Backstory: The Takeaway From a Month in the Life of Bread and Puppet Theater | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Backstory: The Takeaway From a Month in the Life of Bread and Puppet Theater 

Published December 27, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

click to enlarge A circus performance - FILE: JOSH KUCKENS
  • File: Josh Kuckens
  • A circus performance

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2023.

Bread and Puppet Theater seems, from the outside, as if it shouldn't exist. Founded by Peter and Elka Schumann, the troupe has been performing outdoor spectacles on its Glover property since the early 1970s. On summer weekends, thousands come to watch surreal papier-mâché tableaux brought to life by volunteers, many of whom live on the land — in trailers, old school buses, motorboats and other structures not usually meant for human habitation. During the performances, the puppeteers wear all white, like members of a utopian religious sect.

Since I attended my first show a few years ago, I've been curious about the little society of performers that flourishes each summer at the theater's 200-acre farm. I love immersive reporting assignments, and I figured that the only way to understand Bread and Puppet — a quasi-commune, led by a visionary artist and sustained by mostly unpaid labor — was to spend a lot of time there.

So, for the month of July, I joined the circus. I would spend up to a week at a time in Glover, staying with a friend in East Calais or in a cozy shed attached to the Museum of Everyday Life just a couple miles from the theater, which Clare Dolan, the museum's founder and one of Bread and Puppet's most dedicated puppeteers, graciously allowed me to use.

Early on, one of the puppeteers said to me, "Time moves so weirdly here." Within a few days, I understood what he meant. Bread and Puppet exists in a completely analog universe. There is no cell service; the Wi-Fi network is kept secret; someone rings a bell in the barn three times a day to signal the morning meeting, lunch and dinner. After doing chores, we rehearsed.

There was a disorienting sameness to each day, and yet each day we were also figuring out anew how to keep the Bread and Puppet apparatus running. I felt like I was living in someone else's dream, which, in fact, we were. Bread and Puppet is Peter Schumann's reverie, populated by his vast hordes of papier-mâché beings. We were there to become art.

By my third week — the second had been cut short by the floods — there were warning signs that I was forgetting the ways of non-circus existence. After being outside from early in the morning until late at night, sitting on the ground or on tree stumps, I would return home and feel oppressed by my furniture. What was I doing with all this stuff? What higher purpose did these comforts serve?

Life at Bread and Puppet was intensely, sometimes miserably physical; every task integrated the body and the mind in the service of art. Sitting in front of a computer screen and writing all day, my usual mode of creative existence, now seemed deeply fucking boring.

When I finally left Glover for good, I felt a sadness unlike anything I've experienced at the end of reporting a story. (By that point, I had come back around on the virtues of some modern conveniences, namely indoor plumbing.) I wrote 7,000 words about it, but the intensity of life at Bread and Puppet, in the midst of so much beauty, is a rare and inexpressible thing.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Deepest Immersion"

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About The Author

Chelsea Edgar

Chelsea Edgar

Chelsea Edgar is a staff writer for Seven Days, and has written for BuzzFeed and Philadelphia magazine.


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