In the early 1970s, French actress Genevieve Yeuillaz had a fateful meeting with Peter Schumann, the founder of the landmark experimental and activist Bread and Puppet Theater. She was performing with Theatre de l’Aquarium, an experimental theater based in a former munitions factory in Paris, and attended a workshop Schumann gave in Paris.
He subsequently invited her to join the company to perform with them during a three-month tour, around 1975, to Algeria, Tunisia, Athens, Paris, and many huge opera houses around Italy. They performed “Our Domestic Resurrection Spectacle,” which longtime puppeteer Trudi Cohen recalls as “a three-part, hours-long show that included side shows in the lobby, a creation story, ‘Stations of the Cross,’ and ‘White Horse Butcher.’”
Yeuillaz “then spent the 1976 summer [performing with the company] in Glover [Vermont] … and every summer thereafter,” Cohen writes. She became one of the foundational members of the company, welcoming new performers to the group, organizing puppets and props, and bringing a rigor and precision to the company’s clowning and rituals and activism.
Yeuillaz died in Paris just after 9 p.m. on Monday, June 13, 2022, with her late husband Remi Paillard’s sister Marie-Pierre by her side. She had had pancreatic cancer for about five years.
Schumann founded Bread and Puppet on New York City’s Lower East Side in 1963, organizing performances on the streets and in lofts and in churches and creating giant puppets and masks that they marched in protests, especially against the Vietnam War (and then subsequent American wars). The company has toured their pageants and plays and circuses internationally and become one of the iconic and most influential experimental theaters of our era. Bread and Puppet has been based in Vermont since it was in residence at Goddard College in Plainfield in 1970, then at their farm in Glover since 1975.
Yeuillaz would join Bread and Puppet at the Glover farm during the summers, when the company spent months each year preparing for one August weekend of giant circuses and pageants and numerous smaller shows and side shows, all called the “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus,” which came to attract tens of thousands of audience members.
“Genevieve Yeuillaz, the Parisian actress whose face resembles the Mona Lisa-like Godface’s, flies over for a holiday month to assist with mask sculpture and to dance and run with a flag and project her fine timing and voice,” Edward Hoagland noted in Vanity Fair in July 1983.
But after a man was killed in a fight at the 1998 Glover shows, Bread and Puppet Theater was shaken. Instead of the single giant weekend with its giant audience, it began offering smaller circuses and pageants and “Lubberland” shows each weekend throughout July and August to try to spread the crowds out over the summer and make them more safe and manageable.
Longtime puppeteer John Bell (and Cohen’s husband) says, “Especially after 1998, which was the last ‘Our Domestic Resurrection Circus,’ a lot of us geezers, older puppeteers, didn’t have time or weren’t able to go all summer. Genevieve was very consistent then. That was very important. I think she helped Peter achieve his vision after the [big] circus ended. I think she became even more important to the theater then.”
Yeuillaz was usually accompanied to Glover by her husband, Remi Paillard, who died in January 2021. He was a writer and teacher, who often helped out in the background—building puppets and props, helping manage the stage, erecting giant outdoor exhibitions of Schumann’s paintings and prints.
Together, they were a foundation of the theater. “She worked as a performer, but also as a director, as a back stage manager sometimes, as a bus loader … someone who made things happen,” Bell says.
Yeuillaz’s “father was a pilot in World War II and was shot down over the Mediterranean. So she lost her father early,” Bell says. Her mother raised her in a little Left Bank apartment in Paris in the tight times after the war. She protested in the Paris’s May 1968 demonstrations.
Yeuillaz became a “serious theater actress” and director in Paris, Bell says, and also performed in the 2005 film “Les mots bleus.” She’d perform with Bread and Puppet during the summers, then return to France to perform theater there the rest of the year.
“She was part of a movement of actors in France to perform in people’s houses,” Bell recalls. “She had solo shows that she would perform. She would make dinner and perform this monologue in the kitchen and at the end the audience, the people who lived in the house, would all eat together.”
Yeuillaz brought a “rigor and focus and seriousness … and theatrical precision” from French theater to her performances with Bread and Puppet, Bell says. “She had this aesthetic of work in the theater that to me was different from American theater—which to me usually means Broadway or Hollywood. Genevieve came from a professional practice in the theater in France. The goals are different. The theater in a classic sense. She applied that aesthetic to working with read and Puppet.”
“The important thing is the way she understood the nature of the [Bread and Puppet] theater and why it was important,” Bell says. “It would be as if Williem Dafoe from the Wooster Group—before Hollywood—said he had to go to work with Bread and Puppet every summer because this is important.”
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