“Bread and Puppet Theater: Art and Activism in Five Acts” showcases five decades of masks, giant puppets and books relating to performances and protests from the legendary Vermont experimental and activist theater at Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery and in the atrium of the Massachusetts school’s Frederick E. Berry Library from Oct. 24 to Nov. 18, 2022
The theater was founded by Peter and Elka Schuman in New York in 1963, and based in Vermont since the 1970s. Peter Schumann, who remains active in the theater, designed many of the masks, puppets and woodcuts here. Elka died in 2021.
Curated by longtime Bread and Puppet performer Clare Dolan (who’s also the founder of the Museum of Everyday Life), the Salem State exhibition features red demon masks and woodcuts from “The Birdcatcher in Hell.” The 1971 show reimagined a Japanese Now play about a birdcatcher seeking pardon from the king of hell for killing birds in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s pardon of Lt. William Calley for his role in the 1968 My Lay massacre of civilians during the Vietnam War.
Tableaus also represent 1972’s “The Revenge of the Law,” about the murderous government suppression of the prisoner uprising inside Attica State Prison in upstate New York in 1971, and 2017’s “The Basic Bye-bye Show,” 2017, about trying to say goodbye to America’s culture of gun violence.
“In Our Name and With Our Money” banners were used in protests in the 1980s against U.S. government support for the Nicaragua Contras’ efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government. A giant blue puppet was used in Bread and Puppet’s 2021 version of Aeschylus ancient play “The Persians” about war between Persia and Athens. “Iraqi Women” masks and corpse puppets were created for 1991 street protests against the Iraq War, and used again during the Afghanistan War that began in 2001 and the Iraq War that began in 2003.