Bread & Puppet Press

November 2 - 30, 2013

Printed Matter is pleased to announce the exhibition NOTHING IS NOT READY: The Artists’ Books of Peter Schumann and the Bread and Puppet Press 1963 – 2013. The show will run from November 2 through November 30, at Printed Matter Inc, 195 10th Ave between 21st and 22nd Street. There will be an opening reception from 5 – 7 pm on Saturday, where Mr. Schumann will debut a new fiddle lecture titled 6 Reasons for Little Books at 6 pm.

Founded by Peter Schumann in 1963 on New York’s Lower East Side, the Bread and Puppet Theater is an experimental and political puppet theater, which produces performances from small scale staged pieces to large outdoor pageants with over a hundred participants. Based on principles of a lived fusion of art and activism, the theater has been a familiar presence in street demonstrations since the anti-Vietnam War movement. Bread and Puppet has resided in Vermont since 1970, currently on a former dairy farm where the 130 year old barn has been converted into a vast puppet museum.

Peter Schumann’s graphics are a fundamental component of the Bread and Puppet Theater’s distinctive aesthetic and the production of books and book-like works have been an integral – if often over-looked – component of Schumann’s prodigious artistic output. Through a broad range of publications, including mini “Bread and Puppet Newspapers” (which were hawked by puppeteers on Astor Place and Washington Square Park in the 1960’s), hybrid artists’ book/theater programs, as well as oversized unique constructions with cardboard covers, the book form has had an enduring presence in Bread and Puppet’s many activities.

Mostly narrative in form, Schumann’s books and booklets deploy metaphor, metonym and other tropes to create stories and parables that celebrate both the ridiculous and the sublime. While referencing picture and comic books, these artists’ books achieve a Brechtian distancing effect in the play between image and text, where didacticism and allegory interact with the nonsensical and carnivalesque. The later book works become increasingly polemical – deployed in stream-of-consciousness rants in Schumann’s distinct and colorful voice, the modest booklets as a whole make up a stinging interrogation of status-quo culture and politics. The ephemeral nature of the books are also in keeping with Bread and Puppet’s do-it-yourself ethos – creating art (and protest) out of the everyday means and materials available.

The exhibition NOTHING IS NOT READY features Schumann’s recent extraordinary output of artists’ publications, mostly small and often scrappy booklets – over 200 titles in the last several years. Photocopied and staple-bound, these book works were produced in series that run in the dozens and scores of “volumes”: the “No-x-mas Series”, “Kasper Comix & Tragix”, “Jingle Books”, “How-To Pamphlets”, and “the Downsized Novel Corporation” to name the most abundant.

A broad selection of out-of-print publications dating back to the early 1960’s will also be exhibited, as well as limited edition letterpress artists’ books from the Bread and Puppet Press and the Janus Press of Newark, Vermont. In total, well over 400 artists’ books and booklets will be on display, with many available for sale. In addition, a selection of popular Bread and Puppet posters will also be on display and available for sale. A window installation of puppets and books will be collaboratively designed by members of Bread and Puppet and Printed Matter’s staff and interns. The exhibition is being curated by Printed Matter’s Associate Director, Max Schumann, who has been with the organization for 24 years, and who is also Peter Schumann’s son.

NOTHING IS NOT READY is being presented on the occasion of Bread and Puppet’s 50th anniversary, making it one of the longest running independent Theaters in the world today. It also runs concurrent with a major exhibition of Schumann’s artwork at the Queens Museum of Art; the staging of a recent Bread and Puppet Theater piece, Shatterer of Worlds, at the West Park Presbyterian Church at 165 West 86th St, November 7 – 24; and a screening of films celebrating Bread and Puppet’s 50th anniversary at Anthology Film Archives on November 19.

Read further for more background on Bread and Puppet Theater’s 50 year legacy:

ABOUT BREAD AND PUPPET’S 50 YEAR HISTORY In the early 1960’s, a group of scruffy troubadours rented out a small loft on Delancey Street in New York’s Lower East Side, and began putting on weekly performances. Headed by Peter Schumann, a sculptor, dancer and baker recently emigrated from Germany, they would distribute Schumann’s bread to the audience who would slowly chew the coarse sourdough as the puppet performance ensued. Schumann was just back from a puppet teaching gig at the Putney School in Vermont, where his wife Elka had been teaching Russian language as a means to support her graduate studies in the same field. Unable to successfully pitch a class in choreography and dance, Schumann convinced the school administration to accept his proposal to teach an extra-curricular class in puppetry. Schumann also took the show (alternately named the Moosach Puppet Theater and People Puppet Theater) on the road. He converted his father-in- law’s small trailer into a mobile puppet stage, and hauling it with a beat up station wagon started an improvised solo tour across New England, putting on impromptu performances in random towns and cities along the way.

