"A rare opportunity to experience its brand of papier-mâché counter intelligence," begins the Bread and Puppet Theater's press release, flexing one of the better taglines in recent memory. With its peculiar mixture of political criticism and enormous papier-mâché puppets, BPT certainly has a gimmick to draw people in—but it's also immersed itself into that gimmick with an almost unprecedented passion, pulling in legions of devout followers in the process. More than just a producer of continually cutting-edge theater, BPT is a full-fledged revolution.
"You take garbage out of the garbage and take cardboard and soak it in water, and it's amazing what can happen," says founder Peter Schumann in a modest assessment of an artistic process that results in majestic, eerie puppets that fly, float, dance, and come in sizes as high as 35 feet. A true theatrical visionary, the Russian-born Schumann started BPT in New York, 1963. The company began with local hand-puppet kids' shows about rats and other neighborhood problems, before rapidly transitioning into large-scale, elaborate street productions and parades. In 1970, Schumann packed things up and moved the operation to a farm in Glover, Vermont. There, he had the acreage to flesh his ideas out into bigger and bigger events, including the annual Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, a two-day outdoor puppetry festival that, at its apex, attracted tens of thousands of spectators and participants.
But Schumann's vision didn't stop with exhilarating performances and pageants; it developed into a total underground movement, the company becoming a kind of commune, living off the farm, and baking bread that it then gave away. Today, it sells handmade books, posters, and recordings, and offers workshops on "street theater technology" (which includes a lesson on launching "precision attacks on war and capitalist megalomania.") BPT also lets a few lucky people come and live on the farm each year as apprentices, learning and living the lifestyle of one of the world's most hardcore artistic institutions.
Institution or no, what matters in the end is how a theater company reaches its audience, and beyond the manifesto, BPT puts on a hell of a show at an affordable price. This weekend, for a mere $8, you'll witness How to Turn Distress into Success: A Parable of War and its Making. It's a funny, poignant, radical, occasionally violent response to the 9/11 attacks, and it's filtered through the coolest puppets you'll ever see. It's a layered event; a commentary on a puppet administration, put on by puppet masters who, more than just about anyone, know exactly what it means to be anything but.