Bread & Puppet: The Victory Circus

Sunday begins early after I wake up from a dream. My sister Karen teases and taunts me, and I end up crying on my great-grandmother’s antique, green sofa. “This is Nanny’s couch, isn’t it?” I sob. “It is!” my sister screams back at me.

Sitting up off the floor of my van, clearly awake after the dream, I instantly notice the quiet, Vermont solitude that surrounds me. I open the back doors to chirping birds and buzzing bugs. I do tai chi in the circus field where I camped and meditate in my van before I break down the sleeping set up. I then put the reworked spring on the high striker.

The barn’s bell finally rings for breakfast, so I head up to the house to grab some grub. I eat granola, cow milk (not fresh due to Bread & Puppet having to sell their dairy cow), and a banana slice. I also sip a cup of coffee made from their big machine (they also grind it with a huge grinder). Not to be greedy, I just try the homemade hot cereal with a small dab of honey. Oh, and there’s bread of course.

CarnyMobile at Bread & Puppet

The Carny Mobile games set up for a Sunday Bread & Puppet show in Glover, VT

At 9:00AM we meet in the back yard for the Sunday production meeting. Amongst the noise of handyman’s tools on the roof and the scuttling of dusty chickens, the producers go over the day’s schedule. I introduce myself when the Ding Dong item comes up, and get to watch everybody work out their intro bits as well as the final details for the circus and pageant. The meeting ends, like I was told, with the music director corralling the troupe to run through two songs.

I speak with Sam about her participation and she shows genuine happiness at the news of the installed spring. She still wants to be the “Vanna” character of the Carny Mobile, so we discuss costume options. I realize that I’ll have Max and Sam as assistants today, a first for me, so begin thinking of scenarios for the afternoon performance. To make business even more trickier, Sam helps me find a “thwacker” to use at the games. That’s just a small piece of bamboo that I can use as a pointer.

Back down in the field, Linda and Peter set me up stage left from the circus area. I’m actually in the backstage area, but far enough away to be separate. Max, the cook’s pre-teen son, and a part of the troupe, helps me set up the games. I found out at the meeting that I perform with several Ding Dong contestorias. A contestoria is basically a performance and story based on a series of images painted on a sheet or canvas.
Peter Schumann directs

Peter Schumann instructs performers during a Victory Circus run through.

I set up the games as quick as possible so I can go to the circus ring and watch Peter direct the run-through. I sit beside Peter and take photographs as he helps work bits of the Victory Circus. The Victory Circus is a ring of performances that skewer FEMA, the Media, the NEA, animal tagging, the Israeli attack on Lebanon, as well as the dogs of war, and other mainstream hypocrisies. At the end, a flag-waving finale (no USA flags here!), Peter straps on some of the tallest stilts I’ve seen and ends the circus.
Bread & Puppet Victory Circus 01

Bread & Puppet Victory Circus 02

Bread & Puppet Victory Circus 03

Scenes from Bread & Puppets 2006 Victory Circus (the last image is a backstage shot)

After a short break, the troupe then runs through a segment at the edge of the pine forest. The large butcher puppet makes his appearance as well as a ship full of the “population” (Schumann’s term for the public) sets sail and leads the audience into the pine forest. In the pine forest, the crew does a quick-through of that segment. I will have to watch the performance to see what exactly they are doing because they don’t use puppets for the rehearsal. Peter does run out of time. The lunch bell rings so we all need to head back to the house to grab food before the long day really begins. Before heading up, I get a few folks to try the high striker. The spring comes off, so I take it up to the house with me to tweak the new bent part.

Bread & Puppet Victory Circus interlude

The Butchers help the Population set sail for victory, thus leading the audience into the pine forest.

Lunch is lentils with fresh-picked salad with flowers in it. I bend the spring a bit, and then try to catch the museum tour. Sam catches me first, so we walk past the tour to go up into the huge costume loft and pick out a Vanna dress for her. Walking down through the museum to head to the field to get ready, I see my Burlington, VT roomie Bram in the tour. We shake hands quickly, because Sam takes me over to the prop shop across the street to find my thwacker.

Back down in the field, an elder volunteer salutes my effort but tells me that the world is indeed ending. I have heard elders say this in New Hampshire, but still despaired to hear it in Vermont. I get the spring on, and after a few more tests, it stays on. I get Max to go out into the arrivals and bring them over to the carny games, and the other Ding Dong contestorias begin. The games begin in the frying heat, so I miss all the contestoria performances. I hear a chorus intone and glance over to see the vignettes from time to time.

Sam shows up in the yellow, tea-length dress that I helped her choose. She becomes my assistant “Savannah” and helps me spin the wheel and give away prizes. “Savannah, tell them what they’ve won!” I say. “I bear!” she exclaims. Max becomes my whipping boy, the butt of mean jokes that I seem to dig up for the occasion. “Why aren’t you working, boy? I swear, you can’t find good help these days.” and then I tell him to “get to work!” and drum up business. The audience loves it.

