The public gathers, feeding their bellies with bread and their souls with theater. The artists gather creating their spectacle; puppeteers, musicians, performers and activists from all over the world. In the center is the vision brought forth by the large and magnificent puppets, carefully crafted banners, the execution of the performance. This is Bread and Puppet Theater.

This summer, as part of an independent study, I volunteered at Bread and Puppet, Vermont’s world famous Political Theater, producer of Cheap Art and gatherer of awkward geniuses from across the globe. As a volunteer, I spent my time performing in the Total This and That Deathlife Circus in Two Parts: Part 1–This, and Part 2–That. Whilst volunteering one gets to perform, operate puppets, move stuff around and take part in the creative process that is Bread and Puppet.

To prepare for the Sunday performances, every Saturday volunteers, interns, and puppeteers gathered in the circus field for a long, hot day of running through the Circus. For the “Giants and Dwarves” piece I befriended a giant green-faced washerwoman puppet. Tall as a tree, her arms swinging freely, she introduced me to the dance between puppet and person. For “Animal Herding” I learned to ignore my sweaty discomfort as I crouched inside a simply made burlap donkey. Shouting “Hee haw!” I made my way across the field. I witnessed the tricky logistics of coordinating puppets, banners, the weather and people of varying experience in order to pull off a spectacle worthy of public interest. Pausing for a drink of water I would revel in the chaos of stilters in wild stripes, giant puppets waving in the wind, Peter (Founder of Bread and Puppet) perfecting a piece, children playing their parts orchestrated by a patient puppeteer, people wandering around half in zebra costumes or lion heads, conversations bits in Italian, Spanish, French, all the while backed by the ever-enthusiastic Circus band, under the strong Vermont sun. The work was hard, fun and interesting!

From my very first experience volunteering (which involved dusting the puppet museum) I began speaking with people about my studies at Sterling College. Over and over again, in fact every single time I volunteered, I shared and connected with a different person concerning what I call Cultural Activism. Cultural Activism, simply put, aims to cultivate healthy culture in order to affect positive transformation within our society.

Young, old, academics, community organizers, scientists, musicians, seekers, performers . . . they all understood Cultural Activism. I engaged in many lively and satisfying conversations as I explained my focus and why I was interested in experiencing Bread and Puppet as part of my studies. These conversations proved to be invaluable support and encouragement for my process and explorations. Bread and Puppet Theater is a living articulation of community, ritual, and art; an experiential expression of Cultural Activism.

My reasons for volunteering at Bread and Puppet began as an impulse towards community and engaging people who are living creative activism. The ultimate impact that it has had on me, and will continue to have, is yet to be known. Bread and Puppet Theater provided me with an amazing opportunity to learn from a community alive with culture, activism and expression. Through this, my studies and life will forever be informed by my experience of Bread and Puppet. How (in this most difficult of times) this rag-tag community of brilliant rejects saves a place for the organic, the subversive, the extravagant, the raw, the handmade, the ugly truth-telling, the ridiculous, and especially, the simple act of sharing bread. •

Elizabeth Pecoraro is a third year student with a self-designed major in Cultural Activism.

Filed Under: Environmental Humanities