'Seeing' series: The divine beauty and imaginary worlds of Vermont's puppetry
For many of us, our introduction to puppets started — and probably ended — with Sesame Street. But Vermont has a rich tradition of puppetry made for both children and adults — Bread and Puppet probably comes to mind.
Vermont Public’s Shanta Lee has been considering the puppeteers behind the puppets and the unique impact that this artform can have on both creators and audiences.
Vermont Edition host Connor Cyrus speaks with Shanta Lee about her latest installment of the series "Seeing…the Unseen and In-Between within Vermont's Landscape."
Our guest is:
- Shanta Lee, reporter and producer for Vermont Public
Broadcast at noon on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
We recommend listening to the audio above; for accessibility, we also provide a written transcript below. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Connor Cyrus: So why puppets? And it appears that you have been getting into some deep history of puppetry in Vermont.
Shanta Lee: I am a child who grew up with Sesame Street. And Vermont feels like the only place where one can run away and join the circus — alongside this history in puppetry that I never considered prior to living here.
In my series “Seeing…” which explores the intersection of Vermont’s land, art, inspiration and identity, it felt natural to engage in exploring puppetry, given that we don’t often think about it for a range of audiences.
Back in May, I drove to Glover, Vermont, the Bread and Puppet headquarters. I went to interview Peter Schumann, co-founder and co-creator of Bread and Puppet. Peter started the company in 1963 with his now-deceased wife, Elka Schumann.
This was my first time visiting Bread and Puppet, and that is where a lot of conversations about puppetry in Vermont start, because most are familiar with their work.
The day I arrived, I remember the road having few cars, and there was this quiet in the air on a perfect, literally blue-sky day. Beyond the old white farmhouse literally on the side of the road, it turns out that there was more magic that unzipped when I drove further up the hill, noticing small structures of all kinds. A whole community it seemed, of puppeteers.
Peter started this conversation talking about Bread and Puppet’s early days in the streets of New York in the 1950’s:
“Village parades, sidewalk parades, to start with where the cops couldn't chase you," he said. "Because when you were moving they couldn't do anything."
He went on to say: "I realized now the real thing isn’t just continue these makings of things, the real thing is to go into the street."
These street parades tied to what Peter described as issues like “the rents, rats and police,” general strikes for peace or Vietnam.
However, before all of this, Bread and Puppet’s roots start in Munich, Germany.
"We entered that dance contest. That’s how it all started," Peter said. "The condition for participating in this contest was that either choreography or music had to be American. And so we said, ‘Well, my wife played the flute, that's American music.’ We lived in the countryside, and we did our practicing there. Then came the kids. People came outside of Munich, to the little village. Oftentimes went into the town. Without her none of this would have happened."
It sounds like Peter’s wife Elka played a really big role in all of this.
Yes, that’s right.
"When Elka was in the seat, she simply did everything," Peter said. "Besides having the kids to take care of. Whether it was in the garden, picking up people from a train station, or whatever it was, she took the whole thing as a whole life enterprise."
What Peter was talking about here was not about gender roles, but a totally, non-specialized approach that he says is missing now. It was clear he had a deep respect for his life mate, so I had to ask: what did he learn from all these years of working together?
"Unlimited generosity," he said. "More than anything else. Total generosity, taught in every aspect that concern feeding people, or helping people out with idea development or whatever it was. I have to learn how to live it out — that's the hardest part."
Shanta when I think about Bread and Puppet, I imagine these larger-than-life puppets… for people who haven’t seem them, they are massive puppets that often look like caricatures of people. They have exaggerated features and their heads are often held up by poles that people carry, right?
I want to clarify that the giant puppets that are the signature of Bread and Puppet’s work is something that they employed during a time when most other U.S. puppet theaters focused on hand puppets, marionettes, or Muppet-style characters for television.
This was a distinction provided by Dr. John Bell, a noted scholar on puppetry who has been working with Bread and Puppet since the 1970s. [Bell] additionally shared that giant puppets have long been used by Indigenous cultures in America. So Bread and Puppet is tapping into a deeper tradition, in terms of when this came into practice for them.
