The Sustainable Energy of the Bread & Puppet Theater: Lessons outside the Box
Estrin, Marc, Radical Teacher
I read somewhere that the average lifespan of an independent theater group is about seven years. I do not know where such figures originate, but from my experience it seems plausible to me. The average lifespan of a poorly maintained urban tree is seven years.
If seven years is an average lifespan, equivalent to a human life of 75, and if Bread & Puppet (B & P) has been around since 1963, that would make the Bread & Puppet Theater approximately 470 human years old. So, as you might ask about any 470-year-old person, what is it that sustains the Bread & Puppet Theater? Why has it lived so long and so energetically? And more generally, what is it that makes any organization--political, social and artistic, educational--long-term sustainable? Perhaps Bread & Puppet can do some radical teaching here.
Unlike most things in the depleting world, this group seems to run on a battery that is ever recharging and ever recharged. And like a battery, its strength is directly proportional to the difference, the tension, between opposite poles. My thought, after working with them for forty years, is that the secret of Bread & Puppet's survival is its continual feeding on six opposites in the universe. A Marxist or a Hegelian might call it eating dialectical tension.
Since 1974, the theater has lived in the inspiring landscapes of gorgeous Glover, Vermont. Open fields, with a built-in natural amphitheater, are surrounded by rolling meadows and hills, and capped by a mysterious evocative pine forest. Out of this rich milieu the plays and puppets emerge. At night, without ambient light, the sky is so clear one can see fourth-order stars with the naked eye. If one stops working and looks around in any direction, it is breathtaking.
At the same time, the theater thinks about and portrays gross ugliness--the ugliness of the contemporary world, polluted with ugly intentions and ugly effects. There are lots of "bad guys" among the puppets--butchers or suits we call them, and lately billionaires. They have their airplanes which mow down vast populations of helpless bas-relief figures. The theater was born in New York's Lower East Side and performs in low-income neighborhoods, with low-income people, around the world. But its current bucolic setting has never made it forget its origins or the people and values for whom it fights. Rather the opposite: I believe that the dialectical tension between the ugliness ever present to the minds of the puppeteers and the beauty which they see when they look around them fuels their energy.
Were Bread & Puppet to be a city theatre, living in the slums, scratching for leftover food, they would never know or imagine the possibilities of health for the world or for the wretched of the earth. On the other hand, were they just to live in the beautiful countryside, they might make a theater of Ooooohs and Aaaaahs, but they might easily forget the issues that surround them--the way many of us do. It is the constant tension between the beauty and the ugliness that keeps the theater on track, consistently making their unique, signature productions.
By and large, puppeteers are terribly hard working, but terrifically happy. That pairing is not uncommon, but it is too often enervating and alienating if one is not working at what one loves. Unlike factory workers, the puppeteers work 16 hours a day six days a week, and on the seventh they do their laundry. That is, the life is all consuming--researching, imagining, making shows, building puppets, rehearsing, practicing their instruments, plus the exhausting life involved in touring and in producing 16 different shows over eight weeks in the summer time. In short, work is hard, and the simple, rural life is hard. When there is no hammer, one has to use a stone, when there is no wood, one must harvest it from local trees on the land. …