Five questions with: Andy Colpitts, touring cast member in Bread and Puppet Theatre

Bread & Puppet: The Apocalypse Defiance Circus

Mercer Park, Iowa City, Sunday, Oct. 2 at 2 p.m., Free, suggested donation: $10-25

Bread & Puppet: The Apocalypse Defiance Circus

Lauridsen Ampitheater, Des Moines, Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 6 p.m., Free, suggested donation: $10-25

Bread & Puppet Theatre Company. — Mark Dannenhauer, 2022

Founded in 1963 as a way to tell neighborhood stories of New York City’s Lower East Side, Bread & Puppet Theatre is considered one of the oldest, non-profit, politically-driven theater companies in the country. In 1974, the company moved its home-base to Glover, Vermont, where it now operates a museum of retired puppets in an old hay barn. The company tours the country every year performing a variety of shows. In October, Bread & Puppet is making stops in Iowa.

Little Village spoke with Andy Colpitts, a puppeteer and touring cast member of Bread & Puppet’s Apocalypse Defiance Circus about tour life, how he got into puppeteering and that famous sourdough bread.

What got you interested in Bread & Puppet and puppeteering in general?

So, my story is actually a little particular in that I grew up in the region where Bread & Puppet is from in northeastern Vermont. And so I actually first learned about Bread & Puppet when I was about 10 years old. I did a workshop with one of the longtime puppeteers, Linda Elbow, who taught a workshop for school children ages 10-15 and taught us how to be blue horses, and how to be turkeys, and you use all of the different puppets that Bread & Puppet uses. Well, not all of them, but a smattering of them. And then as a teenager, I would go and see the shows and just really got more interested over time and then eventually worked with the company.

I started puppeteering when I was in college, really. I got interested through seeing Bread & Puppet. It was sort of my first exposure. And then I worked with other companies at different points during my college career and took a couple of classes. And then finally worked Bread & Puppet afterwards, which was a longtime dream.

How does using puppets in theater feel different than performing in a traditional play with human actors?

That’s a great question. I think everyone at Bread & Puppet would have slightly different answers. Although we’re all drawn to puppets in different ways. What I think they really add is that they’re tailor-made to the performance that you want. You know, if you want to have a specific character, you are building a puppet to look like that, to do certain tricks, to have certain visual characteristics. It also means that you’re not doing a Broadway production of Cats, where you’re dressing people up like cats, you’re making a cat puppet, right? You know, you’re making something that is completely fully formed as a character that then the human spirit is operating and giving energy and life to. So I think our really being able to delve into the symbolism and into the creativity of it, through being able to make whatever kind of puppet you want, is amazing. And it just makes everyone into children again, you know, if theater is about suspension of disbelief, and being able to believe that someone is someone else, puppetry forces you to take that a step further by believing that an object that is lifeless, is alive and has life in it.

For those unfamiliar with Bread & Puppet, the sourdough rye and aioli that are served after the show might raise an eyebrow a little bit. Can you talk to us about the history behind serving bread after shows?

Absolutely. So that’s actually one of the oldest traditions in the company. The director, Peter Schumann, grew up in in Germany. He grew up in Silesia, which is now part of Poland, and then had to leave during the Second World War when his town was bombed, and moved to a part of Western Germany, where they would have these big bread ovens that they would fire up one like once or twice a week, and everyone in town would bring their sourdough loaf to cook in this big oven. And so that’s where he learned to bake bread, with his family doing those big bakes, and that’s something that he’s continued to do ever since.

For Bread & Puppet, one of the kind of core values is that art is as necessary to life as bread. You know, bread nourishes your body, gives you energy and sustenance. And art does the same thing for your spirit. So it’s literalizing that metaphor. It’s actually maybe even going further and saying, “This isn’t a metaphor. This is, this is how it works. You need both in your life.” And so the sourdough that that Peter Schumann uses and that we use on the tour — we are actually baking bread throughout — comes from Germany. He’s been keeping it alive ever since … somewhere along the lines of 150 year-old sourdough culture that he uses.