I wanted to know about the story of their largest puppet. I was treated to a story about how some of these puppets come to be, one that actually started with the repairs that they were making to their museum in Glover, Vermont. When you visit, the museum is the first thing you see, but looks nondescript, residing within an old weathered, two-story former dairy barn. At one point, they were doing some repairs, working on the foundation. As they were dragging things out, all sorts of dirt and other debris, Peter says he caught a glimpse of a giant piece of debris, and to him it looked like a face:
“And I saw that what they piled there was a face," he said. "So I just made it into paper mache. And then he lifted up… ”
Peter said he applied a bunch of paper mache to the form —
"And voila!" he said.
A piece that became one of their biggest puppets —
"It was a 30-foot, 32-foot face," Peter said. "We made a big frame."
They stored the face in the woods! Not for a day, but several months, until a storm came and went. In terms of how the face held up?
"The whole skin fell off, melted off of this frame," Peter said. "And it was beautiful. That was the end of the biggest puppet — it's sad, but that's okay."
"Ephemeralism ... whatever you call it. Things come, and they go away. And we used to have the habit at the end of summers when we built so many things, to make a bonfire off them, to pile them out together, so we wouldn't have to store them. And it was a celebratory event."Peter Schumann, Bread and Puppet
For Peter, this was all about the ephemeral.
"Ephemeralism ... whatever you call it. Things come, and they go away," he said. "And we used to have the habit at the end of summers when we built so many things, to make a bonfire off them, to pile them out together, so we wouldn't have to store them. And it was a celebratory event."
I couldn’t believe it, they destroyed what they made!
"We were happy," Peter said. "The people bought some marshmallows and stuff."
They did this every year.
"Every year. every year? Yeah," he said. "For the big circuses, at least for 15-20 years in a row."
And these were huge end-of-summer happenings. All this talk of destroying their puppets inspired me to return to the concept of creative legacy, because we often think of art from the perspective of what will last beyond time — not create then destroy — because what will be passed down?
"I guess it had to do with what we felt could be stored," Peter said. "The interesting thing is that we don't have a decider in the company. So we sit together. It takes a bunch of beer, and then you decide which one is allowed to burn, and which one has to continue their life."
So beyond the size of the puppets, and how Peter Schumann thinks about legacy, what did you learn about the message that Bread and Puppet is trying to convey in their work?
What I learned from Peter is that it was not so much about the puppets, despite their towering sizes, but more.
"When we do these big landscape pieces, pageant, they're in the big field of 30 acres, out of the pine forest, long distances — a mile-long parades as part of the show," Peter said. "And for the audience, that isn't the spectacle. The spectacle is the weather, the sun, the cloud formations, the landscape, the whole thing, the sounds of the landscape, the little crickets, the helicopter going by."
And so, for Peter, the puppets are a part of the landscape.
"Those big puppets look half like trees, half like animals," he said. "They belong there."
There is also another layer that extends beyond all of this: beauty.
"Beauty is what is transmitted," Peter said. "It's something that can't be talked about. It's confined to what they call the aestheticism. For the Greeks, it was divine. And you don't know why it is and what it is."
For those listeners who might be, like me, thinking of Sesame Street here, it raises the question: can that type of puppetry have this divinity or beauty that Peter is talking about?
He says… not so much.
"It's formula puppetry, it's cutie-pie, it's ugly, it's cartoonish, and it has no similarity to that human, fantastic event of divine beauty," Peter said. "It's just a special branch of the commercial culture. But it doesn't qualify for divinity. For beauty."
I then asked in response: "You're saying puppetry doesn't qualify for that?"
"Beauty is what is transmitted. It's something that can't be talked about. It's confined to what they call the aestheticism. For the Greeks, it was divine. And you don't know why it is and what it is."Peter Schumann, Bread and Puppet
Why does this stand out for you in this exchange?
The distinction, and what Peter explains almost in a way that clarifies their approach to puppetry as purest. And this is all within bigger conversations in our culture about capitalism, this is what Peter is really expressing, and also talking about the way that screens shape our reality in a pervasive way.
