Elka Schumann, Matriarch of the Bread and Puppet Theater, Dies at 85

Elka Schumann, Matriarch of the Bread and Puppet Theater, Dies at 85

Elka Schumann, who with her husband, Peter, ran the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, known for its countercultural messaging through avant-garde puppeteering, died on Aug. 1 in a hospital in Newport, Vt. She was 85.

The cause was a stroke, her son Max Schumann said.

As its name suggests, the Bread and Puppet Theater is dedicated to two types of art: baking and puppetry. Fresh sourdough bread, milled and baked by Mr. Schumann, was distributed to troupe members and the audience while monstrous papier-mâché puppets, propelled by actors inside them, told stories that took on social and political causes like housing inequality and antiwar and anti-draft activism.

Among the recurring characters was the troupe’s first antagonist, Uncle Fatso, whose roles included a slumlord and allegorical representations of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. The troupe’s productions included renditions of plays by the leftist German playwright Bertolt Brecht and shows based on the diaries of the anarchist Emma Goldman.

The critic Holland Cotter of The New York Times described a visit to Bread and Puppet Theater in 2007 as surreal, “an impossible trick of stagecraft, a miracle experience.”

The Schumanns ran their operation out of a farm in Glover, Vt., in the northeast part of the state, and toured the country in a sky-blue school bus with a mountain landscape, an angel and a beaming sun painted on it. The company made a point of putting on shows in underserved communities and involving children from there in making costumes and sometimes performing.

But the troupe was best known for its annual festival, Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, a puppet-dense two-day Woodstock-like affair with a pageant, a parade and politically bent skits about climate change, global consumerism and nuclear annihilation. For many years the event, “a countercultural spectacle,” drew crowds of nearly 40,000 and was the troupe’s main source of funding, John Bell, a puppeteer and theater historian, wrote in a paper.

The Resurrection Circus started in 1970 but abruptly ended in 1998 after a fight broke out on the grounds resulting in a man’s death.

Ms. Schumann was an avowed anticapitalist, and the farm in Glover, complete with livestock and a maple-sugaring operation, became her own quasi-society operating on socialist principles. As the troupe matriarch she kept the books and managed the finances and sometimes performed in shows.

She also managed The Bread and Puppet Press, which distributed pamphlets, broadsheets and posters delivering political and cultural commentary. In a manifesto titled “Why Cheap Art,” which she printed on posters, Ms. Schumann wrote: “Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you.”

It continued: “Art is like good bread! Art is like green trees! Art is like white clouds in blue sky! Art is cheap! Hurrah!”

Elka Leigh Scott was born on Aug. 29, 1935, one of two girls, in Magnitogorsk, a city in Russia about 1,000 miles east of Moscow. Her mother, Maria Ivanova (Dikareva) Scott, was a teacher. Her father, John Scott, was an American who worked as a journalist in the Soviet Union. Her parents had supported the Russian Revolution.

When Elka was young, as German forces invaded, the family fled the country, taking a train to Japan and an ocean liner to Hawaii before continuing on to San Francisco. They lived for a time in Pennsylvania, moved to New York City and spent four years in Berlin after the war before returning to the United States in 1949, settling in Ridgefield, Conn.

Elka attended Ridgefield High School for three years before transferring to the private Putney School in Vermont, where her grandfather Scott Nearing, a prominent left-wing economist, was a lecturer. She went to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, graduating with a degree in art history in 1958.

In a 2016 oral history with the Vermont Historical Society, Ms. Schumann said that her first years at Bryn Mawr were somewhat disappointing: Her classmates spent more time darning socks for their boyfriends than anything else.

In her junior year she studied abroad in Munich, where she met Peter Schumann. They married in 1959 and had five children while living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where they started the Bread and Puppet Theater in 1963. The heated political climate of the ’60s made the couple’s work more urgent.

Some of the company’s first performances were street parades and protests supporting rent strikes and the labor movement. One protest involved Mr. Schumann parading a puppet of Jesus in Manhattan holding a sign that simply said, “Vietnam.”

The family moved to Plainfield, Vt., in 1970, and lived on a farm there for four years until Ms. Schumann’s father purchased the Glover farm that became Bread and Puppet’s home, complete with a museum.

In addition to her son Max, Ms. Schumann is survived by her husband; another son, Salih; three daughters, Solvieg, Tamar and Tjasa Maria Schumann; five grandchildren; and her sister, Elena Scott Whiteside.

In 2001, Tamar Schumann and the activist DeeDee Halleck made a documentary film titled “AH! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread and Puppet.”

Ms. Schumann was buried in a pine grove on the farm.

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