As a photographic documentation, Rehearsing With Gods explores a human-deity dichotomy, expressed through interaction with the landscape: clay faces melt back into the land only to reappear elsewhere; a group of bas relief sculptural trees arise to form a forest… and sing sacred harp; women in gowns, donning animal heads, set tables for large outdoor banquets where bread and water is served with all the ceremony it merits. The puppets of Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater act upon this landscape, and the puppeteers that guide them do it as a gesture of loving insurrection, as they attempt to guide Mother Earth back to safety.
The title, Rehearsing With Gods suggests a notion of divine activity, of a place where mysterious and hopeful things may occur. Everyone is welcome to this rehearsal. Once inside we find it is a very earthy place where paper gods present parables that guide us through the gamut of life. The eight archetypal themes (Death, Fiend, Beast, Human, World, Gift, Bread, and Hope) that structure Rehearsing With Gods guide the reader on a progression from dark to light, along an archetypal path that offers a glimpse of what George Dennison called “An Existing Better World”.
The eight archetypal themes (Death, Fiend, Beast, Human, World, Gift, Bread, and Hope) that structure Rehearsing With Gods guide the reader on a progression from dark to light, along an archetypal path that offers a glimpse of what George Dennison called “An Existing Better World”. The puppets lead the way into this world and they beckon the audience to follow. The first stage of this progression forces the viewer to contemplate their own mortality as Death is presented by puppets of all descriptions, assaulting the audience with images and questions of how and why some situations are allowed to occur.
The artistic simplicity of Peter Schumann’s puppet populations emphasizes their own ‘nakedness’, vulnerability and impending sense of mortality. When a single puppeteer crouches under a naked puppet body shell, his vulnerability is revealed, and like a shivering child with a tiny blanket, he is left open and unprotected. When over a hundred naked body shells huddle together in a landscape of bodies and suddenly stop moving, that piece of theater is transformed into something akin to a mass grave. No longer private, Death is turned into a spectacle that questions our understanding of how we suffer as a public body. In a sense, these deathly scenes force a comparison between puppet bodies and public bodies. For here we have life size protestations of human vulnerability rising to a crescendo of insurrection, re-enacting desperate situations that end too often in the same dire way.
Schumann’s populations of naked body puppets challenge the morality of real populations that look the other way, absolving themselves of responsibility. This living tableau of puppet shells being symbolically and slowly slaughtered on stage provides a very radical alternative to the soft, antiseptic mainstream view of mortality. This is the question Peter Schumann asks of his audience and his neighbors alike. The answer is still pending.
(Published as the cover essay to Rivendell Issue 3 Workshop to Woodshed 2004.)