Bread and Puppet Theater Museum

The Bread and Puppet Theater is a politically-radical puppet theater company started in 1963 in New York City, using rod-puppets (some as tall as 15 feet or more) to tell their stories in parade and pageant. The company moved to a farm in Glover, Vermont in 1974, where they transformed a 140-year-old hay barn into a museum for puppets from previous performances, while the grounds themselves still host lavish puppet performances on weekends throughout the summer.

The company’s central activity for many years was the annual “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus” weekend event that took place in a sprawling pastoral field, drawing audiences numbering in the tens of thousands every year. These two-day events started to become less and less manageable, the camping areas becoming more rowdy with an audience seemingly less interested in the theater and more interested in the party, and after the killing of an attendee during a fight in 1998 they made the decision to end this annual festival, and devote their energies to smaller weekend shows and to touring their performances of art, theater and activism… and sourdough. The theater company would bake and distribute bread free with aioli to the crowds at performances, as a symbol of community.

I had seen their performances in the past but have never been to the museum and, seeing that I was in the neighborhood recently, it was a good time to go. It’s out in the sticks, where their immediate neighbors are “the next town.” I don’t find myself in that neck of the woods too often, it’s far and it’s rural and it’s lovely.

We walked into the museum through the gift shop, naturally. Loads of posters and cards and print material for sale, definitely picking something up before I leave, but let’s wander down that hallway. Hallways were packed with clusters of puppets and props from previous productions, along with photos and explanations of the mission of that particular production. This company has been active for a good 50 years now, so the amount of visual material was overwhelming. Walked both hallways, and were about to head out to explore the grounds when my partner asked “Shall we go upstairs?” There’s an upstairs?? Sure, let’s do it.

“Upstairs” took my breath away.

We were the only ones in this place, so it was an intimate experience with floor-to-ceiling-and-beyond arrangements of massive puppets and props. It was eerie, all these contorted puppet faces watching you as you passed by in a darkened barn attic, floor lights casting long shadows on the walls behind. Faces above you, faces behind you, faces framing the loftier areas of the ceiling, it was really neat. Upon exiting I was made aware “Hey, we didn’t turn the lights on. Let’s go back and turn them on.” The second look was different than the first, more light, more color, the visual orchestra becomes fuller. Still, I think I preferred the creepier version we witnessed initially, it had a decidedly different atmosphere that appealed to me.

We returned to the gift shop where I picked out several prints and postcards for framing and sharing, and dropped 40 bucks into the lock box. The honor system is a major thing in places like this, almost every attraction we visited in the Northeast Kingdom had some version of this. A vegetable stand, this gift shop, a museum, an antique shop, all relied on patrons to do the right thing, rather than staffing and policing visitors to not rob them blind. It’s so refreshing at a time when everyone in America seems so suspicious and distrusting of their neighbors that they are hesitant to even go grocery shopping without a gun.

We helped ourselves to do a self-guided tour of the grounds, and none of the staff working on projects minded. They paid us no mind, in fact, no “Hi welcome to our blah blah please let me know if we can blah blah blah” they just kept working and talking, and we wandered uninhibited. I liked this. Pay me no mind, I just want to take some pictures and I promise not to break anything. As long as we turned off the lights when we left, all was good.

Since we were there on a Friday there were no scheduled performances. Our unhurried tour still managed to take over an hour, no entry fees and the print offerings (as well as the “cheap art” bus parked across the street) were priced very reasonably, all proceeds going to support the continued mission of this puppet theater. It was a pretty neat stop on the way home, followed by lunch and a creemee further down the road.