Ground Lessons: Performing with the Potato People at Bread and Puppet
For the past four years, I have been a puppeteer with Bread and Puppet Theater, a radical political puppet company. Founded in 1963 by Peter and Elka Schumann in New York City, Bread and Puppet later relocated to its current home base in rural Vermont. At Bread and Puppet, I have performed with many puppets: a small puppet of an angel playing the trumpet, flat cardboard chairs of various sizes, a giant embracer puppet’s skirt, the butt in a two-person cow costume, a buffalo butt, a tiger butt, a zebra butt… generally lots of butts. Although all of these puppets (and more) have special places in my heart, I am deeply fascinated by the naked population puppets, also nicknamed potato people due to their appearance. These are semi-flat papier-mâché puppets that often perform the role of a crowd or mass of people in Bread and Puppet’s shows. In my experiences performing with these puppets in large groups, improvised scenes with the potato people offer an embodied practice for being and moving in the world in a way that shakes up the hierarchies that prop up the destructive systems behind the eco-social crisis.
Meet the Potatoes
The naked population puppets were created to perform as a large mass for 1997’s Our Domestic Resurrection Circus pageant, a site-specific spectacle of giant proportions that match the landscape of hills, trees, and open skies at Bread and Puppet’s field. I first encountered the naked population puppets twenty years later as an apprentice at Bread and Puppet. I remember my initial experience with them as a bundle of sound, touch, and feeling: I’m onstage on the dirt floor theatre holding two puppets—each slightly taller than me—along with many other apprentices who are as confused and exhilarated as me. A cacophony of dry, raspy cardboard rubs and drags on the grainy floor. It muffles the eager, awkward getting-to-know-each-other conversations and scattered instructions telling us to squeeze tighter into a clump, to bend our knees. I can’t see in front. I’m trying to follow.
The naked population puppets are made of several layers of brown kraft paper strips and homemade cornstarch adhesive. Each puppet evokes a human form with arms, legs, and facial features suggested by bumps and sparse strokes of black and grey paint. Built as bas-reliefs, the relatively flat puppets are meant to perform frontally. Puppeteers who were around in the early days of the naked population puppets’ lives attest that they used to be considerably more three-dimensional but have flattened along years through sub-optimal packing and heavy use. The resulting squished appearance earned them their potato people nickname. On the back, each puppet has a double-cross frame made with sticks that supports the papier-mâché form and allows the puppeteers to hold the potato people like shields. As each puppet is tall—ranging from around four-and-a-half to seven feet high—a puppeteer can handle a maximum of two potato people, hiding behind them. At this ratio, creating a puppet crowd requires a human one—or at least a sizeable group. Along with the aforementioned qualities of size, shape, materiality, and appearance, an element that is central to operating these puppets is the lack of holes to see through. But more on that soon.
They most often perform as the masses—a population of ordinary people—directly or indirectly attacked by an oppressive power that seeks their destruction. Confronted by such violence, the puppets often resist, fall, and rise up or resurrect.
Since their debut in 1997, they have performed frequently in various Bread and Puppet pageants, circuses, parades, protests, and indoor shows. Although they play different roles, the naked population puppets as an ensemble represent crowds exceptionally. Indeed, they most often perform as the masses—a population of ordinary people—directly or indirectly attacked by an oppressive power that seeks their destruction. Confronted by such violence, the puppets often resist, fall, and rise up or resurrect. Sometimes they play a specific group of people bearing the brunt of structural injustices. For example, they recently played Haitian people standing up against the United States-backed politicians. However, they can also be more ambiguous and polyvalent, especially because their movements and appearance are not realistic. When moving and sounding as a group, the potato people can conjure what many environmentalists and scholars call the more-than-human. Although a bit clunky, the term more-than-human frames the nonhuman—entities, forces, creatures and things—as entwined with humans, in an attempt to destabilize human exceptionalism prevalent in modern Western thought. Beyond who or what is represented, however, I find that the power of these puppets comes from the how.
Countering the Choreographic Logic of Western Modernity
In The Radicality of the Puppet Theatre, Peter Schumann writes, “Puppets are not made to order or script. What’s in them is hidden in their faces and becomes clear only through their functioning.” Schumann’s observation reveals that, contrary to popular use of the term “puppet,” puppets are not docile, easily manipulable things that will bend to human command. Instead, puppeteering is a relational practice that entails puppeteers moving with puppets as opposed to on or against them. By scrambling of the presumed vertical power dynamic between subject and object, puppetry can challenge the notion of human mastery over matter—a notion that underpins the extractive and domineering impetus driving us to the sixth mass extinction—and, instead, nurture an understanding of the reciprocal relations between humans and the more-than-humans. Many puppets can teach this, but the naked population puppets are especially well suited as they encompass the intertwinement of the ecological, the political, and the social.
When moving with the potato people, seemingly simple puppets turn out to be quite difficult. The large shield-like form of the puppets, which lack holes to peek through, poses a challenge to puppeteers whose views are blocked. Schumann, the director, makes matters harder by often insisting on improvising the naked population scenes. The main guidelines are to follow others and move as a group. But if you can’t see who is in front, who do you follow? Who is the leader?
