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'No, You're the Puppet!'

Bread & Puppet

Photo by Wes Lickus '17.

Iconic theatre company brings political fable to College Farm

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

There’s a “distant, mountainous country,” the puppets tell us—a place where “cardboard kings reign with fleeting promise” over an unsatisfied electorate. It’s a familiar scenario in this fraught election season, but there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon, as a godlike figure arrives to rule the land.

That’s the premise for Underneath the Above Show #1, presented by Bread and Puppet theatre troupe. The iconic company held a brief artistic residency on campus, funded by the Center for Sustainability Education, that included classroom visits, a puppet parade with students and a performance and bread-breaking at the College Farm

Bread and Puppet's "cardboard electorate." The iconic company visited Dickinson Oct. 20-21.

Born on New York’s Lower East Side and now housed on a Vermont farm, Bread and Puppet is an Off-Off Broadway classic and “a refreshing reminder of the vitality and power of street theatre … part carnival, part protest, all pageant” that expresses “political outrage and satire, sometimes coarse and raw (The New York Times)." During its 50-plus years, it's become well-known for large puppets with outsized papier-mâché heads and spirited performances. These include scripted theatrical pieces as well as pageants, including memorable block-long protest processions, with hundreds of participants, during the Vietnam War. 

Bread and Puppet’s newest offering, Underneath the Above Show #1, was written and directed by the nonprofit's founder, Peter Schumann, and presented Oct. 20 at Dickinson. The event honored three longtime Bread and Puppet traditions: Audience members were greeted by the Bread and Puppet Fiddle Band, and immediately after the show, they sampled free Bread and Puppet sourdough rye bread. The troupe’s books and art posters, postcards, pamphlets and banners also were available for sale.

bread and puppet

Professor of Theatre Karen Kirkham, who teaches a Movement and Text class, and Professor of Theatre Sherry Harper-McCombs, who is planning a 2018 sabbatical around puppetry, were pleased to welcome the veteran puppeteers to campus, just two weeks before acclaimed playwright/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley’s residency. “I have taught about Bread and Puppet in my classes and seen them on tour,” says Kirkham, “and I thought it would be great to have them come to campus and have students experience what I had been talking about and showing them on video.”

During their two days at Dickinson, Bread and Puppet provided many opportunities to do just that. In addition to the public performance, the residency included a Thursday-morning presentation about the theatre troupe, a hands-on puppetry class, a visit with a first-year seminar led by Kirkham, and meetings with students in Professor of Theatre Todd Wronski’s class on theatre and social exploration. Students who participated in the puppetry workshop also joined Bread and Puppet members for a noontime campuswide parade.

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Published October 21, 2016