Bread and Puppet Theater to bring emergency performance of ‘Fire’ to Easthampton orchard in response to violence in Gaza

Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — Bread and Puppet Theater, known worldwide for performances that comment on political and social problems, will stage “Fire, Emergency Performance for Gaza” in an Easthampton orchard Thursday.

Peter Schumann, who has directed the theater since it started in New York City in 1963, said he was moved to cancel his theater’s regular performances, rework his 1968 piece “Fire,” and take the show on the road. Other than Thursday’s event, there are three other performances scheduled in the next two weeks in New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.

“We felt we had to pull out the strongest thing we knew,” Schumann said. That was “Fire,” a haunting piece he originally created about three Americans who lit themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War. He sees a parallel between the war in Vietnam and the current clash between Palestinians and Israelis because of U.S. financial and political support for Israel.

“We were in great distress over the war in Vietnam and now we are in great distress over Gaza, and this empire government is the reason for it,” Schumann said this week from his home in Glover, Vermont. “Without American taxpayers’ dollars and American weaponry, this wouldn’t be possible.”

He said he and many of his puppeteers have performed in the West Bank and know people who are suffering in Gaza as a result of the violence. “This is unbearably horrible for these people there,” he said.

In late July, he made changes to “Fire” and his crew of about 40 staff and interns learned it quickly in time for the first emergency performance Aug. 1 at the Glover farmstead that has been home to Bread and Puppet Theater and Museum since 1974. They also performed it last Friday, and have staged vigils around the state with puppets and actors. The theater announced at that time that it was seeking other venues for performances.

Last week, Russell Braen, co-owner of Easthampton’s Park Hill Orchard, got a call from theater staff member Gabriel Herrell, asking if the orchard would host a performance. The two had worked together when the orchard hosted a show by the Royal Frog Ballet, a Northampton-based performance art group.

Braen agreed and announced the event on Facebook. Since then, he said, word about the hastily put together event is spreading quickly through the community of Bread and Puppet enthusiasts.

“I’ve never seen a reaction like this to something I’ve posted. Their brand is really strong,” he said. While the size of the stage is best suited for an audience of between 100 and 120 people, Braen said, “We’ll try to sit anyone who wants to come on apple boxes and picnic tables.”

The orchard is able to handle an influx of hundreds of people and cars because it regularly hosts performances and exhibits. Those include biennial summer-long sculptural shows called Art in the Orchard.

“We look at the farm as a big stage, because of the way it’s tilted toward Easthampton and Mount Tom,” he said. “It seems suited to theater.”

Braen said he has seen Bread and Puppet performances in Glover and used to attend the annual puppetry festivals there until they ended in 1998.

With the hasty rebirth of “Fire” in reaction to the crisis in Gaza, he said, Bread and Puppet Theater seems to be getting back to the original spirit that drove its earliest performances, which commented on social ills and political problems.

Peter Schumann was a sculptor, dancer, baker and a recent immigrant from Germany when he started doing puppet shows. He and his wife, Elka Schumann, named the theater group Bread and Puppet Theater because audience members were each given a piece of sourdough bread to eat during the performances.

The theater was “enmeshed in the radical counterculture of downtown New York City,” according to a biography on the theater’s website. It performed pieces in the streets with giant puppets, focusing on the issues affecting the city’s poorest neighborhoods, from rats to clashes with police, as well as U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, according to the website.

The theater was launched onto the world stage when it performed “Fire” at a festival in France in 1968.

On Monday, Elka Schumann said the original performance was a “silent, slow-motion and intense show depicting the ordinary lives of the people ... It ends in the catastrophic destruction of the people on stage.”

For the new version, she said, the setting, costumes and other things will stay the same. “It’s pretty much as it was, but it refers now to Gaza instead of Vietnam,” she said.

The performance Thursday is at 8 p.m. and people can arrive at the orchard at 82 Park Hill Road anytime after 6:30, Braen said. The show is free and people are invited to bring a picnic dinner. For more information or directions, visit www.parkhillorchard.com.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.