Performing a population scene with the potato people requires close attention to those at the back and sides. Puppeteers take cues from, imitate, watch out for, make space for, and get out of the way for those who are behind. It is a practice of ego-curbing, of not standing out. This can feel counterintuitive, as it interferes with deeply entrenched cultural assumptions that those in front lead. For performers trained in modern Western theatre, this can be especially baffling. They have been taught to showcase talent to the audience by finding ways to stand out, command the scene, and be memorable. Being in the first line of visibility onstage while trying to blend in goes against the spatial logic of the proscenium stage and the values that an individualistic, competitive, and meritocratic culture fosters.
However, it would be too simplistic and frankly untrue to say that these scenes are only conducted by turning the gaze to the back and sides. Puppeteers amidst the crowd or at the back can sometimes “cheat” by peeking around their puppet(s) to assess what’s going on. In fact, developing an ear for such moments is a skill in itself. When a puppeteer is in front, their responsibility is to make enough space for everyone to fit. Although this may resemble spatial aspects of leading, their attention needs to be directed to the sides and back, especially once the front of the crowd is established.
If you can’t see who is in front, who do you follow? Who is the leader?
At the same time, the size and shape of these puppets sends proprioception and awareness of the contours of the individual body for a spin, as the puppeteer’s body scrambles to adjust to its new parameters. Schumann encourages puppeteers to play with contrasts in their puppets’ movement and distribution in space. Puppeteers find moments of stillness juxtaposed with moments of fast, loud, and unruly movement; they break into smaller groups, clump tightly together, spread out. Especially when building a crescendo, people and their puppet(s) need to keep switching positions, making those in front go to the back and vice versa. Along with fostering an effervescent energy, the changing of positions distributes the creative reins among performers and forces them to confront what it is to share and make space for others and their puppets.
Extending the Practice and Set-Backs
To an extent, performing with a recurrent ensemble makes these scenes easier. Familiarity with co-performers and puppets can provide the conditions for unimind—a Bread and Puppet word for state of connected awareness with everyone onstage, where sometimes who is suggesting a move blurs. But unimind isn’t always possible and isn’t necessarily the point. Part of the power of the population scenes is that they thrive in their inclusion of a diversely trained cast. Perhaps for this reason, the naked population have been the quintessential puppets for volunteer participation since their inception. This aligns with the Bread and Puppet ethos that anyone can hop in and take part. It also offers both one-time volunteers and veteran puppeteers a chance to figure these things out anew and understand that being-in-common is an ongoing practice that takes patience, care, attention to the group, and the material conditions of flesh, puppet, and space.
Even though I’ve come to understand these scenes as a training ground or an embodied practice of figuring out how to exist and move together with humans and more–than–humans alike, these scenes aren’t perfect. Social hierarchies that unfold in offstage spaces sometimes appear in an improvised potato people scene. I remember one time in which the crescendo got too rampant: it feels like a mosh pit, I thought, and my body memory tugs me away from the center and towards the safer peripheries. The puppets seem to have checked out, or is it just me? Gendered and racialized hierarchies reorganized the stage. Bodies accustomed to taking up space coalesced in the center front. Maybe it worked on the other side, for the audience, but that would be disappointing. I seethed a little. Then, I turned to myself and wondered if I had unwittingly taken up space this way. Did my own eagerness and energy of moving with the puppets, proposing a move, feeling like I contributed to the group, the scene, and Bread and Puppet displace others or foreclose their impulses?
Although this experience was disappointing, I think it reflects the messiness of ongoing processes that take time and don’t progress in a straight line. To me, what is important is that it is a practice—that is, an ongoing rehearsal for navigating physical and social space, a slow uprising.
Perhaps a sustained practice of turning the attention backwards and letting yourself be guided by those at the back, or trusting that those in front are listening to you, can destabilize some of the habits of individualism.
On Ego-Curbing and Eco-Curving
Performing in a crowd of potato people can be disorienting. Puppeteers must balance the counter-intuitive direction to follow puppets located behind them along with the shifting positions and attention between their individual unit (puppeteer plus one or two potato people) with the whole. This curving of the gaze may have implications beyond the symbolic, especially as it can take root in the body of puppeteers. Perhaps a sustained practice of turning the attention backwards and letting yourself be guided by those at the back, or trusting that those in front are listening to you, can destabilize some of the habits of individualism. At the same time, approaching puppetry as a collaboration between puppets and puppeteers, through responding to and respecting the material capacities of objects, can blur anthropocentric understandings of matter.
At my most hopeful, I wonder if such ego-curbing can also engender an eco-curving: a disruption of the linear, forward-facing notion of progress set up by modern Western Enlightenment and capitalism, which continues to unfold its colonial, extractivist, and destructive power. Instead, eco-curving invites us to switch things around; to mobilize necks and minds stiffened by unidirectionality; to learn from the circular and twined pathways of planets, migratory birds, and roots. Perhaps “potato people” is a fitting name for these puppets after all, as they offer lessons of collectivity from the ground, showing the necessary reciprocity of eco-social relations for life to thrive.