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ANIMATAZINE

PETER SCHUMANN

EARTH

Peter Schumann is the artistic director and co-founder, along with Elka Schumann, of the Bread & Puppet Theater. Born in Silesia in 1934, he moved to the United States in 1961 and founded the Bread & Puppet Theater in New York City in 1963. In 1970, he relocated to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, eventually settling on a farm in Glover in 1974, where the company is still based and performs today.

With his company, Schumann has created dozens of shows that have toured the streets and theaters in the Americas, Europe, North Africa, and Asia.

Peter Schumann's giant puppets first appeared in 1965 in street parades in New York as a protest against the Vietnam War, and they have since become a distinctive hallmark of the company's performances.

In 1968, Bread and Puppet presented "Fire," a sophisticated and incisive show about the Vietnam War, designed for theater performances. Thanks to this production, Bread and Puppet gained international fame, touring throughout Europe for over a decade. The company was often associated with the New American Theatre, an avant-garde movement that included groups with diverse aesthetics, such as the Living Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Robert Wilson, and many others.

Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater is recognized as one of the primary forms of contemporary theater in the world.

His parades of giant puppets and masked characters presented on the streets of New York and in the hills of Vermont have significantly contributed to defining performance as an artistic response to the challenges of the modern world.

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THE IMAGE OF BREAD SYMBOLIZES THE DEEP CONNECTION BETWEEN HUMANS AND THE EARTH, BEING A PRODUCT OF HUMAN LABOR AND NATURE. HOW DOES THIS SYMBOL, WHICH REPRESENTS ESSENTIAL SUSTENANCE SHARED DURING YOUR THEATRICAL PERFORMANCES BOTH YESTERDAY AND TODAY, INTERTWINE WITH THE MEANING OF PUPPETS IN THE BREAD AND PUPPET THEATER?

In popular American language, the term "bread" means money, while in the rest of the world, it signifies food. Food is sacred; money is not.
 
When my wife gave tours of the Bread and Puppet Museum, she always started with the bread oven.
 
She would say that this theater is called "Bread and Puppet," not "Puppet and Bread." It's about bread first and then, secondly, puppets.

The bread is the ancient bread that medieval peasants consumed to survive.
 
The secret is that the rye it's made from is a robust plant that grows anywhere, even in poor soils. Even in Mongolia, they eat rye bread because rye grows in the desert. It's quite substantial.
 
This was the plant that allowed peasants to survive, becoming strong enough to lead revolutions in the 1400s, 1500s, and 1600s, in villages where they were an essential part of social life.

These revolutions happened continuously until Luther, the non-radical Mr. Luther, who translated the Bible so pleasantly and decided to align himself with the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, destroyed the major revolutionary leaders who opposed him, publicly hanging and torturing them to get rid of peasant revolutions.

We could have had the socialist revolution in the 16th century or even earlier, in the 15th century, but because of Luther, there was no revolution.

Peter Schumann - Mother Dirt Series - Painted Sheets, 2023 - Courtesy of Peter Schumann and Bread and Puppet Theater

I am a rye bread eater.

In Silesia, the country I come from, people eat rye; we use wheat for festive bread, but it's not serious, it's like cake. The real bread is rye bread.

I simply inherited the habit of making bread that was passed down to me by my mother. We never ate anything but real bread all our lives, 5 children.

We were refugees, had to flee from Silesia, and we lived on the rye that we gleaned in the fields, from what the farmers grew.

Refugees followed them during harvest. We gathered the grains left behind, had a small coffee grinder, counted, and my mother made bread.

There was a big communal oven in the village.

Once a week, the entire village gathered, each bringing their loaves with a distinctive mark; there was a baker who made the fire and baked the loaves.

An hour later, when the bread came out, it was good for a week.

That's the real story.

In America, when I arrived here, well... Americans are slightly crazy, they don't know it, because they eat Wonder Bread*. And it's a substance that damages your brain almost immediately. Without chewing anything, they swallow it, and that's how you get brain damage. It's not really good.

*Wonder Bread is an iconic bread brand in the United States, known for its soft and fluffy white bread. Introduced in the 1920s, it became famous for being one of the first packaged breads. Known for its colorful and distinctive packaging, Wonder Bread has become a cultural symbol in America, representing the classic sandwich bread for American families. It is highly processed bread, rich in additives, high in carbohydrates, low in fiber, with the presence of additives, and low nutritional value.
(Editor's note)*

 

Peter Schumann - Mother Dirt Series - Painted Sheets, 2023 - Courtesy of Peter Schumann and Bread and Puppet Theater

I arrived in New York in 1961 and joined the War Resisters League to organize an anti-nuclear demonstration.

