By Jane Suttmeier
The Bread and Puppet Theatre returned to Ohio Wesleyan on March 24 for a performance of “The Circus of the Possibilitarians.”
Bread and Puppet, which calls their circus, “Possibilitarian – the complete everything everywhere dance circus,” was brought to OWU by The House of Peace and Justice (P&J), the Department of Theatre and Dance, the Humanities /Classics Department, Amnesty International and the Wesleyan Council on Student Affairs.
Senior Leif Sayvetz of P&J was the one who initiated their return; their last performance was about two and a half years ago.
“That would have been my first semester here and this is my last semester here, and if I had left no one would know them anymore,” said Sayvetz. “This is kind of the last chance because no one really in this school has seen them, part of the reason was to remind people they exist.”
Bread and Puppet Theatre was founded by Peter Schumann in New York in 1963, but the company is now based in Glover, Vt., according to its website.
The company brought five members – Gabriel Harrell, Erin Bell, Cavan Meese, Esteli Kitchen and Katherine Nook – in a bus full of props, set and costumes for the show. Harrell said staying in one place for two nights is a luxury.
The company performed its show with a volunteer contingent of current and future P&J residents and other students, all dressed in white.
“We pulled it all together in a day with the volunteers; normally we would come in in the afternoon, rehearse, perform and then head back out,” he said.
Harrell said the Bread and Puppet Theatre is hard to define, but he said several different elements come together to create a circus of possibilities.
“It’s hard to say exactly to distill it down to a sentence but it’s politically conscious theatre,” Harrell said.
“We try to deal with political topics in an accessible and exciting way, to spark political and social discourse through theater.”
The production on Sunday addressed topics like fracking, student debt, god and nuclear warfare.
“(A)s the news changes, we create new acts and bring them into the show, or all of a sudden an act is irrelevant we’ll take it out,” Harrell said.
There are many aspects that make up the Bread and Puppet Theatre. They incorporate puppetry, song, dance, “cheap art,” stilts, politics, clowns, trapeze, as well as acting and the tradition of baking and breaking bread with the audiences.
“We give you a piece of bread with the puppet show because our bread and theater belong together,” said a piece of artwork branded by Bread and Puppet. “Theater is different. It is more like bread, more like a necessity.”
Puppeteer and musician Meese, who performed on stilts during the show, said they make the bread personally during their tour.
“We’ve been baking on the road, so we had a couple stops that we knew we could bake at,” he said. “We carry the starter, the rye and the grind, and we carry it with us.”
After the show, the cast served a rye bread to the audience with homemade garlic aioli.
The five members call themselves “The Dire Circumstance Jubilation Ensemble,” and play music on instruments such as the saxophone, sousaphone and drums during their act.
Puppeteer Erin Bell said she has been playing the sousaphone for about 7 years.
Junior Erika Nininger, a member of P&J who participated along with her housemates and other volunteers, said the Bread and Puppet puppeteers had been performing for a long time.
“This is their 50th Anniversary, and they update it every year with events, international and national,” she said. “It’s always changing.”
Harrell said he has been a part of the theatre for 11 years.
“I used to be full time, and now I am just in and out,” he said.
Kitchen said she used to be an intern with the company, one of 50 the company takes every summer in Vermont.
“I was an intern 6 years ago but I have been doing it full time ever since,” she said.
Along with entertainment, the company sells “cheap art” as a way to make extra money on the road, as well as spread the company’s ideals of what art should be. Meese said the Bread and Puppet “press” sells all of the theater’s artwork.
“The cheap art table is us and our friends,” he said. “A bunch of us make stuff in that style. …We distribute that stuff because it’s cool and then so the puppeteers can make a little extra cash.”
Harrell said they carve a lot of their own work, and then create prints for cheap.
Sayvetz said one of the reasons P&J brought the company back to OWU was its “cheap art” influence.
“We used to do cheap art projects on our own without them for a couple years after, but the projects kind of died down,” he said. “People just didn’t know who they were anymore, so hopefully this will spark some interest.”
Senior Anni Liu said the art is not unfamiliar to her.
“These (cheap artworks) are all over our house, so it looks like Peace and Justice,” she said.
The political circus did not incorporate elephants and balancing acts, but the Bread and Puppet team said they did not want people to think of it as just a “play.”
“Traditionally the circus was just horse, equestrian routines,” Harrell said. “So there is the horse act, the standard dancing bears, a couple clown acts.”
The “circus” aspect does come through the horse costumes that the volunteers wore.
“(There is) definitely a homage in some kind of way to circus horses,” Nook said. “It has a lot to do with tradition and of a three ring circus and a one ring circus and that’s kind of where the word (circus) comes from. The whole production that we put on during the summer as kind of a circus it’s like performance happening in a field in the middle of nowhere.”
Nininger agreed that the circus plays an important role in Bread and Puppet Theatre.
“It’s mainly a circus group, and I think it’s supposed to invoke political and critical thinking,” she said. “Just bring up national issues in an engaging kind of way.”
Liu participated in Bread and Puppet Theatre as one of P&J’s last projects before she graduates.
“I joined in because I wanted to do political theatre that involved humor,” she said.
Senior Joe Lugosch said he doesn’t really pay attention to the politics, but as a theater major he appreciates the work that Bread and Puppet does.
“Personally I am away from any extreme, but I think the whole process and what they’re doing is cool and I’m enjoying being around it,” he said. “It’s a totally different experience.”
Freshman Camille Mullins- Lemieux, who will live in P&J next year, said the short notice for the rehearsal surprised her, but she felt it was a once-in-a- lifetime experience.
“I’m really lucky to be a part of it, I like how joyous it is.” she said. “It’s entertaining but has a lot of depth.”