It was early in my college career when I had the rare opportunity to work with Peter Schumann and the rest of his troupe from Vermont. It was 1991, around the time of the first Gulf War, which would explain their subsequent tour across the Northeast. They arrived almost unannounced, practically under cover of darkness, and immediately started setting up shop like they owned the place. How I came to work with them went something like this:
He literally led me out by the back of my shirt and placed me front and center of the (let’s call her, the “Lieutenant”) who was running the show. I had no idea how long she had been involved with the Theater, but judging the way she got in our faces like Gny. Sgt. Hartman, I had a feeling that she’s been with them for a while, and been in the business a lot longer. She was sanctioned with the task of wrangling approximately a hundred or so other volunteers like me from the University’s Theater, Music and Art Departments, (which as anyone who has ever been in that situation is no small task), and make them work harmoniously in a matter of an hour. She had a body of pure protein, and a voice that was still planted firmly in South American soil. She was unforgiving, cold, calculated and a ruthlessly efficient hard-ass. In other words, the perfect stage manager.
The Lieutenant then proceeded to kick all of our asses for the rest of the day. The play we performed, in typical Bread and Puppet fashion, took place outside, in the open air, in plain view of everyone. Begging, taunting, challenging passers-by to pay attention; the very essence of guerrilla theater. No indoor venue could ever contain their shows. Their backdrops are constructed by Mother Nature; amphitheaters of Earth and Sky are a much more effective tool when you incorporate their essence into everything you do.
As far as I was concerned, the entire theater were characters on a television show. They weren’t real. They did not exist in my universe. They were far removed from my world; Something only to be read about in school text books. They are legend. Even though I was born and raised in New England, I only had a vague understanding of who they were or what they did. Shame on me because the Theater was and is a New England institution. I never in my life thought that I would actually see them in person, let alone ever have a chance to work with them.
A little background for the people too lazy to click on the link above:
Since 1963, a rag tag group of theater performers, musicians, mimes, acrobats, puppeteers and activists banded together to protest the war in Vietnam. Since then, one could usually find cells of them at random parades, protests and demonstrations from New York to Boston to Portland, Maine. Wherever and whenever there was an atrocity to exploit or movement to reinforce, they would be there in all their creepy, puppety goodness; Giving relatively sober people something to think about, and keeping the Freak Shows with heads full of chemicals a reason to stay on the sidewalk. Most of the players would wear masks, like some sort of modern chorus to a Greek Tragedy. Those who were especially talented would operate these larger than life, grotesquely beautiful and subversively crude, hand-crafted puppets. And by larger than life, I mean when fully constructed, some are able to hide a Mack truck cab, or at the very least, obfuscate a facade of a stand alone Starbucks. They would sing, dance, get in your face and at the end of the show you would be nourished by a loaf of bread that has been just been pulled out of an ancient, earthen oven by a quite energized Peter Schumann who got off his stilts and out of his costume long enough to keep the loaves from turning into really big croutons.
Now, if you still don’t have the visual yet, here’s a little taste. Not the Bread and Puppet, but a darn good facsimile:
It took all morning to rehearse. It took the better part of an afternoon to perform. It took the majority of three departments from the University to perform, and at the end, all of us, audience and volunteers alike, were treated to the freshest baked bread this side of the Nissen Bakery. During rehearsal, I had no idea how the finished product would look. But when all was said and done, it came together rather well. I came away with the sense of accomplishing something extraordinary that I would carry with me for the rest of my life, and I suppose that’s what my professor had in mind all along.
For me, that night was more memorable than that day. That night, we were granted an audience with Mr. Schumann. That night, he gave a lecture not on the war in Iraq, or how to be civilly disobedient, or even how to make bread in a kiln that was thrown together in an hour. What he was going to lecture about, was how the Art of Puppetry was–in his words–the purest form of Art. Period.
