A Bread & Puppet Theater Experience

This post is written by guest blogger Andrew Molinaro, a native of Covington, GA (35 miles SE of Atlanta) and a resident of Upstate SC for just over 6 years. He has been actively involved with HUB-BUB from the very beginning, having served as an active volunteer and patron, as well as on the film & music committees. He has been a member of the advisory board since 2008. Andrew enjoys being sociable and also has a fondness for live music, films, puppetry, technology and Italian cooking.

This past Saturday, February 26th, the Bread & Puppet Theater of Vermont came to Spartanburg to host a workshop and present a cabaret at The Showroom. I was looking forward to these two events with great fervor, as HUB-BUB’s former artist-in-residence director, Alix Refshauge, had originally mentioned them to me a couple years ago when they were on another tour of the Southeast, so I am happy that they were finally booked to come visit the Sparkle City on their current tour.

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the workshop, given that I had not looked them up online to find out what they were all about, as I wanted to be surprised. The workshop only drew out about 3 other people, but with Stephen (director of The Showroom), as well as Ron and Corinne (two of the current artists-in-residence) there, it was the perfect size group since there were about 6-7 people from B&P there as well.

They had us sit down and introduced themselves and asked us to briefly talk about ourselves before giving us the skinny on their organization. The Bread & Puppet Theater got its start in the early 60s in New York City when a German immigrant named Peter Schumann was stirred to action by the political climate of the day. Since they have a strong anti-war stance, they were involved in protests surround the Vietnam War and have also participated in political conventions over the years. In 1970, they relocated to Vermont, and were the theater-in-residence for many years at Goddard College, before relocating to their current expanse of farmland in Glover, VT. They hosted an annual festival in the summer for many years, but the attendance got up t 30,000 in the late 90s and since the local community did not have the infrastructure to regularly handle crowds of that capacity, B&P now hosts monthly events in the summer to better accommodate the attendance levels.

They also read a cheap art manifesto, which promoted art of all kinds and basically stated that it can be created everywhere and also very cheaply (you can read the whole manifesto here). They explained the various forms of performance they employ, including an ancient form of storytelling that goes by many names, but is popularly known as “contastoria” (or “sung story” in Italian). A performer sings a story while pointing to images on a big banner so that the audience can follow along. They then had our group go out into the parking lot and taught us a contastoria about a young boy, skeletons, a donkey and some other stuff. It was a lot of fun and had no real political message. We were all making silly noises and laughing with each other.

Afterward, they showed us various puppets they use and talked about how they were made. None of the puppets they used were anything like those you might see on SESAME STREET or THE MUPPETS. The puppets they showed us were handmade, employing a variety of cheap art techniques like paper-mâché. One of the troupe who seemed to have a good knowledge of music history then showed us a variety of homemade musical instruments, like a upright bass made with a long stick, a pull-cord from a set of blinds and a plastic bucket. He also played the saw, using a violin bow and also showed us some wacky other instuments made with glass bottles and dishwashing gloves, as well as dowels and empty plastic containers. It was all quite fascinating and they then allowed us to make our own instruments.

Next, they had us split into two groups and spend about 20 minutes brainstorming on a 3-act skit that dealt with some issue of importance to us. My group opted to focus on promoting physical activity through walking or cycling. We then performed our skit and the troupe offered their constructive criticism to help us better emphasize our message. We were allowed to use some of their older props and it was certainly an interesting lesson in how to engage your audience and maintain focus on the issue at hand.

Finally, they had us sit back down and talk about what we liked/disliked in the workshop and gave us a chance to offer any additional feedback.

I returned that evening for their cabaret and they had erected a miniature puppet set on stage. As the show started, they appeared, a cavalcade of musicians. They immediately broke into a variety of skits focusing on politics, the environment and even one silly song about brassieres. One of the guys in the troupe, a lanky gentleman who was already known for his outlandish clothing, came onto stage a couple of times in drag. I was standing in back taking photos and filming some video, so it was interesting to see how the audience reacted to the skits. Some of them elicited more applause than others, but the overall performance was easily one of the more entertaining nights at The Showroom in my nearly 5 years of regularly attending events. They closed the night’s performance by gathering on stage and playing a rousing cover of “Misrilou,” the instrumental popularized by 60s surf rock band Dick Dale and the Del-Tones and featured as the opening credits music in the film PULP FICTION.

Then, in their tradition, they served slices of homemade whole-wheat rye bread with a homemade aioli, which is a mixture of oil, salt, minced garlic & chopped basil. My friends and I were quite enamored with the deliciousness of the aioli and kept going back for more. Bread & Puppet had also set up some tables in the back where they sold self-published books on cheap art, puppet making and more. They also had some beautiful art that focused on the environment and other important issues.

All in all, it was an exciting day of activity and I was very happy to have the opportunity to participate. If you ever have the chance to attend a Bread & Puppet performance, I highly recommend it!

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