A Rehearsal with Peter Schumann and the Bread & Puppet Theater

By David Dudley

A far cry from Broadway, in the mountainous Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, in the town of Glover, there stands a papier-mâché cathedral. This converted barn was built to Peter Schumann’s (founder and director of Bread & Puppet Theater) meticulous specifications.

The space consists of an open dirt floor, where white-clad dancers move alone or in flocks. Hovering above the dirt floor is the heavens: a platform runs the length of the upstage wall, upon which singers and musicians gather to play the dissonant symphonies (reminiscent of John Cage and George Brecht) integral to Bread & Puppet shows.

Tonight, a rehearsal is in progress: a reprisal of Bread & Puppet’s 1971 show, Attica, a tragedy wrought in response to the infamous riots that took place in the upstate New York prison complex by the same name, leading to the slaughter of striking prisoners.

I sit behind a poorly made table, spackled with various paints, supported by four mismatched wooden planks. Behind not one mask, but two, my face is no longer a viable tool to express the life force of my character, Governor Rockefeller. Beneath the mask and stuffed behind a desk, I struggle to meet Schumann’s demands.

“Lift your hand, now,” Schumann says. “Good, now, raise your finger . . . keep your hand in place, raise only your finger . . . Good.”

Schumann scrutinizes every awkward or ill-thought move I make: “Your movements must be simple, and clear. You must isolate torso from arm; arm from wrist; wrist from hand; and hand from finger. Each little motion must build toward a gesture.”

For me, these simple tasks are nearly impossible: I can’t see a thing; I can only feel my body moving.

John Bell, long-time performer and professor of puppet theatre who sits downstage left, speaks my lines in a deliberately deep, slow, drawn-out cadence. My job is to move my hands, torso, and head in concert with these lines. Thus my performance, though I am seated, is a dance.

Bell speaks my lines: “I am a good governor.”

I go from being slumped in the chair to sitting upright.

“This is a good country.”

I lift my right arm, ratchet my hand, then raise my index finger.

“Everything is good.”

I raise both of my arms so that they are elevated above my head, hands open and facing the audience. These simple refrains and gestures mock those made by politicians.

Behind the mask, my senses are acutely attuned to Bell’s every word. My movements must accompany his words precisely otherwise Schumann will let me know. For the performer who’s serious about one’s art, this is a great boon. This outward focus liberates one from that primary obstacle which prevents a transcendence of oneself: the indomitable ego.

Behind the mask, there is no identifiable trace of myself. Only the character remains. Freed from the audience’s judgment, I can fully devote myself to the play.

As Bell reads Rockefeller’s order to kill the prisoners, the grotesque politician’s mask is lifted from my head for a fleeting moment. I stick my devil-masked head out, shake it wildly, then withdraw.

According to Peter, it’s not wild enough. “Do it again.”

I obey.

“Again!”

Again, I obey.

Peter’s tone betrays his frustration. “No, no! What are you doing? The movement isn’t big enough – it doesn’t read for the audience. Again . . . Make it big!”

I do my best, but fail. I can’t count beats while violently shaking my head (if you’ve never done so, try it sometime).

The theater goes silent. Waiting for the affirmation I so desperately crave, in that gaping silence, I wonder if I haven’t been abandoned by the ensemble.

In that darkness, I begin to question if this isn’t all a dream; that I may wake up any moment to find myself in my little tent in the pine forest, where chipmunks drop acorns onto the forest floor, chattering loudly amongst each other.

“Are you kidding me?” comes Peter’s raspy voice. “Are you even listening to me? I said: BIGGER! LONGER! We cannot read what you’re doing: It’s too small. You are making the gesture insignificant.”

Realizing that we’ve come to an impasse, Peter suggests I rest a moment. In truth, we all need to rest: we’ve been rehearsing one show or another for ten hours strong. Whatever frustrations we exhibit are born of such long hours with little rest. Yet, we push on.

*****

As I join a small group of puppeteer and performers in the audience, it occurs to me that I’m not the only one receiving notes. Lindsay, a petite redhead in her mid-20s, who plays The Mail-man, looks to Schumann with glossy eyes. Schumann guides her from behind the curtain and into the space.

Bell reads The Mail-man’s line in a high-pitched voice, with rapid-fire delivery: “Hi! I’m the mail-man!”

Schumann turns Lindsay to face the desk where I once sat. He raises Lindsay’s left arm, waves, lowers the arm.

Bell goes on: “I have a letter for you!”

The Mail-man drops the letter onto my desk.

“Bye bye!” says Bell.

Peter turns Lindsay, marching her out stage right.

From backstage, Schumann says to Lindsay: “Your movements must be rigid, and fast: boom boom boom.” Schumann pushes on, “Instead, they are lazy and muddled.”

With some distance between myself and the performance, it occurs to me that the speech becomes music. You move your body on top of the music of the speech. In this way, Schumann’s dances act as another kind of mask–of engaging the body in movement.

The sharp, angular poses that dominate his compositions, contrasted by absolute stillness, provide another means of liberation. Thus all superfluous movements are eliminated. Movement becomes the primary means through which a story may be told.

Susie, a tall, lanky blonde from Texas, and a resident puppeteer, receives her share of notes and demonstrations, too. Her directions appear, to the onlooker, excessively brutal. Susie’s Guard is beating Lindsay’s Prisoner with the butt of a cardboard rifle. This requires Susie to deal out three sharp strikes to The Prisoner’s knee, mid-section, and head, in rapid succession.

John Bell delivers her lines in staccato: “You are in jail because you are bad!”

Susie strikes a blow.

“All criminals are bad!”

Susie strikes again.

Schumann shouts, “Stop! Stop! . . . The movements are slack. You have to move fast, and cut the extraneous movement.”

The extraneous movements of which Schumann speaks come in the form of Susie’s arm snapping back after each blow is struck. Ever so slight, Susie struggles to find the balance between graceful and brutal required of her physicality.

Frustrated, Schumann takes the rifle. “I will show you.”

Bell recites the Guard’s line: “You are in jail because you are bad!”

Schumann delivers a blow with effortless mastery.

“All criminals are bad!”

Another blow comes.

“You are bad!”

The Prisoner buckles, and then crumples before The Guard. This symbolic beating is a dance of violent oppression; simultaneously disturbing and transfixing. Each blow, like each word in a script, is carefully placed for effect.

The actor’s body is universal. Thus the dance becomes a universal language requiring no translation. Schumann’s theatre is living proof that bodies in space, when utilized effectively, are compelling in and of themselves.

*****

After rehearsal, I walk out into the cool Vermont night. I don’t realize it immediately, but Rena Gill (Stefan Brecht’s late wife) has followed me. As we walk down the path leading to the farmhouse, she inquires as to which character I played. I tell her that I was Rockefeller, or, the Devil, depending how you look at it. Surprised, she offers a compliment. I thank her, but reply with a criticism of myself, my failure at getting the movement right.

She corrects me: “Nobody knows it’s you up there. It’s Rockefeller who didn’t get it right. When you let go of yourself, you’ll be fine. Just let go, and Rockefeller, or the Devil, will do the work for you.”

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