by Stephen Grigelevich
4-5 min. read
A conversation with Bread and Puppet Theater’s Joshua Krugman about the power of puppetry and live art, and his troupe’s upcoming show in Cambridge
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The story of Bread and Puppet Theater begins in 1963, when German sculptor, dancer, and baker Peter Schumann converted a loft in New York City’s Lower East Side into a theater for his puppet shows. Soon after, he would take his show on the road in a converted trailer, and by 1975, Bread and Puppet had established its present day residency on an old dairy farm in Glover, VT. For nearly 60 years, Schumann has written and directed pieces for the radical art troupe. The shows vary in tone, but all harness the transformative power of theater, including its invitation of the absurd, to deliver potent political and social messages. Schumann’s wife Elka, who recently passed away, held a prolific and expansive role within the troupe, as well. Her inspirational life’s story, which can be found on the Bread and Puppet website, is a worthy read!
Joshua Krugman has been a full time actor with B&P for over 7 years. Krugman describes the troupe’s active stance against aesthetic division within the arts, and talks about his duties, which range from artistic performance and creation, to operational work, to bus driving, in a similar, matter of fact tone. One of B&P’s company of 9 full time performers, Krugman recently returned from an intensive two week rehearsal that took place in the heated attic, affectionately called the ‘ballroom,’ of the troupe’s headquarters in Glover, VT. “We live on a former dairy farm, though [Bread and Puppet] is international,” says Krugman. “On this tour, we have a puppeteer from Korea, El Salvador, Germany, and France.”
Bread & Puppet Theater will present Finished Waiting, a play that interprets and communicates messages related to climate, war, and the potential of collective action, as part of its spring 2022 east coast tour. You can see them in Cambridge on March 22nd, at 7pm at First Church Cambridge, 11 Garden St. in Cambridge, MA. The show’s running time is one hour, with no intermission, and tickets are sliding scale $10-25. No one will be turned away for lack of funds! I was happy to talk to Krugman about Bread and Puppet’s show, theater’s role in society, and his favorite puppet!
Can you tell us a little bit about this performance, titled “Finished Waiting”?
We convened just over two weeks ago, this company of nine, in Glover, VT, in what is still pretty deep winter, in a heated attic, called ‘the ballroom,’ which has a double barrel woodstove made out of fifty gallon steel drums. And we work up there with our director Peter Schumann. After losing our theater’s cofounder Elka Shumann, we’re in a period of reflection and loss and celebration of her life. She served many roles, from matriarch to chief artistic collaborator, so as part of that, we are honoring her work with Bread and Puppet Press [through Bread and Puppet’s current retrospective exhibit and calendar prints, inspired by Elka’s work]. So we looked at some of the publications and books from our press. And Peter came across a book from the maple sap series woodcuts of texts that he composed while boiling maple sap in 2004. And one of the four of five books from that series is called ‘Finished Waiting,’ and has this very simple text: ‘I wait for a long time, and when I’m finished I go. And I go and I go and I go. And I stop, and I see.’ Those simple woodcuts, and pieces of that text, appear throughout the piece. So that’s sort of where we started and brought new puppets and new ideas.
Also, when you abandon the realistic aspirations of traditional actors theater, you liberate objects to fulfill their full expressive potential, so a door would be something you enter or exit through. For us, it is essentially a protagonist. And in this show, a door figures prominently, as does a disembodied ear.
"One of the great advantages of puppet theater is its inherent ridiculousness”
Could you talk about the unique power and significance of puppetry as a medium?
One of the great advantages of puppet theater is its inherent ridiculousness. And with that ridiculousness, and presumed silliness, comes incredible license, permission, to address curious topics and to take really big formal and aesthetic risks as well. If you say you’re a puppeteer and it’s sort of non-threatening and non-pretentious, and I think that’s especially true in countries where suppression of speech is more overt. This [advantage] has for millennia really allowed puppeteers to ridicule authority and power and to try to get away with it.
