Locals fill out ranks of visiting Bread and Puppet troupe
Bread and Puppet Theater arrives a scant eight people and takes to the stage as a cast of dozens, parading in masks, invading the audience and theater balcony and playing brass instruments. They perform this alchemy by having people in the area eager to take on roles when the troupe comes to town.
They range from 10-year-old girls and 14-year-old boys to college students, social activists moonlighting from United for Justice and Peace and average folk who have always harbored an itch to perform.
“One is a carpenter who just saw the [troupe’s] huge bus out front and came in and said, ‘I’m a carpenter, but I’ve always wanted to do this,’” said Mary Curtin, the local producer for Bread and Puppet shows.
The company, formed in New York City’s lower east side in the 1960s and now based in Vermont, has always involved community in its shows — drafting those who would otherwise be in the audience to be on stage participating. In the case of the group’s Vermont festivals, that grew out of control at around 20,000 people and had to be ended.
For its latest show, “The National Circus and the Passion of the Correct Moment,” the core company of eight (including two who started as Cambridge community participants and joined the troupe) grows to 22 performers and an additional 14-piece brass band, the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band.
One of the members of the band, North Cambridge resident and Emerson College professor John Bell, has been active with Bread and Puppet for three decades. He’s a regular community participant now, along with his wife and son, and he brings students over the river with him.
Troupe founder Peter Schumann, Bell said, “has developed ways to incorporate large groups of people into the shows … so you’re not saying to someone, ‘Here, here’s three pages of dialogue to memorize.’ It’s more, ‘Here, do this, go here, follow the leader.’”
Schumann is aided in this by Curtin, a second-generation Cambridge native who, in addition to being a local event producer since the mid-1980s and bringing Bread and Puppet to Cambridge for years, has spent years developing an extensive network of contacts keen on such projects. “There’s a lot of Bread and Puppet groupies,” she said.
There are similar support networks in New York and, of course, Vermont, and many other Bread and Puppet shows are at the invitation of colleges, which provide cast members through their drama departments.
But Cambridge is special to the theater company and Schumann, Curtin said. Schumann does not always travel with Bread and Puppet, but he always comes to Cambridge.
“I know they’d love it if Cambridge was their home base here. He loves the space,” Curtin said of the Cambridge Family YMCA’s Theatre/Durrell Hall, on Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square. “It was quite a discovery to find a space like that — a Eureka! moment. As soon as he saw it, he realized what a wonderful thing it was.”
For one thing, the space can accommodate very large puppets. It also has a balcony that can be incorporated into the troupe’s colorful and playful — but sometimes darkly, scathingly political — shows. And Central Square is simply convenient.
“Not everybody’s Cambridge-based, but everybody loves coming to Central Square to rehearse. The hardware store’s across the street, 1369 Coffee House keeps us fueled, it’s accessible to the T,” she said.
For those who already live here, it’s not the square that draws them, but Bread and Puppet itself and the pleasure of participating. There are people who find the experience interesting and satisfying, and they come back, Bell said.
“I saw people last night I haven’t seen in a year,” since the last show, he said of rehearsing for the “Correct Moment” shows, which run tonight through Sunday. “Just people who have taken time out to perform, or play music, or work with puppets.”