Vale Elka Schumann (1935-2021)

Elka holding a bunch of flowers waving next to a door.
Source: Bread and Puppet Theatre

The large extended family and community whose lives were touched by Elka Schumann mourn the end of her rich life on August 1st.  I count myself among that group. I met Elka in the mid-1970s, when I was fresh out of college and trying to make sense of the world. She was the person who introduced me to singing, to puppetry, and to theater. She remained a dear friend and mentor.

Elka was the backbone of Bread and Puppet Theater. While raising five children, she was also able to be chief counsel and critic to her brilliant and prolific husband Peter. She managed the theater’s finances, founded and ran the Bread and Puppet Press – disseminating posters, calendars, books and recordings throughout the world. She was the primary caretaker and curator of the theater’s huge barn museum. And, when I first connected with her, she was designer, writer and director of Dancing Bear Children’s Theater, performing hand puppet shows in public schools throughout northern Vermont. She was an accomplished singer and flautist, and was responsible for introducing me, as well as Bread and Puppet, to the a cappella hymn tradition known as shape-note singing, which became a mainstay in the theater’s productions.

Elka was born Elka Leigh Scott in Magnitogorsk, Siberia. Her father, John Scott, was an American Communist, interested in the radical re-imagining of economic structures and the creation of a new social order in the Soviet Union. Her mother, Masha Dikareva, was Russian; she had one sister, Elena. When the Nazis invaded Russia, the family fled. Her father’s politics took a sharp turn toward conservatism, and they spent time in Germany, New York State, and New York City, finally settling in Ridgefield, CT.  She attended Bryn Mawr College, and met Peter Schumann during a junior year abroad in Munich, Germany, when she was enlisted to join his non-dancer dance company.

Elka’s grandfather was Scott Nearing, whose back-to-the-land democratic socialism had a powerful influence on her as well.

Through this heritage, and through her partnership with Peter, Elka developed an acute sense of justice, and a belief in the possibility of building new structures, and imagining new worlds. Bread and Puppet’s deep ethical foundations – anti-war, pro-democracy, frugality, living in harmony with the earth – were well-lived in Elka herself.  There was always room at the table for one more roaming puppeteer. There was always a song, a slice of bread, and an encouraging word.

I spent my first months as a Bread and Puppet company member after they had already escaped the streets of NYC for a more pastoral existence on Cate Farm in Plainfield, VT. The company was on tour in Europe and I was alone with Elka and her kids. I joined adventures of her design on picnics, hikes, and cultural trips. I loved those escapades, complemented by visits to many remote elementary schools to perform puppet shows. Later, I had opportunities to tour with Elka, often to distant lands, and I was struck by how open her eyes always were, how eager to see and learn new things, how willing to extend herself to new situations.

In Glover, the theater took up residence on a farm purchased by Elka’s parents. Elka was a consistent strong protector of the land – pine forest, apple orchard, hay fields, sugar bush, house, barn and outbuildings – especially as they were transformed into amphitheatre, workshop, puppet storage, museum and venue for tens of thousands of annual spectators. Creating a balance between private home and public space, between the needs of her family and the needs of the theater, and between the grandeur of Peter’s vision and the simplicity of the life-style they chose, was an ongoing struggle. But her expansive generosity was its own art form. She was the definition of hospitality for me and countless other puppeteers. Her guiding light continues to shine.

Trudi Cohen (August 16, 2021)