"Doing a lot of adult work and with the heavy themes that are sometimes in that work, it's nice to just relax into a show. We don't always need to be thinking about something." That's Ines Zeller Bass, co-director of Sandglass Theater. And the shows she's talking about are puppet shows.
Sandglass, a world-class puppetry troupe based in Putney, Vt., does indeed include "heavy" material in its repertoire—shows that use puppets, often interacting with live humans, to address serious themes and social issues. Take, for example, D-Generation, the company's latest, whose puppet characters are nursing home residents with dementia.
That show, which debuted in July at the Ko Festival of Performance in Amherst, is part of this year's international Puppets in the Green Mountains festival, a biennial showcase of the puppeteer's art hosted by Sandglass. Over 10 days, in venues bestriding five Southern Vermont towns, the festival presents professional troupes from seven different countries displaying a striking array of styles and subjects. The 10 productions range from simple, charming pieces for the very young, through more sophisticated family-oriented shows, to specifically adult pieces that stretch the medium and confound the conventional Punch and Judy image of puppet shows.
Take, for example, in the latter category, Black Birds of Bialystok, which grapples with the history and lingering legacy of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. Using puppets and live actor/dancers, it marks the U.S. premiere of a collaboration between Sandglass and the Bialystok Puppet Theater of Poland. (Eric Bass, Sandglass' co-director, calls that troupe "one of the major puppet theaters in Poland," a description that in itself demonstrates the importance and centrality of the form in European culture.)
Inspired by an experience Bass had involving the flocks of blackbirds that inhabit a park in Bialystok, Black Birds looks back over a century of Jewish life—and death—in that Polish city. The play, which Bass calls "a very lyrical, beautifully emotional piece," touches on the history of early-20th-century pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, then lands on a lesser-known incident: the expulsion of up to 40,000 Polish Jews in 1968. Depicting a Jewish American dancer who comes to Poland to collaborate with a young colleague, the production lifts the lid on a history that many Poles would just as soon forget. "In a sense," says Bass, "the show is a metaphor about how art enables people to look at conflict, and how art enables us to transform conflict." But it's proved to be more than a metaphor, as the premiere performances in Bialystok ignited dialogue and re-examination among the city's young people.
Another example of material you'll see at the festival, but might not expect to, is John-Eleanor, another two-troupe collaboration, this one from a pair of Finnish companies. It's drawn from records of a court case in medieval London where a man was tried for cross-dressing and homosexual prostitution. Despite its sober historical theme, it's performed, says the publicity, by "rollicking hand-puppets ... embracing both laughter and sadness" to probe questions of gender and sexuality that are as alive today as in the Middle Ages.
The "relaxing" show Ines Zeller Bass was referring to is Scenes from a Tree, performed by a trio of women from Quebec. "It's a wonderful, delightful show for absolutely all ages," she says, "but particularly for very young children, because it speaks their language. It's very visual and very inviting." The festival's most intriguing kid-friendly show is Garbage Monster, from Cengiz Ozek of Turkey, which rides an ancient heritage into present-day ecological awareness. Featuring the beloved "star" of Turkey's age-old shadow-puppet tradition, a trickster named Karagoz, it delivers a playfully thoughtful, up-to-the-minute message about how we should and shouldn't treat Mother Earth.
Eric Bass says he's found several "unintentional themes" running through the festival's offerings. One, he says, is "arts and social change," which embraces shows as diverse as Garbage Monster, John-Eleanor and Sandglass' own D-Generation, "which has to do with how we as a culture understand dementia." There's also Paper Cut, by Israeli puppeteer Yael Rasooly, a razor-sharp and "very funny" social satire involving a bored secretary whose escape into old-movie fantasies turns into a Hitchcockian thriller.
Every festival performance falls at least somewhat into the social change category, Bass says, "because the nature of an arts event is something that brings community together, which is the greatest social change." And from its beginnings in 1997, Puppets in the Green Mountains—this is the festival's eighth installment—has been primarily about community.
Bass confesses that it's becoming increasingly hard to mount the festival—for one thing, because of tighter travel restrictions and higher visa costs for international visitors. But for Sandglass, the festival is a central aspect of the company's founding commitment to its artistic and geographic communities. "As artists, we don't work in a vacuum, we work in an international field," he explains. The festival helps to support that field, but in addition, "We do it because it's an event really for the local community as well as for the field of puppetry. Our festival is very much community-based. The artists stay with people in the community—some wonderful international friendships have been made that way—and meals are hosted by people in the community. It's a way for the artists to meet the community and for the community to meet international artists."
Artist-audience exchanges are built into the festival lineup. A couple of the shows have meals associated with them. Two of the Garbage Monster performances take place at Scott Farm in Dummerston, where a locavore lunch will be served, and the September 28 performance of Paper Cut is preceded by a Middle Eastern dinner (reservations required for both). The Putney Inn hosts a late-night Festival Club after most evening performances, where patrons and puppeteers can chat over a beer and enjoy informal showcases by non-festival performers. There are also two public talks for community members on thematic aspects of the festival, one on "International Collaboration and Conflict Transformation" and another titled "Puppets, Masks and Performing Objects in Therapeutic Puppetry."
Another thematic thread running through this festival is the idea of collaboration, both international and intergenerational. In addition to the cross-company alliances already mentioned, two of the festival entries come from local puppeteers who literally grew up with Sandglass—the next generation, carrying and extending the form. Jana Zeller debuts Eye of the Storm, a metaphorical fantasy created with local musician Anna Patton and other collaborators. And Finn Campman offers Of Bread and Paper, an elliptical tale of a paper man in "a world of light and shadow."
There's a third, implied theme in the titles of four of the festival shows: animals. Besides Black Birds—and not even counting the Garbage Monster or Jana Zeller's Spybird Theater—there's a new puppet version of Peter and the Wolf, with Prokofiev's classic score performed live by the Hugh Keelan Ensemble from UConn and narration by local favorite Tony Barrand. There's Memories of a Circus Tiger, by Spain's Boris Ribas, who's a circus artist but is the son of puppeteers; according to Eric Bass, "Once the puppet aesthetic is inside you, it finds its way into whatever your art form becomes." And the subtitle of D-Generation is "An Exaltation of Larks."
That title was inspired by one of the people who participated in the storymaking process that created D-Generation. In the play, which incorporates verbatim dialogue from multiple sessions Sandglass staff held at a Brattleboro nursing home, four old folks with late-stage dementia—represented by beautifully detailed puppets—interact amusingly and movingly with each other and the puppeteers. Free-associating (there are no "wrong" answers) while looking at intriguing images—like an elegant couple dancing at the edge of a city rooftop—they co-create wacky, imaginative stories which are then transformed into a puppet theater performance.
In the middle of one of the story sessions, one of the men suddenly looks up, full of wonder, and exclaims, "Ooh! Look! Look! Larks. There she goes. Outside the window. See? Thousands of them. Fluttering larks. So beautiful. Wings of light."
Puppets in the Green Mountains, Sept. 22-30, 24 performances in various locations. Visit puppetsinthegreenmountains.com or call (802) 579-4554 for info, schedules and tickets.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.