So the show that you’re touring is Apocalypse Defiance Circus. It’s about capitalism and the harm humans are doing to the environment. Can you talk to us a little bit about the show? How does it fit into Bread & Puppet’s self-proclaimed title of being a “resurrection circus”?

Yeah, absolutely. So the Apocalypse Defiance Circus is one of our yearly circuses. So, every summer Bread & Puppet will bring together puppeteers to come to the farm in Glover and make a new circus that’s based on the happenings in the world at the moment. So it’s about 20 different acts that discuss different political aspects of our worlds. We have an act that’s about migrant justice in the dairy industry. We have an act that’s about Israel and Palestine. We have an act that is about the COVID-19 pandemic and President Biden announcing that it is quote unquote, over. So we have all these kinds of political acts.

We also have acts that are just silly, beautiful little kind of treats that draw from the history of circus. So we have an act with tigers, we have an act with horses, we have all kinds of different sort of more traditionally circus acts that are all woven together with puppets. And in terms of being it apocalypse defiance, I think, as many of us are aware, in the current moment, there is so much discussion of the end of days, you know, whether it be through the climate, whether it be through political unrest, whether it be through war, whether it be through sicknesses, and the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think similarly to this idea of bread and art coming together, we need to, you know, at the same time, face the political problems and try and solve them.

And we also need to defy, find the energy somewhere within us to, you know, not just give over to pessimism. So, I think that’s maybe the nugget of what apocalypse defiance is: In the face of all this destruction, how can we come together and try and work together to defy that?

And I think that also is at the heart of the resurrection circuses that have been going on since the ’70s. This idea that every year, there’s a there’s an opportunity for rebirth for, you know, reimagining ourselves as a world, as a society, as a community, that art plays a really fundamental role in.

Bread & Puppet performer. — Raphael Rover, 2022

What is touring like with puppets?

Yeah! So we are touring across the country in two vehicles. We have a large school bus which has been hand-painted by the director, Peter Schumann, that is half filled with people and half filled with puppets. And then we also have another van with people. So we have these two vehicles, going from place to place. And we’re performing in parks, we’re performing at a lot of farms, we’re performing at universities, in cities, in different public spaces. But really, it’s happening in lots of different places, mostly outside. Because it’s just such a large show, right? And I think, the biggest part of that is that the way that we work is collective, you know, no one is solely responsible for any one thing. We’re all wearing multiple hats at any given moment. And really working as a collective in creating the work that we are. And that means that, you know, everyone is unloading the puppets from the bus when we arrive at a venue and everyone is there picking up at the end. And trying to keep the puppets in good working order. They’re fragile. Some of them are 30-40 years old. So we’re constantly repairing them, making new ones.

And I think another important thing to say is that we actually change the show as we go. So, because we have the structure of many different kinds of disjointed acts, we are constantly thinking, ‘Okay, what’s happening in the world that needs to be addressed right now? And where can we fit that in?’ And ‘Okay, now the show is too long, what what can we take out?’ So we’re kind of using the modular structure of the show, to address new and changing aspects of the world. One of the acts that we just put in is about the Turkish government’s repression of homosexuality and sort of recent criminalization and recent anti-LGBT propaganda that has been happening in the past weeks. And so, you know, we saw that and one of our company members is Turkish, and she said, ‘Can we make an act about this?’ And you know, even though we’re performing every day and making a show, we found time to rehearse and pull together a new act. I think that’s a really unique thing about about this show and about the company.

Catch Bread & Puppet in Iowa City on October 2 at Mercer Park at 2 p.m. or in Des Moines on October 5 at the Lauridsen Ampitheater in Waterworks Park at 6 p.m. There is a suggested donation fee of $10-25 but nobody is turned away. Stay after the show for free bread and aioli.

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