Rosendale woman combines activism and puppets

Rosendale musician and puppeteer Amy Trompetter at her Redwing Blackbird Theater. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

When Amy Trompetter and her fellow activists support a march of resistance or a rally against injustice, they bring the joy into it. As a member of the Tin Horn Uprising marching brass activist band and the founder of Redwing Blackbird Theater – which utilizes puppetry to inspire citizen-driven action – Trompetter says the imagery and musical energy reaches people in a lighthearted way without the heavy-handed intellectualizing that sometimes characterizes such events.

“There is a joyousness to what we do, a communal bonding in it; we’re all together out in the street, or wherever we’re gathering. And being together in a lighthearted, joyous way inspires unity. Results are never guaranteed, but if the process that brings people together is truthful, it helps us reach a place of truth that makes us think about our participation in the entire community and the world we live in; to embrace the humanity of us all, across borders and all types of divides, whether political, ethnic, religious, whatever.”

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Political theater sometimes has “that didactic tag on it that turns people off,” Trompetter says. “But our vocabulary, of puppets, is simple; simple-minded in a certain way. A giant Mother Earth puppet can inspire a feeling of where we came from and be more inspiring to the truth of our existence on this earth and how we expend our energy on that path than a verbal approach. The basic goodness of humanity is in all the arts, and that’s why we need this so desperately right now. “

Trompetter has been combining activism with large-scale puppetry since the 1960s, when she discovered Bread & Puppet Theater on the streets of New York City. Currently based in Vermont, the group is still active under founder and director, Peter Schumann. The name is derived from the group’s practice of sharing fresh bread with the audience of each performance to create a sense of community, and from its central principle that art should be as basic as bread to life. Bread & Puppet Theater was at its most active during the Vietnam War in anti-war protests that featured 10-to-15-foot puppets at many demonstrations.

Trompetter had not been involved with puppetry prior to experiencing a Bread & Puppets event, but knew right away, she says, that their form of activism was the one for her. “I transferred to Berkeley when I was a junior in college, and in working at the “Catholic Worker” in Oakland [a group that offers meals, shelter and social services to those in need], I had this deep feeling that street theater was the way to get to this generation of young people. In the mid-‘60s, after I graduated from Berkeley and moved to New York, I saw the giant puppets of Bread & Puppets on Fifth Avenue and at the Angry Arts Festival on the Lower East Side [organized by Schumann and others in 1967] and it was so clear to me — I wanted to work with this company of artistic activists.” 

Bread & Puppet Theater was inspired in part by a Sicilian puppet show Schumann had seen that used giant wooden puppets to smash into each other. “It certainly isn’t traditional puppetry,” Trompetter notes. “And there’s nothing cute about it. But Schumann was influenced by growing up in Europe, appalled by the Nazis, and he pulled from all those different energies to invent Bread & Puppets.” 

Inspired by her work with the group, Trompetter later founded Redwing Blackbird Theater in the late ‘90s. Housed in a converted Rosendale bus station, the space functions as a theater, puppet-making workshop, puppet museum and community meeting space for volunteers who work toward social justice and sustainability for the planet.

The puppets are made from humble materials that cost almost nothing: recycled cardboard, clay dug from the earth and cornstarch glue. People relate to them in their own way, says Trompetter, “to the fullest of their capacity. And that’s the possibility of this language if we approach it delicately, like a composer or painter looking for what element in that moment would be truthful. People get it when they see it.”

When Trompetter was teaching at Barnard College — she still teaches part-time at Bard — she chose the discipline of world theater, she says, because she thought it would help her get to the roots of what attracted her to Bread & Puppet Theater. “These ancient cultures used effigies to reach the parts of humanity that were pre-language, or made connections with archetypes and with the ancestors and the whole universal connection as humans that we struggle to maintain on a daily basis. The image has an innocence that is a pathway for us to grow to our depth. In our truest moments, when great tragedy befalls us, we get to a truer place inside of ourselves, and for me, puppet theater, with its ancient roots, can pull the community to its truth and keep the community on track.”

On January 19, the now annual Women’s March will return to communities nationwide with participation expected to be enthusiastic in light of the opposition to Supreme Court Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment last year and the 2020 presidential elections drawing closer. A march will be held in Woodstock at 11 a.m. and another in Hudson at 1 p.m., both supported by Redwing Blackbird Theater and the Tin Horn Uprising brass marching band.  

Trompetter, who plays trumpet in the band, says the instrument was taken on during her Bread & Puppets days simply because “someone put a trumpet in my hand.” The similarity of her name — which came courtesy of marriage — is a coincidence.

And while the joyous nature of her support of rallies and marches has been noted, Trompetter has also helped create a number of theatrical works with serious global themes that utilize puppetry for its ability to tap into our non-verbal psyches in a perhaps more mysterious way. These productions include the recent Off-Broadway Fantasque, a vision of morality and immorality as seen through a child’s eyes in a series of connected vignettes merging dance and puppetry; a “puppet opera” entitled Requiem for Anna Politkovskaya, honoring the Ukrainian journalist assassinated because of her work; and a local show about Sojourner Truth utilizing the words of Martin Luther King. Trompetter just returned from Brazil, where she helped create a show about the murdered human rights activist Mariella Franco, the form of which was influenced by European Punchinello (Punch & Judy) traditions combined with African traditions rooted in slavery.

For more information about Trompetter and Redwing Blackbird Theater, visit https://www.redwingblackbirdtheater.com/. For more information about the Tin Horn Uprising band, visit http://tinhornuprising.org/.

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