Of course, none of us, not one of the hundred or so artists, musicians, actors and craftspeople had any idea what he was going to lecture about. We just knew that we spent the entire day taking part in history, and we were all a little buzzed from it. The lecture hall where it was taking place was where most of my classes were held so I was quite familiar with it. I have never seen it brimming to capacity as I have that night.
We all sat down. Mr. Schumann stated his hypothesis. We all listened. He went through pretty much every medium that exists and how they are “inherently flawed” and “how the real message gets lost in translation”; basically a soft spinning smear campaign against everything that we worked for. At the end, he asked if anyone had any questions. No one said a word, and yet there was nary a folded set of arms in the room, no silent displays of defiance. We all wanted to defend our respective craft, but for some reason none of us could come up with a singular, legitimate example disproving his theory.
I sat in the front row. I turned around to see the apparently perplexed faces around the room. On the surface, it looked as though everyone second guessed their reasons for ever becoming an artist to begin with. Although, I would like to think that they like I, below the surface, recalling this day many years later, would look at if from a different point of view. Perhaps everyone has had a sense of this all along, but for me it’s something that hasn’t become clear until recently.
It was that night that I got a hint of what integrity means. He wasn’t condemning all art, he was just standing up for his own, and he has the right to do so as well, having been at it for many years by that point. It was a revelation of sorts when I left the hall that night. It was certainly a lot to chew on and digest. At first, I felt more than a little sore having worked with an icon while he surgically dismantled your belief structure. But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that the bigger lesson to be learned was to be proud of what we do, no matter if we sang, danced, built birdhouses or played with really big paper mache puppets.
Granted, we should all be accountable for what we do (right, Skilling?). It’s something that is pretty much common sense, but so easily forgotten. Especially if you’re trying to make it to the next paycheck. From that moment forward, my modus operandi would be defined by something of a little more sustenance than a dog and pony show. From that moment forward, my craft, as it were, shall be used for good, not evil. From that moment on, I turned into something of an idealist. A snob…..okay, there was that period of time where I refused go onstage anymore without at least a shot and a beer in me, but I was on my way out by that point and that’s another exploit for another time. I would reserve the use of my craft only when needed.
From that moment on, I wanted to be more accountable for my creations. It was a drive to follow the path of the ones who came before me; a worthier path, a more difficult path. From that moment on, I wanted to be a better person. Which is why, from that moment on, it drove me nuts every time someone wanted me to use my skill to sell a few extra widgets to meet quota for the end of the month, or to squeeze bigger tips from a 4-top who are obviously cheap tourists, which is essentially whoring.
Most of my college days are hazy, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to college to be a whore.
Since the year 2000, most of my jobs have consisted of some sort of sales. I am a craftsperson whose many tenets include people and sales, and I can’t stand sales and I’m not too fond of people. Why?
- Depending on the situation I either have no faith or very little knowledge in the product I’m selling.
- The people I usually work with are soulless, alcoholic robots, and therefore by osmosis, I could feel myself turning into one the longer I stay on any given sales team.
- I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not that good at it.
Let me rephrase; I’m okay at it. There were days where I could swim quite comfortably with the big sharks. But whenever I was having an off day, or I just wasn’t into it, someone (usually a co-worker) would inevitably come along and say, “Well, hey, you’re an actor. This stuff should come easy to you.” There in that phrase lay the reason that I began to detest anything resembling human when I wake up in the morning. A) Acting is not lying. Let me repeat that, acting is not lying. Acting is truth from a different point of view, lying is something you do to sell a car. And B) if I were to “act”, people would see right through it immediately and crush any hope I had of getting the job done. If I rebel against the notion that acting will get the money flowing in, then the only alternative left is to lie. It’s far more difficult to see through a lie (right, Skilling?).
For a the length of a hellish summer, I was made to lie. For one blazing hot summer, I couldn’t sleep with myself at night, I couldn’t eat, and my otherwise pleasant demeanor was shrinking to the thickness of a business card.
Imagine my joy as the big corporation I sweat blood over for a summer slowly implodes over the length of a hellish winter…