Bread and Puppet through their approach challenges that.
"Reality is the opposite of that secondary reality of screens and clicks and clacks and that gives you whatever you want you think it does, but it doesn't, and that's the real message of puppet, it's the reality of it," Peter said. "To be in a room with people, out in the field with people, on the lawn, this people, and what happens here.
So Bread and Puppet went from a village in Germany to the streets of New York, and then Vermont — and will soon celebrate their 60th anniversary. So what’s next?
It is full circle, going back into little villages specifically in Vermont.
"We are creating little companies," Peter said. "We call them parking lot dance companies."
These are companies designed to use paintings done by Peter, but they are mostly autonomous. They perform and rehearse without much oversight from Peter or others at Bread and Puppet in towns like Chelsea, Montpelier and Glover, and they want to do others.
Shanta, another Vermont puppet company you spoke with is called Sandglass Theater. Tell me about them.
Sandglass Theater is a peer of Bread and Puppet, and is based in Putney. And like Bread and Puppet, they are local, national and international with a different approach in terms of size.
I talked with Ines Zeller Bass, Eric Bass and their daughter, Shoshana Bass to explore intersections between the puppeteer, the puppets they create, and the veil pierced with the audience through puppetry.
"For me, it was a process starting as a performer, for adults in this student-run theatre, then creating my own hand puppet show, and discovering the love for it," Ines said. "Over the years, it has become a philosophy. The puppet is something that can very well live in the world of metaphor. And I think the metaphor gives the audience a possibility, to be invited with their own understanding and thoughts of what they have seen. A metaphor is something that goes deep, it's not superficial."
This is Ines expressing her connection to puppetry in a way that ties the bridge between puppeteer and puppet. At the time in the 1970s, she was in Munich, Germany, and like Bread and Puppet, they begin in Germany and New York.
Eric Bass started in the 1970s with a street performance through the theater the Open Eye. For Shoshana Bass, their daughter, it wasn’t just the puppets, but the puppetry that was a key part of her life, it was a whole world.
“I grew up amidst the whirl and bustle of puppet theater touring, but also hosting puppet theaters in our home frequently," Shoshana said.
As an adult, this lifestyle rooted somehow in the midst of all of her other passions.
"I veered off and had my own discoveries," Shoshana said. "In the overlap and where those two worlds met and how they influenced each other — did a lot of dance and circus and theatre. And then found my way back in a kind of alchemist story, where everything that I was doing in these other fields, really, what I was looking for at the core was the puppetry as was taught and practiced by my parents. It all came full circle."
And the passions run deep for all of them. Here’s Eric:
"I think I never had a list. It wasn't like going into a supermarket and deciding what profession you were going to take off the shelf," Eric said. "It was — the short story is, it's the only thing I know how to do."
What struck me in talking to Sandglass and Bread and Puppet is the way that this was not just a way of life, but also a family affair.
This is Shoshana talking about her connection to the family business:
"I'm still in a process of discovery, and education and investigation," she said. "There are very particular aspects of the form that are so profound to me in terms of what one practices as a puppeteer, it's a practice in generosity. In listening. Ines spoke a lot about metaphor. And, but also this invitation, a kind of, like, open invitation that is always there with the puppet. I find so exciting because the puppet has this ability, because it's not, you know, an ego actor. It — I don't mean that in a pompous way, but just in the way that we don't project as easily onto a live actor as we would unto just an object that anyone in the room can fully freely pour anything into. There's a playfulness at the root of any kind of transformative moment and it works for adults, it works for children, it works in so many different contexts."
Eric added: "One of the really essential ideas that [Shoshana] alluded to is the idea of play."
I loved hearing them taking about the element of play, and Eric expressed how much we learn from children in taking this kind of play into the artistry of puppetry through the way that children enter a world — they're following the rules within that playing.
"You know, because children are really good dramaturgs," Eric said.
So Shanta, are Sandglass' puppets similar to Bread and Puppet’s approach to puppetry?
