Joseph Therrien, a touring company member with Bread and Puppet Theater, knows how to start a revolution. To win hearts and minds, skip the canvassing and start making puppets.
“People — their inhibitions, their ideological beliefs — kind of soften when they see a puppet,” he says. “Especially with [Bread and Puppet], because we use a lot of humor and music, as opposed to someone who’s on the street, ranting on a soapbox, or someone trying to get signatures for a petition. As important as those things are … [puppets] really unlock something in people and make them more receptive.”
Therrien, an MFA graduate in puppetry, first connected with Bread and Puppet's organization through company alumni who had become involved with Occupy Wall Street. The group is the brainchild of founder and show director Peter Schumann; it’s based on a Vermont farm and is known for performances with an activist slant. In its shows, performers use giant puppets made from papier-mache, cardboard and other materials to illuminate issues facing the community.
The company’s current touring production is called Public Access Center for the Obvious Presents: The Situation. In the show, anarchist leader Emma Goldman makes a cameo; members sing a polka about smashing banks. A huge rhinoceros puppet, soft-edged but imposing, towers like an Easter Island sculpture.
Therrien calls it a “dark clown” show.
“People know us a lot for our circuses and it has circus elements to it; it has music, it has some acts in it," he says. "[The show] takes the audience through a journey of some of the really challenging, twisted parts of our Western civilization."
Though highbrow elements will ostensibly appeal to adults, Therrien says the singing, dancing and imaginative qualities of the company's shows are appropriate for children, and he doesn't discourage families from attending. But he hopes the show's audience is inspired by its social message.
“Puppetry, one of the amazing things about it is that you can actually create the world that you’re trying to show people. It’s sort of the anti-propaganda,” he says.
Bread and Puppet Theater will perform on Wednesday, April 20 at Cafe Istanbul with the Salt Wives and Mike Spara. Tickets for that show are available online. Two shows at the Mudlark Public Theatre at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday, April 24 were just announced.
Mudlark also has a round of puppet shows at their Giant Puppet Fest (April 14-17).