useful for people, something thay helps them to not just be despaired and crazed by what is happening…. I am proposing a cultural insurrection so the new title will be “Paper Maché Insurrection” and not “Domestic Resurrection Circus”, an insurrection of scavengers against a system that is not about scavenging and not about preserving and not about taking things as they should be but is going crazy in it’s own civilization. To insurrect means to allow people to see that their manner is invented, comes down from them from the top, is given to them as something didactically unchangeable. When they liberate themselves from that, or see that in groups, in talking to many — that messaging with each other is cultural insurrection.

Marc: You want to go into schools. What if people say, “Hah, we don’t want these crazies in our school. We don’t want them polluting the minds of our children. Forget it.”

Peter: But we are educated enough, I hope, to not bombard children with messages that are not for the comprehension of children. So we are going to do circuses in schools that are quite acceptable to even the parents and teachers of the children. Even though, in some schools when we did our Circus, we added a Pentagon bit about the money cuts for education in favor of Pentagon, we made a sketch about that and the teachers were going like this [stern expression] but the kids understood what we were talking about.

Marc: How can you be faithful to that if the teachers are sitting with their arms folded?

Peter: There is no pre-decided, no decision that can be made beforehand.You have to try and see what’s possible and what you can do. There’s naturally a big difference between what you do in a college or what you do in a high school or elementary school.

Marc: You say you’ve learned over the years, and something else is going to grow out of this. What have you learned in thirty years of dealing with crowds and big level political messages?

Peter: Well, if you take a look at the landscape and the culture in America, we have probably very well succeeded to be invisible more than anything.

Marc: The theater to be invisible?

Peter: Yes. It’s nothing in America. You won’t find us in any major festivals, you won’t find us in any major books . . .

Marc: I completely disagree. I’ve seen puppets all over the world that are imitating Bread and Puppet. When people do any parades, any kind . . .

Peter: The good thing about that imitation is that they don’t even know any more they’re imitating, that’s fine.

Marc: The whole concept of how to do a political demonstration or a parade has been changed nationally, internationally.

Peter: I see that. Naturally you might even say on Broadway they probably nowadays do mannerisms that stem from Bread and Puppet, or they use these ideas. But so what?

Marc: And also, you can go now in any city or small town and get real bread. The energy of breadmaking in Vermont which clearly came out of Bread and Puppet has changed the way people eat. The theater has been at the center of that — at least in Vermont.

Peter: I don’t know if that is so but if that is so, that would have been a nice thing to have achieved because a little baker can make a living. That is a very nice thing that I’ve found. A little baker sets out to make good bread. He will find enough customers even in these small towns here..

Marc: Sorry I interrupted you. What have you learned doing the Circuses that you or somebody else will be able to use?

Peter: Well, it isn’t a learning that you can put too much into words. When you think of how we run this place, how we have people live with us, how we accept strangers, how we work with many people, and so on, it’s a continuously interesting and very much changing process of how these things happen here. But it suddenly has improved. Suddenly it is something that is getting better and deeper and where the politics of the thing and the actual lives of people are more integral. What we will set out to do in 1999 isn’t just a result of stopping, but a result of many years of having done this. To have the clarity that we can now have in a discussion all together is only possible now. It was not possible a year ago to say these things to each other, to clearly define and say, “Look, this is what we’re setting out to do”.

Marc: I want to get back to the dimensions of the audience experience where people would come and camp. It was exciting. It was a major part of people’s experience. They would see people they hadn’t seen for a year. People would see their ex-spouses with new partners, kids would maintain friendships with kids from the campsite. It used to remind me of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt, going from camp fire to camp fire.

Peter: I had the most pleasant walks through these campfires, I must tell you. Only a few times, and found it surprising too.

Marc: What’s going to happen to that? Are there any plans for camping?

Peter: For the time being, Marc, we shouldn’t even mention that dirty word, camping. It has become a dirty word for the Circus because it has become a club hangout for a certain club of kids. It has nothing to do with the Phish Concert by the way. It is a different group of kids, mostly local kids, very young teenagers, who collect here and get drunk and get busted and have a lot of drugs made available, much cheaper than the Phish Concert.

Marc: The drugs or the tickets?

Peter: The drugs. Why buy a ticket if you can have cheap drugs without a ticket? It’s mostly a local crowd that get drunk here. It’s very understandable, and I’m not against them, and I don’t find them bad or anything, they’re just symptomatic of society. But they need another outlet, they shouldn’t choose us. If they come to us, we want to engage them, we want to have them tighter, much closer.

Marc: How would you do that?

Peter: Well, there were mentions of instead of having them live somewhere and come to us, we should go there and perform there — so there are possibilities. But for the time being, we don’t even want to talk about even the possibility of camping. We are not going to ask our neighbors to do camping for us. At best we might ask one of their campgrounds to become a parking lot because we don’t want to have to deal with that. Then that person could make money, and be happy and we would be happy too, one bother less. So that’s all that has to be discussed.

Marc: What is the schedule of discussion and decision-making for the next year?

Peter: Well, first of all, we’ll talk here with locals, with our local friends in the group. Then people who come and work with us, who come to various projects — they become the next circle of discussers. Then there’s the annual meeting with the New Yorkers and so on, and that makes for an entirely different level of discussion. Then the circle will again spread to include more people, drawing up a schedule for June through October, making sure that our traveling happens before and after those dates, making sure there is a little cash to feed people, making sure we don’t drown in logistics. We want our neighbors to invite us, for the towns and villages in Vermont to invite us, for the institutions in Vermont to invite us. As soon we get into those levels of Vermont that will change the whole picture here. That will make for a difference how teenagers and these drunk kids behave, and once a big portion of them are working with us, there won’t be those drunks out there anymore. They’re going to do something more interesting.

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