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Puppets, Vaudeville And A Cow: Making It In Vermont Theater

Two people pose for a photo in a farm kitchen.
Erica Heilman
/
VPR
Rose Friedman and Justin Lander, who have everything they ever wanted: They make a living traveling to places like Franklin, Vermont, to put on Punch and Judy shows.

Rose Friedman and Justin Lander are the founding members of Modern Times Theater and co-founders of Vermont Vaudeville in Hardwick. They create traditional Punch and Judy shows about modern life, particularly life in Vermont. Erica Heilman recently visited them at their farmhouse in East Hardwick.

Rose: “When we do a show in an unexpected place, and an unexpected cross-section of the community turns up for it, and they all laugh at it together – we both get really excited.”

A lot of people come to Vermont so they can be more than one thing. Museum-curator-intensive-care-nurses. Pig-farmer-writer-bloggers. Rose and Justin are homesteading-puppeteer-musicians. They’re not from Vermont originally, but I can’t really picture them anywhere else.

In the library wing, the town hall, the basement

After working with Bread and Puppet Theater, Rose and Justin settled in East Hardwick, population 1,068. They bought some chickens and a cow and started making shows. Puppet shows, vaudeville shows, shows that are cheap and sometimes free, shows that are for everyone.

Justin: “We do mostly this puppet show, this Punch and Judy-style puppet show, and that’s our bread and butter,” Justin said. “And then we also do variety entertainment. Physical comedy and comic music and …”

Rose: “… Vaudeville.” 

Justin: “Vaudeville. Right. That.”

Justin continued: "So a huge amount of the work is in the summer, and it’s through libraries. So that means in the corner of a one-room library. It means the gigantic wing of a fancy library where they have a performing area. It means …”

Rose: “The backyard.”

Justin: “The backyard of the library or the town square. It means the old town hall.”  

Rose: “Also the super-depressing basement of the library.”  

Justin: “With the AA meeting stuff still out. You know, like, ‘Here’s the puppet show!’”

Justin continued: “It’s also summer fairs and festivals, the county fair. You start your show, and if you get a couple, then they all just start glomming on, and before you know it, you’ve got like a hundred people watching who would never come and see your show.”

Rose: “That’s what gets us really going. Having someone who we maybe don’t have a natural connection to in our community, in a social way, and if that person wanders into our show accidentally because we’re at the county fair or because it’s a free library thing and he’s bringing his kids that day, and he sees us and we get to actually make him laugh, it’s deeply satisfying to us. And I don’t know why that is, but it feels like going against all of the stuff in the culture that’s trying to separate people into their pockets based on their Amazon profile that says what they buy and what they like and where they live and how they do it. It’s wrong. It’s not supposed to be that way, and it feels so good to do that.”  

Justin: “Being in a room together and experiencing a live performance, and what that is to be in an audience, it’s becoming a rare experience. And kids need to have early experiences of theater. Not just as a school group all packed together, but they need to do it with adults and older kids, to learn how to be an audience, because it’s a really powerful thing in life.”  

Why? 

Justin: “You see the stories of the world. You see the archetypes. You experience tragedy, you experience the feeling of laughing in a group together. The value of that is undefinable.” 

Theater and a cow

Rose: “Making theater here, in East Hardwick, in the Northeast Kingdom, even in Vermont, it’s sort of an impossibility unless you’re touring or you’re connected to some hub like Burlington. Or you’ve got some good job in theater. That would be the way to do it. So we both said, ‘OK. We will not try to make our living off of theater. We’ll make our living in other ways. And we will just do theater in any way we can.’ And we both just worked doing pretty much anything we could find.”

Justin: “I did all of the Northeast Kingdom ‘man jobs.’”  

Rose: “A sampler platter.”  

Justin: “Sugaring. I worked in the carpentry and construction industries. I cut meat. We had a whole barn full of rabbits that I would call the restaurants: ’Would you like some rabbits today?’ We were raising like hundreds of chickens, we were selling black market pork. Any way we could scrap this together and make this thing work, and then we get to go and do a puppet show!”  

Rose: “And there were also countless vaudeville shows where we’d be at the Town House all day rehearsing, and then on the dinner break Justin would run home and milk the cow. And then come back and do the show.”  

Justin: “You want to do everything. And if you can’t do everything, you wonder, ‘Is it because I’m not good enough? It’s because I’m lazy that we can’t do the cow and the puppet show.’ You can see it like that, and then you can see it like: That’s completely insane, and I’m going to have a heart attack when I’m 47. But you don’t need a house-sitter for a garden. So the garden continues to be this huge project that starts – well, I just did the seed order. So. It started. 2020 gardening season has begun. That’s like an addiction. You can’t stop.”  

Rose: “You feed us!” 

Justin: “We haven’t bought any vegetables for months on end now and it’s mid-January. So. It’s gotta be worth it. Right?”

Making it to Franklin, Vermont, and in life

After more than a decade, Rose and Justin were able to quit their multiple jobs and now make a modest-but-livable wage from their theater work.  

Justin: “In the summer, we go to all these libraries. So we go to these towns that you would never otherwise go to. Ever ever. And some of those drives, you drive through a lengthy section of no human activity, or what it appears to be. And we find ourselves in the van — this is like a date for us, ‘cause we’re alone—and we’re just driving through this explosion of green in late spring and early summer, to get to nowhere, where there’s some audience waiting to see our show.”  

Justin continued: “That’s what we wanted. That’s what this project is about. If we were Boston-based artists, we would never get a show in Franklin, Vermont. We did it.” 

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