Peter blows a double horn, indicating that the main show will begin. The host/interlocutor of the show introduces the population to the audience. The puppeteers take the cardboard people into the audience and give back story for each of the characters. The host also tells us of a being named Nothing who wants Everything. “How does he get it?” “Victory!” the population choruses.

We are then led to the Victory Circus, where they perform the acts that I saw earlier in rehearsal. At the finale, Peter Schumann wears an Uncle Sam costume on stilts. After this, we go up to the entrance to the pine forest and see the population set sail towards victory. The pine forest segment brings the them of war home in Brechtian proportions.

Bread & Puppet Victory Circus finale

Peter Schumann towers over the cast in the circus finale.

Peter Schumann plays Nothing, a flag-waving skeleton in a death mask. He gets everything via the butchers, robed today but wearing the same masks I wore in last night’s parade. How do they get everything? Victory. Victory comes at a cost via the population. The interlocutor reminds us that it’s all cardboard, but I still have to force myself to applaud during this segment.

The population watches Palestinian olive trees get knocked down by Israeli bull dozers. Victory dances happen, one consisting of the humans dancing on their cardboard population. At last, Nothing still needs everything, so the population decides to help by shopping. What do they need to buy? The perfect uniform. So, in Chaplinesque movements, the population turn their bodies over to the butchers to become sheep. Still trying to applaud for this grim performance, the sheep lead the audience out to the meadow for the final pageant.
Bread & Puppet Victory Circus pine forest 01

Israeli bulldozers destroy Palestinian olive trees.

Bread & Puppet Victory Circus pine forest 02

The cardboard population must shop to help Nothing get Everything. The butchers gladly give them their perfect uniform: a sheep puppet.

The sheep pick up flags and run around as a four-person sheep puppet walks into the field. The flag bearers lay down on the meadow as the large sheep turns into four Nothings. They set up a contestoria and tell a dark tale about pitiful humans. With the whole cast on the field, except for the band and a few others, I count 40 people. After the story is told, the Nothings become the large sheep again. As the other performers become smaller sheep, they walk into the pine trees. Then they enter the field one last time and bow. After warm applause, we are invited to eat bread.

Bread & Puppet Victory Circus: pageant contestoria

The final segment of Bread & Puppet’s Victory Circus uses a contestoria to tell a bleak tale of dumb humans.

After saying goodbye to Bram and working at the games a bit more, I break down most of the games and head up to the new building to catch a puppet show from a group called Indicator Species. From Pittsburgh, this crew has been on tour performing the show “The Hardest Question Ever.” Using shadow and soft puppets with live music and live action, they educate the audience about the prison industrial complex. A paper mache policeman points to us and tells us to quickly choose the fate of featured people who have been put in jail for life. Inside a jail-cell sized room, wallpapered with letters from convicts, shadows tell stories of how some closely-related people got put in jail.

Indicator Species has toured for over a month, so I wonder if they performed it outside the activist bubble. If only they’d given their personal stories and horrifying statistics to the people that need to learn about it the most. I imagine the crusty, anarchist activists in a New Hampshire Unitarian Universalist church performing the show, and wonder how things would play out. This makes me appreciate my games and their universal appeal in the mainstream world.

Dinner happens soon after the shadow show. Tonight is spaghetti with veggie sauce, salad, and ice cream for dessert (a birthday treat). Videos play soon after dark, and I catch an hour of amazing footage of the Bread & Puppet pageants of the 1990s. The current cast look on in awe because these one-time events were about five to eight times larger than today’s performance. I was told that as the Victory Circus progresses, it will become larger and longer as new pieces get added. New interns come soon, so will have to learn the old parts and add new ones to the show.

The video shows hundreds of performers with many more puppets and masks. Audience is asked to volunteer for the weekend to become part of the show. We watch a younger Linda directing segments, along with other directors. We see Peter making a huge amount of bread, and the kitchen cranking out dinners five times larger than the one we just ate. We see people paying respects to the memorials in the pine forest. Altars are set up for family who have past on. Other segments show the museum, the print shop in action, and the many amazing ding dongs from that era.

So the night winds down, and everyone into drinking beer and eating smores converges at Germantown for a fireside party. Sam tries to explain all the names of the camp sites on Bread & Puppet property, but it only becomes a Byzantine mess in my tired mind. After a bit of discussion, Sam and I realize that we met three years ago at the RNC protest’s Harlem Artists March. She marched with Seth Tobocman, a famous stencil artist, and he made me talk to her instead. We then went to a soul food restaurant and bought food to take back to the rally. Finally, I want back to the van and set up my sleeping gear. One more night in Vermont solitude before heading 1600 miles to Iowa. If only I could stay and be part of the second half of the Bread & Puppet season. Before she left, Linda Elbow said I was always welcome back.

Maybe next year.

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