Whereas Bread and Puppet featured puppets that went from life-sized to beyond-life-sized, with the street as stage, Sandglass shared the range of choices, and theirs take on a smaller feature fit for a theatrical stage, while also being clear that all of their puppetry is rooted within old traditions from around the world.
In addition to the stage is this piece of connecting with audience, the intimacy of that moment, similar to what Peter Schumann mentioned about the connection with others in that moment of witnessing a show.
Sandglass talked about another co-creation. Their work requires the audience to bring the puppets to life, much like Eric spoke about children entering a world of play. Sandglass invites their audiences to do this. Here’s Shoshana again.
"And there's something fascinating that happens when a puppet comes to life, because involved in that process is not just the puppet itself and the puppeteer, but equally, the audience has to be part of willing that life and willing to invest in it, often with their own breath," she said. "And imagination that is engaged. And as Ines is talking about metaphor, and as we create a puppet world, it is, of course, not our realistic world. So of course necessitates that everyone in the room is contributing with their imaginations to the willingness for this life, and its world that it exists in. So when we do something like cast all the refugees and asylum seekers in this performance as puppets, something really interesting happens when the audience needs to invest with their breath and with their imaginations in their world and in their life."
"And there's something fascinating that happens when a puppet comes to life, because involved in that process is not just the puppet itself and the puppeteer, but equally, the audience has to be part of willing that life and willing to invest in it, often with their own breath."Shoshana Bass, Sandglass Theater
In that clip, Shoshana was referencing their show created years ago, Babylon: Journeys of Refugees, engages storytelling and created in response to impact that the worldwide refugee crisis is having on communities. Something that hits home right here in Vermont as we have welcomed displaced individuals.
There was also another piece of this, so I asked Shoshana:
"But also intense, right? Wouldn't you say that investing breath and life and imagination, especially if we're looking at an issue like displacement, especially if someone can't truly imagine that, that's a very interesting invitation," I said.
"It is," she responded, "especially and also as a puppeteer, who is myself, not someone with a refugee experience. And we speak about this a lot in post-show discussions with the audience. I think it's rather beautiful to reach towards something you can never actually understand. And we work hard in that performance, to position ourselves in a place that these are not our stories, we are trying to process them."
This all sounds fascinating. What are some of your reflections from this in thinking about both interviews?
I think about how creating, no matter what the medium, really is an opportunity for creating a connection with the audience as expressed by Ines, Eric and Shoshana. It is also a transmission of things that go beyond the surface of what we are seeing in the way that Peter spoke about.
I was also curious about the impact on the artist. Behind the puppet, how did this impact the puppeteer?
Ines Zeller Bass speaks to this D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks, which was an exploration of grappling with dementia within the aging process. And Ines created two different puppets-characters, named Rose and Mary, for this show. She speaks about how this process impacted her as the puppeteer,
"I can only talk a tiny bit about this," Ines said. "What my experience was enough — to go back to the degeneration piece we did — I was responsible for two of the patients. And I had to live in both bodies. And I was not myself, I was not Ines, I was Rose and Mary."
We often don’t think of puppets as something that would become a part of the creator in that way. We know that writers have characters living in their head, actors “become” their parts. Another key piece of what I learned about is the impact on the audience after some of these Sandglass Theater shows.
Ines Zeller Bass told me she was trying to be true to each of those characters and create this intimacy in a lot of these shows on the stage.
"I think that I felt very often the audience afterwards, [they were] so drawn into the characters because they were like they were living," Ines said. "And so after shows, people would always swamp the stage, and they would go and greet the puppets and look at them. And, and it was so real."
Beyond all of this, what it really came down to was the storytelling, something that bonds each and every one of us to each other.
"And they would tell us stories about themselves that came out of that experience," Ines said.
I think that's so at the heart of it, that story elicits story, that if you make room for a story, it awakens story.
This story is part of "Seeing…the Unseen and In-Between within Vermont's Landscape," a series dedicated to the exploration of culture, place, people, and the stories that run deep here in Vermont.