Another one is that puppet theater is at its heart a theater of ‘stuff,’ and for us, we take that to the biggest possible extreme. Puppet theater is a way to bring back together all of the arts that have been disciplined apart by the education system and by the funding system and in discourse about art. So painting, music, mask, dance, sculpture, poetry, carpentry [chuckles] gather power from each other. And Peter Schumann as a visionary artist, constructs in all those mediums.
Lastly, there’s an artificiality [to puppetry], and with that artificially comes this extraordinary possibility for reflection on our actual situation. We can’t get emotionally enmeshed in a puppet as we can an actor, so we have to think more critically, more structurally, and we hope to inspire in our audiences.
"Puppet theater is a way to bring back together all of the arts that have been disciplined apart by the education system and by the funding system and in discourse about art."
How do you see yourself fitting into a modern landscape? How do you make sense of yourself in the modern digital, virtual landscape?
I had a really telling and inspiring experience in Cambridge a couple of years ago during our annual show. We did a little parade and I was playing the tuba and I noticed people on the street were mostly looking at their phones. And as the brass band approached, they were looking up from their phones. And it sounds like a simple observation, but it really struck me that this kind of theater has the power to make people look up their phones. In essence, this kind of theater can be more exciting than what’s on your phone, and I think that’s a hopeful sign for the live arts. You know, there’s really no replacement for live art and live performance, and it’s because it has an immediacy that is impossible to replicate by other means. And especially with coming from the street theater lineage, it’s really theater that’s meant to grab your attention as you’re going about your business and help you reflect on the circumstances that we all share, and inspire the passerby to reflect on the experience and the moment that we’re living through together.
It’s a dark, enigmatic moment, and the audiences comes on that journey with us. Their attention was [in one particular performance] very pure and strong, and followed us through the show, and that’s what we hope to do. To deliver the right expression and the right public address that’s needed in the moment, and do it in a way that can hold people’s attention, even against the many technological distractions that beset us.
What might you say to someone who is unfamiliar with Bread and Puppet Theater but considering coming out this Tuesday?
I’d say, come see a brand new show by one of the great theatermakers of the last century, and with an extraordinary company of performers and musicians attempting to speak to the urgent questions of this exact moment. This show was made during the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing US supported, Saudi Led destruction of Yemen, and the ongoing apartheid in Palestine. And utter political fecklessness and banality at home. And it’s so rare for theater to engage what’s going on in the biggest sense.
Can you tell us anything about your puppets, and do you have a favorite puppet?
Our groups of puppets have names, the white population, sheet puppets, papier maché reliefs that are mounted to white bed sheets. There are other puppets such those we call the Big faces, these eight foot tall Expressionist faces with large hands. There are two puppets we call ‘the protective mamas’ who are cradling infants and have horns to protect them. As far as my favorite, I admit that I am quite fond of the Big Faces. And I find them quite fun to perform.
The Big Faces, one Bread and Puppet Theater’s creations, and one of Krugman’s personal favorites
Any final thoughts about for readers about B&P, or theater in general?
In conventional actor’s theater, typically you have characters who are the most important dramatic movers of the plot and story, and of the meaning of the show. For us, our work runs very counter to that more individualistic style of theatermaking, which of course, we see to be connected with the current capitalist, neoliberal subjectivity, and especially American rugged individualism. We see the social and political as being motivated by movements, by masses of people, and we see the great dramas of history and of our time as being played on a collective scale, as well. So the protagonists of our shows general are populations. Masses of puppets, groups of puppets. It’s populations who are the victims of wars and of environmental devastation and of all the other evils such as capitalism, racism, sexism. And it’s also the populations who have the power to rise up and hold the powerful to account.
Bread & Puppet Theater will present Finished Waiting, on March 22nd at First Church Cambridge, 11 Garden St. in Cambridge, MA. Show starts at 7pm and is one hour long. Tickets are sliding scale $10-25. No one will be turned away for lack of funds!