Elka Schumann:  Memories of a Friend

Elka Schummer, co-founder of Bread and Puppets.

Elka Schumann (Bread and Puppet Theater co-founder and stalwart) died Sunday surrounded by her immediate family.

The larger family she and her husband, Peter, grew around them is too large to fit into any room.  I consider myself a member of that completely unexclusive group.

When most people think of the Bread and Puppet Theater Peter Schumann is the person who comes to mind.  They aren’t entirely wrong to do so, but Bread and Puppet would simply not exist without Elka.

She represented stability in what could be sometimes crazy organizations, the theater and her family.  Older puppeteers remember how she fretted about her younger children during printing sessions.

Performers from days when the Domestic Resurrection Circus took months of rehearsal for a two-day run, recall Elka’s suggestions at meetings to discuss the shows in progress.  Often Peter would disagree with her ideas, but somehow, they almost always reappeared as part of the show.

The print shop she established and ran until her health forced her to slow down spreads Peter’s art through hand printed and painted banners and posters as well as the annual Bread and Puppet calendar.

It spread Peter Schumann’s graphics and words around the globe and, not incidentally, helped keep the company financially stable when touring opportunities were scarce.

Bread and Puppet has been headquartered since 1974 on the farm Elka’s parents bought.  Her parents sold gravel used to build Interstate 91, in the process creating the great amphitheater that hosted immense crowds during the years of the big Domestic Resurrection Circuses.

Elka never took the farm for granted.  When she discovered a trove of columns written by Daisy Dopp, a former owner, she compiled and published a collection of her essays, detailing life in Glover before the arrival of back-to-the-landers.

Those were material contributions, important, but in the end, nowhere near as vital as the support she provided throughout Peter’s career.

In 1996 Bread and Puppet hosted Czech puppeteers Věra Říčařová & František Vítek.  They not only took part in the circus in Glover, but performed around Vermont and in New York City.

Their puppets were big and heavy and the only thing able to move everything was the Bread and Puppet bus.  I drove them and Elka, who acted as their translator, down to Putney where they were to perform at the Sandglass Theater.  Once they were delivered and their boxes unloaded Elka and I were no longer needed.

During the few days we were in Putney, Elka and I took long walks together.  Perhaps because the area reminded her of her youth—Elka went to the Putney School—she spent a lot of our time pointing out remembered sights and reminiscing about her past.

She told of traveling in Germany while in college and meeting a young choreographer who made dances of death with hundreds of ordinary people as his dancers.

More accurately, he attempted to make those dances.  What happened was that people would come from the city to see the crazy choreographer, participate in a rehearsal, then go away with a story to tell friends, never to return.

While Peter Schumann had yet to learn how to form a large company, he did attract one daring person who understood him and was willing to join lives with him.

For the first time I saw Elka as something other than the staid person Peter, her family, and the theater needed her to be, and realized what a brave choice she made in tying her fate to his.

In the 1950s being an unmarried couple wasn’t as simple as it is today.  Elka said it was illegal in Germany for landlords to rent to people living without benefit of clergy.

At some point they decided to resettle in the U.S., specifically in New York City, where Peter continued to make his way as a choreographer.  Fortunately Elka’s Putney School Russian teacher wanted to take a sabbatical and called to see if Elka wanted to take her place.  She did.

As Elka told the story, the school asked what Peter could teach.

“He said he could teach dance, but they had seen his dances of death,” Elka said.  “They told him they didn’t need a dance teacher and asked if he could do something else.”

The something else turned out to be puppetry, with Peter combining masks and movement to create his own distinctive style.

After Peter and Elka moved back to New York Bread and Puppet was formed and made itself a reputation while the Schumanns began raising a their children, Tamar, Saleh, Max, Solveig, and Maria.

The company moved to Vermont in the early 1970s as resident artists at Goddard College in Plainfield.

Elka also put together her own company of puppeteers.  A company she described as the opposite of Bread and Puppet.

“We were always on time and clean,” she said during one of the Putney walks.

Many years later Elka, with the help of some friends, resurrected some of those shows in Glover.

Her performers were beautifully made polychromed hand puppets.  The shows were familiar works suitable for family audiences.

The one I recall best was a version of “The King’s Breakfast,” by A.A. Milne.  A dairy cow decides to sleep in and recommends the king spread marmalade instead of butter on his morning toast.

While the company was at Goddard, Peter created the garbagemen, who carried out the menial tasks associated with a circus, such as carting puppets and cardboard from the ring in the wake of particularly messy acts.

The original garbageman masks, which can be seen in the Bread and Puppet Museum—another of Elka’s projects—were portraits of the maintenance staff at the college.

Garbagemen were subject to gentle mockery as the type of workers who spent considerable amounts of time leaning on their shovels and observing others work.

Not so the washerwomen, who arrived after Bread and Puppet moved to Glover.  They were simple, practical and perfectly complemented the feckless garbagemen.

While it would be a mistake to say the washerwomen are based on Elka, it was obvious to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with either, that the character and the person shared many of the same qualities, a sweet disposition, capacity for hard work, caring nature, and love of nature and music.

At one circus towering washerwomen, bedecked with garlands danced together in the ring with their human-sized counterparts.  An apotheosis of sorts.

Elka often performed in the big circuses as a puppeteer and band member.  A talented musician, she played tenor saxophone, flute, and recorder and sang.

She loved the Shape Note songs introduced to the theater by its Plainfield neighbor, Larry Gordon, and organized weekly sings and traveled to participate with other groups around the area.  The songs became a major element in Bread and Puppet productions for many years.  Elka also was fond of rounds, such as “Row, row, row your boat,” and published a small collection.  Rounds also found their way into some shows and circus acts.

After the Schumann family got its own house, and were able to live apart from the puppeteers, Elka had her own garden and some huge elderberry bushes which provided material for juice and wine.

She often wrote letters to the Chronicle, sometimes to criticize, but more often to offer praise for some local endeavor.  On occasion she offered news, such as during a frigid winter when the company was touring abroad.

Ignatz, Peter’s beloved donkey, was alone in his little stable and in danger of freezing, so Elka brought him into the house.  She reported the donkey made a very good guest.  Elka, herself, was a warm and generous host.  Any person who visited the Schumanns’ home would be entreated to sit down and share soup and bread with the family.

The theater’s radical beliefs about the evils of the capitalist system were very much Elka’s as well.  It is entirely fitting that her last performance with Bread and Puppet, on Sunday, July 25, was a rendition on recorder of “The Internationale,” the anthem of the socialist movement throughout the world for nearly 200 years.

Its beginning lines, which she carefully wrote out for a puppeteer to sing, say:

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world’s in birth!

Elka Schumann, as a performer, musician, artist, mother, wife, and for me, most of all, friend, was devoted to creating that better world whatever the odds.

This remembrance is reprinted through the courtesy of The Barton Chronicle with permission from the author.

Joseph Gresser writes for the Barton Chronicle, a weekly in Orleans County, Vermont.