The idea was to stage an action based on the medieval Dance of Death, but at Fourteenth Street, in Cunningham's studio, the dancers weren't interested in the simple movements of my pedestrian dance.

So, I recruited some friends of the building caretaker where I lived—no longer very young and LSD consumers—who became my first company.

Despite my wife's ban on drug use, our performances were excellent, even though I limited myself to beer.

Later, at Putney School in Vermont, where my wife was offered a position as a Russian teacher, I wanted to teach dance, but the faculty was reluctant to address death-themed topics like my protest dances.

They said: "No, we don't deal with death; we deal with life; you can't do that!".

So, I said: "Oh, well... then... um... how about puppet theater?"

They replied, "Okay, teach puppet theater."

And that's how we started doing puppet theater.

It seemed quite innocent; they would never have suspected there was content in the puppets.

But in reality, I was already a puppeteer as a child because my parents were friends with puppeteers, well-known professionals, so we always received heavy wooden hand puppets as gifts.
 
Our home entertainment for Christmas or birthdays involved setting up a blanket between two chairs and putting on a puppet show.
 
Later, when we became refugees, our parents allowed us to take one precious small bag each, and I chose to put puppets in it.

In the village on the Baltic Sea, where we were refugees, I went all over the village: small houses, straw-covered huts, shacks, dilapidated buildings.
 
I knocked on every door. Soldiers were interned, prisoners of war. They had a tent, and I did the same.
 
I set up a blanket between two chairs and entertained the village community, the soldiers, with these hand puppet shows I did in the style of Kasper.
 
You didn't have to invent a story; the story was there inside the puppets.
 
There was Kasper, Gretel, the King, the Queen, the Princess, and the Ghost; you didn't have to think about it.
 
The puppets themselves were the story; it was so easy.
 
That was our puppet theater in our family. It was all already there.

Peter Schumann - Mother Dirt Series - Painted Sheets, 2023 - Courtesy of Peter Schumann and Bread and Puppet Theater

The tradition of puppetry is to entertain children. What makes it so that the moms like it, and the grandmas like it.  And that is insufficient.
 
The puppets are old demons and old storytellers and old connectors to things that people have long forgotten. It's not good enough for entertainment.
 
They are way too boring for that and they’re way too interesting also. It doesn't work to consider them as a branch of the culture that’s specializing in entertainment.
Entertainment is just bullshit, it is unneeded.
 
There has to be an Earthling, and to be born in with the Earth, and make his statements accordingly. Yeah, that makes sense.

And the little magical dolls, from little hand puppets to giants that you still have in Europe at the annual carnivals, and so on. This is real.
 
Remember the medieval carnival. They allowed people to toss shit at the Pope. The Pope himself didn't march, but the Cardinal did. And people collected their shit and suited up at the Cardinal.
 
That's the institution.
 
So that had to be so net and they naturally it was not changing the system.

The Church very cleverly limited caliber to limit the time frame, so no real result of this.

They knew that, but that outlet of tossing was super important to make fun of them, to degrade them, to take them off their pedestals.
 
That was the nature of Carnival.
 
To make the fool the King, because any fool would make a bigger thing than the king.
 
And that's what puppetry does.
 
I’ll tell you, when I go to our loft, above the museum, there's a big loft where many things get stored.
 
In order to get to one side of that loft to find a puppet that you want to utilize, you have to step and destroy so many puppets in the process.
 
You have to flatten them out. By the time you get there, you have destroyed a whole population of puppets, and these destructions are very useful. They are very real.
 
These destroyed puppets serve purposes that other puppets can't do.
 
They have arms that are broken, that are hurt.
 
They have noses that don't exist anymore. They have eyes that used to be doing something. It's all diminished by war, it’s like war.

We used to do, at the end of the season, end of summer, burnings where we just took a lot of these things and just burned them, you know, festively.

The fire first made a beautiful citadel form, we piled the puppets up into a big structure like a cathedral then we made fire, then we had plenty of beer.
 
It was fun to burn them also, and they were all saying something before they burned.