Back in New York City, family friends underwrote the $60 a month rent on the Delancey Street space, and Schumann quickly converted it into a theater and puppet museum. Schumann’s skills and interest in dance and sculpture were fused in puppetry, and the bread baking and distribution shored up the utilitarian function of an art practice synthesized with daily life. Peter and Elka decided on the name Bread and Puppet Theater. The name stuck. The year was 1963.

The Bread and Puppet Theater would embark on a remarkable 50-year journey, leaving an indelible stamp on the world of theater and the American cultural landscape. From the humble loft on Delancey Street, the Theater took to the streets and beyond. Enmeshed in the radical counterculture of downtown New York, and informed by Elka’s heritage of political activism, beginning in 1964 with some of the earliest demonstrations against U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia,Bread and Puppet became a familiar presence in the protest movement against the Vietnam War over the following decade. The politics were also local – during the summers of ‘65 and '66, Bread and puppet created large-scale outdoor pageants in some of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City, and in collaboration with the residents addressed urban political and social issues of the day. It was here that some of B&P’s most enduring puppet icons – Uncle Fatso, The Dragon, Mother Earth and Uranos – were created with the help of the neighborhood kids.

In 1968, Bread and Puppet presented Fire, an understated yet hard-hitting indoor piece about the Vietnam War, to critical acclaim at the Nancy Theater Festival in France. This launched the theater into international prominence and helped secure over a decade of seasonal touring in Europe and beyond. During this period, Bread and Puppet was often associated with the New American Theater – a loose-knit avant-garde movement that included companies as diverse as the Living Theater, The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Robert Wilson and others. Schumann had come to the States informed in part by the European avant-garde, and in New York was exposed to the Dada-influenced work of Cage and Cunningham; the early happenings of Oldenburg, Kaprow, and Grooms; Fluxus; and the Judson Dance Theater. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Schumann’s experimental sensibility was combined with much older forms: medieval passion plays, the Bible, fairy tales and other folkloric traditions of story telling. Bread and Puppet was also unique in its economic independence. Guided by a philosophy of living and working within the means available, the Bread and Puppet aesthetic was inextricable from the paper-maché, burlap, twine, and staples that made up and literally held the puppets and the shows together.

In 1970 Bread and Puppet moved to Vermont, first to a residency at Goddard College, then in 1975 to an old dairy farm in Glover, in the Northeast Kingdom. In Vermont, the annual Our Domestic Resurrection Circus was created, using the pastoral landscape to stage large scale outdoor productions. As the Theater faded from the contemporary theater spotlight, the two-day festival grew to become Bread and Puppet’s central activity, produced by over one hundred volunteers and drawing audiences in the tens of thousands. Seasonal touring became even more diversified, and included more local, regional and “third world” venues; Bread and Puppet workshops – where shows and circuses were put together using local volunteers – became a more common mode of production and performance; and the Bread and Puppet Press grew to become a staple of the theater’s income. Peter decided to end the Circus in 1998, after the tragic death of an audience member in one of the teeming campgrounds that had evolved adjacent to the Theater. The Circus was succeeded by a summer program with weekly, smaller scaled performances which carries on to this day.

In this new format, the Theater continues its prolific output of new shows addressing the issues of the day – like militarism, capitalism, and ecology – as well as re-staging classic Bread and Puppet pieces from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Operating on a shoestring budget and still within its means, the summer program has evolved into a highly organized operation, including larger than ever apprentice and volunteer participation, and plays to enthusiastic and growing audiences.

Over these years Bread and Puppet has developed into a vast community, adding new layers every summer as new apprentices learn the ropes from returning apprentices and puppeteers, with years – and even decades – of experience under their belts. An extensive local community participates and lends resources for the summer shows, parades, and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Children grow up in the theater and now even some of those children’s children are taking part.

Bread and Puppet’s impact on the world of experimental and political theater has been acknowledged in scholarship, evidenced by the scores of theater companies from across the globe that cite Bread and Puppet as an important influence. But perhaps of most significance is to conceptualize what this past fifty years of work represents: the tens of thousands of hours of paper-maché, sewing, building and painting; and of puppet rehearsal; the countless meetings, band rehearsals and training sessions for volunteers; the millions of miles traveled by so many Bread and Puppet company members; and the performances given to audiences across the world over this period.

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