Schumann’s puppets speak out on big issues

Peter SchumannPeter Schumann – baker, puppeteer, and founder and director of the Bread and Puppet Theater – began playing with puppets some 75 years ago in Silesia, now part of Poland, when he was just a boy.

He was 10 years old in 1944 when the rumbling of Russian tanks accompanied by the crackle and pop of artillery fire forced his family to flee their home. “Every night we saw what we called ‘Christmas trees’ in the sky,” Mr. Schumann recalls as he rolls lumps of raw dough on a rough table next to his Quebec-style clay oven on a gray autumn day in Glover, Vt.

“The Allies used the ‘Christmas trees’ to illuminate the ground beneath their bombers to find their targets,” he continues. “They were beautiful fireworks. But when we saw them light up in the sky, we knew that bombs would fall.”

When the Schumanns fled, each child was allowed to bring only a few items.

“I brought bread, a book of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and hand puppets,” Schumann recalls. “Eventually we got on an overcrowded train. People were hanging like grapes from the train…. We were the lucky ones who made it out.”

The items Schumann chose to pack are telling: Refugees carry only those things that matter most to them.

Flash forward to July 23, 2014. Schumann had become one of the foremost practitioners of experimental puppet theater in the world. After reading reports on the escalating situation in Gaza, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was playing out with devastating results, Schumann felt the need to respond.

He halted Bread and Puppet Theater’s summer program, three shows performed weekly from June through September, and he decided to remount “Fire,” a silent play for a combination of masked performers and mannequins that he’d created in response to America’s involvement in Vietnam back in 1965-66.

The show, now called “Fire: Emergency Performance for Gaza,” would challenge his collaborators. But they agreed to perform it the following Friday, leaving little more than a day for rehearsals.


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