Bread & Puppet troupe returns to Middlebury
“Morning happens when enough birds loudly declare the sun.”
These words sang from a hand-painted banner at Bread and Puppet’s July performance in Middlebury’s Marble Works. That’s precisely what the 58-year-old, Glover-based performance troupe attempts to do with their summer show “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus” — now in its 51st year — but it looks different after COVID.
“This summer’s circus feels less bright, it feels heavier — which is apropos — it reflects the hard year,” Maryann Incoronata said.
Incoronata would know. She has been with the circus for 15 years, living, creating and performing.
“It’s my family at this point,” she said.
Since the early ’60s, the community that is Bread and Puppet has been forming and transforming around dancer, puppeteer and baker Peter Schumann and his wife, Elka Schumann, who died Aug. 1.
“Her life was a historical adventure novel,” son Max Schumann told VTDigger of Elka.
Elka was to thank for the Bread and Puppet Press, the iconic “cheap art,” which the company sells at its performances.
Elka and Peter founded Bread and Puppet in New York City in 1963 and moved their base to an old dairy farm in Glover in 1975.
There, company members live, farm and make art.
In an “ordinary” summer, there are often up to 100 artists, activists and performers — including seasonal apprentices — gathered in Glover to put together and perform “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus.” Right now, there’s about 25 people on the farm.
“We’ve scaled way back,” Incoronata said. She added that they decided not to run the apprenticeship program this summer for the sake of COVID safety. So everyone who’s involved has been at it before. But having less people isn’t easy, Incoronata said.
“It feels hard because we expect the same product with less people…but it always comes together,” she said.
With large papier-mache puppets, tall stilts, brightly painted flags and a live band, the theater uses satire to bring attention and action to local and worldwide issues.
“People have an easier time listening to puppets than listening to people,” Tori Lynn Ashford said. Plus, they make hard conversations and topics accessible to kids, she added.
Lynn Ashford is a puppeteer in Detroit, and this is her third season with the theater.
“I feel like a newbie compared to everyone else,” she laughed.
What draws her in, she said, is “the intersection of activism and politics with the land and community.”
That intersection lies at the heart of Bread and Puppet’s work. According to director Peter Schumann, the show is “in response to our totally unresurrected capitalist situation, not only the hundreds of thousands of unnecessarily sacrificed pandemic victims but our culture’s unwillingness to recognize Mother Earth’s revolt against our civilization. Since we earthlings do not live up to our earthling obligations, we need resurrection circuses to yell against our own stupidity.”
July’s performance included an act in which several U.S. Presidents, including Obama and Trump, placed a rope around a puppet designated “Cuba” and tugged it until it fell over. Another saw Zuckerberg, Gates and Bezos eaten by space tigers.
In direct response to the past year, the circus featured a special unemployment hotline with dressed up dancers who accompanied the endless and repetitive “on hold” music many have grown so familiar with, as well as two memorial acts honoring company members who have passed away in recent months.
In the middle of the show was a history lesson about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that bears repeating.
“In the middle there, there’s really a drop to harsh reality,” Incoronata said.
She noted that she doesn’t feel the emotional weight of the show so much while she’s running around and performing, but when she sits and watches in rehearsal, “then it really hits.”
Incoronata said she hopes that “hit” gives people the fire they need to go speak out for what they believe in.
“There seems to be a trend to be somewhat apolitical in our speaking, like it’s impolite,” she said.
In an effort to facilitate real community dialogue, Bread and Puppet members always hang out after their shows, opening the Bread and Puppet Press and serving their trademark sourdough rye bread with fierce garlic aioli.
Last year, company members had to offer bread to audience members on more-than-6-feet-long pizza oven platters to maintain distance. As restrictions relax, this has gotten easier.
“I just feel like we’re able to be more hospitable this season than last…it’s great to have more dialogue post-show,” Lynn Ashford said.
And dialogue is where it all starts.
“I just hope (the show) brings people the inspiration to just talk about the world — with levity and with bravery,” Incoronata said.
Bread and Puppet will return to Middlebury on Sept. 3 and promises a colorful and thought-provoking experience for all ages. The performance will take place outside of Marble Works with the gate opening at 5 p.m. and the show running 6-7 p.m. Tickets, $20 or free for kids under 3, are available at townhalltheater.org.
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