“Puppetry should continue to be a tool for change.”
—Bruce Cannon, creator of Harlem River Drive and first person of color appointed to the Henson Foundation board
PUTNEY—Celebrated, innovative Sandglass Theater, a progenitor of puppetry for social change, is back with its biennial Puppets in Paradise.
Held this year at the burgeoning Retreat Farm venue, the festival connects audiences with artists from the region and from the rest of the world for two days of theater arts and puppetry, which this year will shine a lens on the environment, race, and empowerment, according to a Sandglass newsletter.
Historically a significant fundraiser for Sandglass, this year, with a nod to the pandemic’s widespread economic impact, the Labor Day weekend event is free — a family-friendly gift to the community.
Puppets in Paradise ’21 features Harlem River Drive celebrating the history and diversity of the world’s most famous Black community — New York’s Harlem — by famed puppeteer Bruce Cannon.
Audiences traversing station to station at Retreat Farm will also see Sycorax ex Machina, excerpted from a full-length theater piece conceived in Brazil and developed during the Puppet Showplace Theater’s Black Puppeteers Empowerment Grant and Creative Research Residency program.
The piece highlights multicultural witchdom offering a “cosmovision of ancient Yoruba origin,” creators say.
Other stops, as described by Sandglass, include:
• “The Great Escape,” performed with a straitjacket and chains as passed down from the second cousin of Harriet Houdini, say creators, tongue-in-cheek.
• “Café Parisian,” which finds Malvina and Orville at an emotional crossroads and a journey to France in the hope of saving their relationship.
• “Judy Saves the Day,” a modern interpretation of the traditional Punch and Judy show and a hilarious, timely farce.
• “Marvelous Metamorphoses” unravels the beautiful, bizarre transformations in our world: caterpillar to butterfly, polliwog to frog, to name just two. Performers dance and sing, celebrating their way through natural changes.
• “Day Dreaming” is an invitation to enter a dream world — a world that lifts one’s spirits, that knows no limits, that helps to ignite dreams.
• “The Mane Thing,” a whimsical experience of the “humanette,” a unique puppetry style. A fantastical creature prowls Vermont forests; with one horn she sparkles and tosses a beautiful mane. But what happens when she loses that beauty?
• “The Climate Crankie,” a hand-cranked theater in a suitcase, uses poignant imagery, swift narration, and the wit and whimsy of live guitar to unveil the significance of the element carbon and its effect on the modern world.
• The “Bad Bedsheet Philosophy & Existability [sic] Show,” focuses on tons of post-consumer waste, as famed Bread and Puppet director Peter Schumann uses old bedsheets to create a painted series of “handouts,” representing our greatest community resource: our hands, and how we use them.
A diverse lineup of artists
Besides Cannon, a native New Yorker who’s been entertaining and educating kids for 37 years — the last 23 as director of Central Park’s Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater — a number of artists will be participating in Puppets in Paradise:
• Hadley Mays, an actress, interdisciplinary multicultural performing artist, theater deviser, teacher, and workshop facilitator.
• Jennifer Miller, director /founder of Circus Amok, a circus that tours New York parks annually, and recipient of an Obie, a Bessie, and an Ethyl Eichelberger award.
• Dave Regan, who’s been embroiled in the puppetry world for 30 years, working variously as performer, designer, builder, and instructor.
• Sarah Nolen, puppeteer and filmmaker from Austin, Texas, now in Boston as Puppet Showplace Theater’s resident artist.
• Sova Dance and Puppet Theater, which celebrates humanity and the environment by engaging audiences through live performance, communicating that which cannot be described in words.
• Theatre Adventure, the Brattleboro-based group that empowers youth and adults with disabilities through the expressive arts, lifting spirits, igniting dreams, and encouraging confidence.
• Heidi Tungseth, a multidisciplinary artist and teacher who studied comedy improv at the Groundlings in Los Angeles, co-launched an award-winning show at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and performs widely.
• Jana Zeller, who has practiced the art of puppetry for 20 years, performing around the globe with marionettes, rod puppets, shadow puppets, and hand puppets.
Peter Siegel’s Gaslight Tinkers will offer what the featured band describes as “a blend of global rhythms, a joyously danceable sound around a core of traditional New England old-time and Celtic fiddle music.”
And, not least at all, Bread and Puppet, founded by Schumann in the early 1960s and based in Glover since 1974, will be on hand.
Bread and Puppet has been a politically active puppet theater for more than 50 years, performing outdoor pageants and circuses, building distinctive papier-mâché and burlap puppets, and building community as a voice for activism and against injustice.
Celebrating a great tradition
Sandglass Theater was founded in Munich, Germany, in 1982 by Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass.
An American puppeteer, director, and teacher, Eric Bass began working with puppets while studying theater at Middlebury College. A touring puppeteer, he was a street performer exploring the traditional Kasperle theater.
He then worked with Jean Erdman’s Open Eye Theater in New York; Erdman’s husband, Joseph Campbell, was advisor to the theater and, as a renowned expert on mythology, thus notably influenced Bass’s work.
Ines Zeller Bass has been performing with puppets since 1968, when she joined the Munich marionette theater Kleines Spiel. In 1978, she created her children’s hand puppet theater, Punschi, which toured Europe, Australia, and the U.S.
The Basses’ daughters — sisters Jana Zeller and Shoshana Bass — now tour this show.
In 1996, Sandglass opened a 60-seat theater in Putney. Together, the Basses have mounted myriad productions, many award-winning and many with renowned international artists. They teach their approach to puppetry performance and devised composition in workshops in Vermont and abroad.
Sandglass is in the middle of a six-year leadership transition as the elder Basses step back from artistic direction of the company and Shoshana Bass steps in as new artistic director, with the support of Managing Director Alissa Mello and new Administrator Virginia Driscoll.
“[Our priorities are to honor] the roots and legacy of the organization while leaving room for new wings to grow towards a sustainable future,” the younger Bass notes.
“There is a lot of love and care in this transition, and it is important to acknowledge that, though it is happening within a family, the colleagues, community partners, funders, audiences, and collaborators are vital participants in Sandglass’s evolution,” she adds.
A graduate of Brattleboro Union High School who studied and performed with New England Youth Theatre, Brattleboro School of Dance, and New England Center for Circus Arts, Shoshana Bass earned a degree at Naropa University in performing arts and peace studies, “a synergy that still guides much of my work.”
Having honed a career in theater, choreography, directing, and aerial arts, she returned to Vermont seven years ago “to work more closely with my parents and their art while they were still actively creating.”
In these times, it’s tough for any arts organization to articulate a vision, but if Sandglass could it would be this, according to Shoshana Bass: “We are still touring, creating, presenting, producing, and teaching our art, and we intend to continue.”
“I believe that arts organizations have a critical role to play in issues of justice, cultural narrative, community gathering, and practicing compassion,” she adds.
She said she is “particularly passionate about what this looks like in rural communities.”
“Collaboration is a key part of our work, not just among artists but also across sectors,” Bass says. “Our future will be informed by the needs we feel arise from our community, here and abroad, our partners, and the health of our world.”