On Tuesday afternoon at Sijhou Aboriginal Community (溪洲部落), an Amis community on the banks of the Sindian River (新店溪), four members of Bread and Puppet Theater were busy examining items they had collected from a dump that morning. There were milk cans, some cardboard, a headless manikin, broken mops and umbrellas. This junk was to be shaped into puppets of all shapes and sizes during a five-day workshop held this week at the community involving artists, teachers, students and community residents.
This Sunday, a giant puppet pageant will take to the street for a 40-minute march from Sijhou to the Bitan Bridge (碧潭大橋) in Sindian (新店), Taipei County. There will be singing, dancing, music and cantastoria, a form of storytelling that dates back to ancient times when performers traveled through the countryside with pictures painted on fabric to describe what was happening in faraway places.
“Some [Bread and Puppet] shows can be performed by six people or by 40. They can be taught to people in a short amount of time,” said Teresa Camou, who has worked with Bread and Puppet for the past 14 years, “We use things and material that can be found everywhere [in the community]. The locals get the idea, and hopefully they are encouraged and will do it again when we leave.”
Camou has a theatrical company in Northern Mexico where she and other puppeteers teach indigenous youth how to tell their own stories through performances and bring shows to villages that never see theater.
Bread and Puppet was founded in 1963 by German-born Peter Schumann on New York’s Lower East Side. During the Vietnam War, the company became a fixture of anti-war protests with street parades involving enormous puppets and hundreds of participants and has been recognized as a central part of American political theater ever since. Its 1982 “nuclear freeze” parade is often cited as an exemplary piece of public theater that deployed thousands of volunteers and hundred of massive marionettes on the streets of New York.
The company’s home since the mid-1970s has been a farm in Glover, Vermont, where sloping, wide-open fields provide fitting backdrops for circuses and pageants featuring larger-than-lifesize puppets made of papier-mache and cardboard, anti-establishment music and dancing.
Based on the notion that art is as essential for life as bread, Bread and Puppet is a collaborative group open to anyone. It creates shows using what is cheap and readily available, stages street performances and makes theater available to people have neither the time nor the money to attend events that charge admission.
Bread and Puppet supports itself by touring productions in the US and overseas and from the sales of its posters and publications. The company relies heavily on volunteers when it holds workshops and shows in places ranging from South America to the Middle East.
“There is a huge community of puppeteers working with the company. We can meet really quickly all over the place,” said member Gabriel Harrell.
Bread and Puppet’s touring shows are often aimed at raising awareness of social, political or environmental issues. So it’s no surprise that the theme for Sunday’s pageant is the oppression of Aborigines living on the margins of urban areas in Taiwan who have been uprooted from their traditional way of life only to repeatedly face the demolition and relocation of their communities.