Bread and Puppet Theatre'sOur Domestic Resurrection Circus(Photo: Ronald T. Simon)
Bread and Puppet Theatre's
Our Domestic Resurrection Circus
(Photo: Ronald T. Simon)
"Protest is not the sixties," says Linda Elbow, company manager of the political activist puppetry troupe Bread & Puppet Theatre. She's lamenting the perception that the company is tied to the decade in which it arose, when street protests were an everyday occurrence in the United States. Founded in 1963 by sculptor and puppeteer Peter Schumann, Bread & Puppet is internationally renowned for its large-scale spectacles and eye-catching graphics. "We've always kept up to date with what we're protesting," continues Elbow, who has been with the company since 1975. "We're dealing with completely contemporary issues. Protest is all the time."

Bread & Puppet returns to New York City in December with The Insurrection Mass with Funeral March for a Rotten Idea: A Special Mass for the Aftermath of the Events of September 11th. This anti-war performance is billed as "a nonreligious service in the presence of several papier-mâché gods" and includes secular scripture readings, a fiddle sermon, and a hymn of the day. In an earlier version, the text of the mass included speeches by President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. However, Schumann may also incorporate material pertaining to this past summer's G8 summit in Genoa, during which a protester was killed by police, as well as any late-breaking news.

The company has been performing various Insurrection Masses for the past several years. While the format remains the same, the "rotten idea" changes frequently; previous masses have focused on issues ranging from sweatshops to domestic violence. Loosely structured after the Roman Catholic Mass, the collective title of these events has given the company trouble in the past. Last year, for example, a performance in Great Barrington, Massachusetts drew fire from conservative Christian groups who found the concept offensive. "That was very surprising to us," says Elbow. "The performance is not mocking Christianity. It's not mocking the form. We've used Christian forms for a long time."

Bread & Puppet often displays a sense of pageantry. One of its largest and most successful appearances was as part of the June 12, 1982 anti-nuclear march in New York, which drew roughly a million people; the Bread & Puppet contingent alone involved about 500. "We had our unit laid out as a story," recalls Elbow. "It's compelling when you see that. It's much different than a bunch of people chanting in the exact same rhythm and with very little variation. With puppets, you can do a whole lot more."

Bread and Puppet Theatre's Columbus: The New World Order(Photo: David W. Fura)
Bread and Puppet Theatre's Columbus: The New World Order
(Photo: David W. Fura)
How large-scale street activism will be affected by September 11 in the long term is yet to be determined. A peace march in Washington D.C. just weeks after the tragedy involved no major conflicts between police and demonstrators. However, paranoia surrounding street protests led to extreme measures from the authorities as recently as the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia. "A couple of our folks were down there, helping to build puppets," says Elbow. "The cops went into the studio of Spiral Q Puppet Theater, arrested people, and took the puppets. So, now, puppets are criminals." (Puppet creations are often the most photographed element within a political protest, tending to draw the attention of both spectators and the media. In recent years, puppetry has become an increasingly important aspect of street demonstrations, and the actions of the Philadelphia police seem to underscore the importance and effectiveness of groups like Bread & Puppet Theatre.)

The company's anti-war stance has already placed it at odds with some New Yorkers. For the first time, Bread & Puppet did not march in this year's annual Village Halloween Parade. According to Elbow, the company was all set to participate when parade organizer Jeanne Fleming became nervous that the group's plans would offend the cops--and, possibly, the public. At the last minute, the puppeteers were told: "What you're bringing, we don't want."

Fleming stated that it was a matter of timing, not censorship, but many in Bread & Puppet felt otherwise. "We certainly weren't saying 'Hooray for the terrorists,'" comments Elbow. "We were saying, 'Look what you're doing to the people of Afghanistan.' "