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Peter Schumann - Mother Dirt Series - Painted Sheet, 2023 - Courtesy of Peter Schumann and Bread and Puppet Theater

AMONG THE NUMEROUS PUPPET FIGURES YOU'VE CREATED, WE REMEMBER MOTHER EARTH, AN ICONIC AND SYMBOLIC FORCE THAT HAS BECOME ALMOST MYTHICAL. HOW HAS THIS FIGURE EVOLVED IN RELATION TO HUMANITY OVER TIME?

Let me tell you how it was born.

We have a large old four-story barn in Vermont style that wants to move south because it's inconvenient in the clayey soil ground.
 
So, there are always problems with the foundations and the cellar under the building; we always have people who need to fix one thing or another.

One day, our friend Joe Wesley, with a tractor, removed a good amount of clay from under the cellar and deposited it outside.

When I saw that pile of earth, I noticed a very distinct face, so I took a shovel, leveled the earth a bit, and that became Mother Earth…
 
We take cardboard, rub it in water to dissolve it into those layers of paper, beautiful and robust. For forty years now, we have used cornstarch for the glue. You cook the cornstarch to turn it into glue and spread it on the paper: that's how we gave life to Mother Earth and other creatures.
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Now, we call her Mother Dirt (*).
 
Dirt is an interesting term in America, because people here in the countryside don't call dirt earth, they call it dirt, which is peculiar, you know.
 
Normally, in many languages, it's called earth, what you dig up.
 
But in the jargon around here, it's dirt, what you do, what you make your garden with.

For me to call her Mother Dirt, it’s only a light name change. It’s not a different character. Just means she's down to us what she is more than just only a figure.

Mother Earth is a figure in fairy tales and kids books quite a bit, at least in Germany. And so I thought we need to make it even more basic and that would mean Mother Dirt.

That's what people are made of and that's what they’re made up of after they die, they become dead again.

We have a holy mass just for her, just for the Earth: we spread the earth on people's shoes or hands before they enter… If they want, they can eat it, but not many do…

She has quite an appearance.

 

She has this far and arm span of 60 feet, about from fingertip to fingertip at the long, long distance, that she needs about 60 people to be operated on, to be moved over the field, and so on.

 

Then we have our armies of evil doers that get destroyed in the process of them. And then she comes and can resurrect them.

 

She can pick them up. Make a life again. And that's her job. She can shake him up. He can change them.

 

She gets a torch in one arm, and she comes and torches the big scapegoats, generals, and whatever they are, or peace, she has all the vital jobs in this thing.

 

She is the embracer. She is the resurrector.

 

She does all the things that people can’t do, like the one that's happening right now, the genocides.

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Peter Schumann - Mother Dirt Series - Painted Sheet, 2023 - Courtesy of Peter Schumann and Bread and Puppet Theater

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU TODAY TO INHABIT A NATURAL TERRITORY AND CONTINUALLY ANIMATE IT WITH PERFORMATIVE AND ARTISTIC ACTIONS?

Being here in the countryside is totally pervasive and intense; it's not just about taking care of the land, which is totally important.

Here is where the rivers flowing north split. My wife Elka's parents chose this farm because for her mother, there is the best water you can find in the whole world.

The rivers are full of clay. Going to the river, digging out the clay bit by bit, I built bread ovens.

And we bake bread in those ovens, and it's incredible what a clay bread oven can do for you.

Today, I bake like this: I make a fire for an hour, with 2 buckets of good pine wood, then I bake the bread for 24 hours.

There's no comparison with any other food. What you get with these clay ovens, you can't imitate.

This was one reason, and then there was the beauty of the landscape: hilly, with a pine forest and a beautiful expanse of meadows of about 30 acres.

When we arrived here, Elka's father had sold the gravel from one of the hills of the farm to build the local highway.

 

On the day I arrived, they had finished digging, and they were about to fill back in the hole they had created.

 

I said, "No! This is an amphitheater! Leave it like this!"

 

I managed to stop them just in time, so this amphitheater remained where 10-20 thousand people could gather to watch things.

Here, we can realize the entrances of the puppets from half a mile away to take them into the performance. And we can do radical things, like burning effigies of scapegoats full of bad words that need to be rid of…

We can do all these things, like creating huge shows that couldn't otherwise be done anywhere else.

 

It's only in the landscape that you can create puppets the size of trees that can make sense for thousands of people.

They become natural only by entering there, into that space.

The sunset is an important part of the show, with things burning in the dark after sunset…

We always tell the audience: "Look, if you get bored with the show, all you have to do is look up and you'll see the cumulus clouds passing by. It's a much bigger show that's going on up there...