Elka Schumann, co-founder of Vermont’s legendary progressive activist Bread and Puppet Theater, died Sunday, afternoon Aug. 1, “surrounded by her five children and her partner Peter,” DeeDee Halleck writes. Schumann—”our beloved matriarch,” the theater company said on Facebook—was 85. She was a powerhouse behind the theater and an inspiration to many.
“Elka enabled the theater in so many ways,” Halleck, a friend dating back to their days as young mothers raising children together in Manhattan, writes on Facebook. “Her loving dedication and brilliant coordination of graphic production was the solid base of financial support for all of the theater’s activities. Her musical abilities and strength of purpose established and enriched the constant presence of musical practice and performance which was, from the beginning, an essential element in all that the theater does.”
Schumann came from an illustrious family. Her grandfather was Scott Nearing, pacifist, vegetarian, critic of capitalism, environmentalist, and pioneer of the “back to the land” movement following World War II.
She was born Elka Leigh Scott in the Soviet Union in August 1935 to John and Masha Dikareva Scott. Her mother was Russian. Her father (he dropped the Nearing last name and used his middle name instead when he left college) arrived in the Soviet Union in 1932, pursuing his interest in communism and finding work in a steel mill in Magnitogorsk, to “lend a hand in the construction of a society which seemed to be at least one step ahead of the American.”
But as Soviet suspicion of foreigners grew, Scott was shunned at the factory. He ended up as a journalist in Moscow. Two weeks before Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Scott was expelled from the country for allegedly “publishing slanderous articles” about Soviet foreign policy and “inventing” reports of Soviet-German tensions. The family traveled by boat to Japan, then Hawaii, then San Francisco, then by train to New York.
Scott made his name with his first book, “Behind the Urals,” from 1942, a frank look at what he saw in the Soviet Union, the good and the very bad. He became a reporter and editor at Time-Life publishing. Masha raised money for Russian War Relief.
“I was very proud of being Russian and fighting the Nazis,” Schumann recalled in a 2016 oral history interview by the Vermont Historical Society’s Digital Vermont project.
After the war, the family moved to Berlin, Germany, where Scott opened Time’s Central European Bureau. But tensions grew between the Soviets and the West, and the Soviets became regarded as an enemy. “It was shocking for me. Suddenly it was something not to flaunt, oh, I’m from Russia,” Schumann said in the 2016 oral history interview.
The family moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 1948. Scott became assistant to Time-Life publisher Henry Luce in 1952, and an avid anti-communist and conservative.
While studying at Bryn Mawr College, Elka Schumann spent her junior year in Munich, Germany, where in 1956 she met Peter Schumann, an artist and performer. They first encountered each other when a friend of Peter’s tried to recruit her for their dance company, and she went to visit Peter in a hospital, where he was recovering from a fractured skull received when his bicycle was hit by a motorcycle. Elka thought of becoming a children’s book illustrator. The couple was married in 1959, started having children, and in 1961 moved to Connecticut, then New York City. There Peter connected with the Living Theatre and other avant-garde troupes, and founded Bread and Puppet on Manhattan’s Lower East side in 1963. The theater’s giant puppets became icons of 1960s anti-Vietnam War protests.
“Three main elements shaped the style and content of this theater in its early years,” Schumann wrote in “A Short History of the Bread and Puppet Museum” from 1989, “performances with and for children in the streets of New York City; a growing political awareness resulting in massive participation with puppets and masks in peace rallies and protest marches against social injustices and the Vietnam War; and the profound influence of [Peter] Schumann’s background and education—folklore and folk art, medieval art and the art of the Dadaists and German Expressionists.”
“We had a very good situation there [in New York]. Peter had a good situation. We rented from the city for a dollar a year a beautiful, huge courthouse on Second Street and First Avenue,” Elka Schuman said in the 2016 oral history interview. “Then we were invited to do a lot of tours. After one very successful tour to France in 1968, we got lots and lots of invitations.” The company toured Europe for several months. “While we were gone the city had thrown us out of the courthouse.” Peter found a new work space in an empty bank at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. But Schumann recalled, “Our kids got knives pulled on them on the way to school. I got mugged” by “two men with guns.”
An invitation arrived for a residency at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, in 1970, so they left New York. The couple had been dreaming of moving to the country and they wanted more room for their family—the five children had all been sharing one bedroom in the city.
Bread and Puppet’s company grew with the Goddard students. They learned “Sacred Harp” hymns, 18th century English and American music, and quickly began incorporating them into shows—which helped spread the music across the Northeast. Elka Schumann arranged bookings, bookkeeping, publicity. She founded Dancing Bear Theater, a children’s theater that performed nursery rhymes and stories at schools and libraries. Bread and Puppet began performing large outdoor pageants, before settling at what became the Bread and Puppet farm in Glover, offering their first performances there in 1975.
“My parents, John and Marsha Scott, were looking for a piece of a land and were looking around Vermont and came across this [Glover] farm,” Schumann told the Preservation Trust of Vermont in 2012. “My parents bought this farm, here, the old Dopp farm or the old Sherburne farm [in 1970], and then very quickly decided that they could’t take in on as a project—a building and rebuilding project—and we inherited it that way. And it just is the perfect place for us.”
Bread and Puppet began renting the farm from Schumann’s parents in 1973. Shortly before her father’s death in 1976, Scott gave her much of the property. “They signed a portion of the property, including the buildings and some prime fields, over to the Schumanns,” she wrote in “A Short History of the Bread and Puppet Museum” in 1989.
At the Glover farm, Bread and Puppet performed giant puppet circuses and pageants that came to attract audiences of tens of thousands and launched international tours. Elka Schumann “made apple cider, ran a sugaring operation with 2,000 taps, raised sheep and spun her own wool,” VTDigger reported. She oversaw the company’s output of prints, posters and publications. She played the recorder and later saxophone in shows and led groups in singing “Sacred Harp” hymns. She continued to perform music with the troupe, even this summer. Many warm weather mornings, for years, she swam in Glover’s Shadow Lake then rehearsed songs with the company. She often performed in the show “Hallalujah,” voicing the narration in her native Russian. She was the keeper of the company’s history, overseeing its archive, and she often led tours of an old barn that they turned into a free museum of the company’s monumental papier-mâché creations.
“They will slowly or rapidly decay. They’re made of papier-mâché. The barn won’t last forever. We won’t last forever,” Schumann said in a 2016 interview with “Wild Travels.”
Her daughter Maria Schumann writes on Facebook: “We will have a wake for Elka today Monday August 2 from 5 pm- dark and tomorrow Tuesday August 3 from 10 am -dark, ending with a shape note sing at 5 pm. The wake will happen in front of the Schumann house under the big ash tree. Please park in the field above the print shop if you are able. Music, especially singing, is welcome. Her burial will be on Wednesday August 4 at 11 am, starting with a procession from the Schumann house to the Pine Forest. No brass band. After the burial, bread and aioli will be served. Contributions of cake, whipped cream and berries are welcome for the reception after the burial.”
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