Elka Schumann, Matriarch of the Bread and Puppet Theater, Dies at 85
Elka Schumann, who with her husband Peter directed the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, known for its counter-cultural messages through avant-garde puppets, died on August 1 in a hospital in Newport, Vermont. She was 85 years old.
The cause was a stroke, his son Max Schumann said.
As its name suggests, the Théâtre du Pain et des Marionnettes is dedicated to two types of art: baking and puppetry. Fresh sourdough bread, ground and baked by Mr. Schumann, was handed out to cast members and the audience as monstrous papier-mâché puppets, propelled by actors inside them, told stories that tackled social and political causes such as housing inequalities and anti-war and anti-project activism.
Among the recurring characters was the troupe’s first antagonist, Uncle Fatso, whose roles included a slumlord and allegorical depictions of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. The troupe’s productions included interpretations of plays by left-wing German playwright Bertolt Brecht and performances based on the diaries of anarchist Emma Goldman.
New York Times critic Holland Cotter described a visit to the Bread and Puppet Theater in 2007 as surreal, “an impossible staging trick, a miracle experience.”
The Schumanns ran their operation from a farm in Glover, Vermont, in the northeastern state, and traveled 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 presenting shows in underserved communities and involving the children there in costume making and sometimes performances.
But the troupe was best known for its annual festival, Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, a two-day Woodstock-style affair with a pageant, parade, and politically-oriented skits about climate change, global consumerism and nuclear annihilation. For many years, the event, “a counter-cultural spectacle,” drew nearly 40,000 people and was the main source of funding for the troupe, John Bell, puppeteer and theater historian, wrote in a newspaper. .
The Resurrection Circus began in 1970 but ended abruptly in 1998 after a brawl broke out on the grounds resulting in the death of a man.
Ms Schumann was an avowed anti-capitalist, and Glover’s farm, with its cattle and a maple sugar farm, became her own quasi-corporation operating on socialist principles. As the matriarch of the troupe, she kept the books and managed the finances and occasionally performed in shows.
She also ran The Bread and Puppet Press, which distributed brochures, large-format newspapers and posters containing political and cultural commentary. In a manifesto titled ‘Why Art Cheap,’ which she printed on posters, Ms Schumann wrote: ‘Art is food. You can’t eat it, but it feeds you.
He continues: “Art is like good bread! Art is like green trees! Art is like white clouds in a blue sky! Art is not expensive! Hooray! “
Elka Leigh Scott was born August 29, 1935, one of two daughters, in Magnitogorsk, a town in Russia about 1,600 kilometers east of Moscow. Her mother, Maria Ivanova (Dikareva) Scott, was a teacher. His father, John Scott, was an American who worked as a journalist in the Soviet Union. His 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 to San Francisco. They lived for a time in Pennsylvania, moved to New York 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 Putney Private School in Vermont, where her grandfather Scott Nearing, a prominent left-wing economist, taught. She attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she obtained a degree in art history in 1958.
In an oral history from 2016 With the Vermont Historical Society, Ms Schumann said her early years at Bryn Mawr were somewhat disappointing: her classmates spent more time mending socks for their boyfriends than anything else.
During her first 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 founded the Bread and Puppet Theater in 1963. The political climate of the 1970s made the couple’s work more urgent. .
Some of the first performances of the company were street parades and demonstrations in support of rent strikes and the labor movement. One protest involved Mr. Schumann parading a Jesus puppet in Manhattan holding a sign that read simply “Vietnam.”
The family moved to Plainfield, Vermont, in 1970, and lived there on a farm for four years until Ms Schumann’s father purchased the Glover Farm which became the home of Bread and Puppet, along with a museum.
Besides her son Max, Mrs. Schumann is survived by her husband; two other sons, Solveig and Salih Schumann; two daughters, Tamar Schumann and Tjasa Maria Schumann; five grandchildren; and her sister, Elena Scott Whiteside.
In 2001, Tamar Schumann and activist DeeDee Halleck made a documentary film called “AH! The hopeful pageantry of bread and puppets.
Ms. Schumann was buried in a pine forest on the farm.
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