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The Arts

When puppets meet community

PUTNEY—At this year’s Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival, the performers may be coming from around the world, but Eric Bass believes the festival is really about local community.

Bass who with his wife Ines Zeller Bass co-founded Sandglass Theater in Putney, which is producing the event said, “This festival would be absolutely impossible without the Vermont people.”

The festival depends on major funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Clowes Fund, Inc., Marlboro College and Vermont Arts Council, yet Bass said he can not overestimate the importance of private and community support. Likewise, the event promotes community.

The Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival is an international puppet festival held every other year in Southern Vermont. This year is the eighth biennial event, and companies travel here from Israel, Turkey, Spain, Poland, Finland, Quebec, and throughout the United States. The festival began in 1997 as a collaboration with the Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center (BMAC), with Mara Williams as its executive producer.

In its seven previous editions, 60 companies from Europe, Asia, North and South America have come to entertain.

Puppets in the Green Mountains brings world-class puppetry to southern Vermont, often presenting shows in nontraditional settings. The festival is one of the few opportunities in the U.S. where viewers can experience the ingenious and varied art of puppet theater.

“There are two ways of looking at a puppet festival, each depending on what sort of people come to the event,” Bass said.

“The first is a festival for the people in the field itself. This kind of event is like a professional conference where puppeteers get a chance to speak to each other about their art.”

The other is a festival made for the community, where the general public gets a chance to experience the varied art of puppetry.

“One of the missions of this festival is to bring artist and community together, which is what we think makes Puppets in the Green Mountains so special,” said Bass.

Rather than holding the festival at a college campus, “which implies the festival is for a rarefied academic audience, Puppets in the Green Mountains purposely located its performing venues in five southern Vermont towns — Brattleboro, Marlboro, Dummerston, Bellows Falls, and Putney — to encourage the widest possible local community to join in on the fun,” Bass said.

The festival allows Vermonters to get to know the puppeteers and their art, and the festival gives the artists a chance to know southern Vermont’s vibrant community.

“We have 10 different companies, six of which are international,” he said. “For the time the 35 puppeteers are here, they stay in the homes of members of our little community of Putney. They’re also given ample opportunity to enjoy each other’s work and spend time together at the group dinners every night, generously hosted by members of the community.”

Every night of the festival, Bass says the entire company joins together for a meal given by someone in the community.

“The artists can see how we live here in Vermont, and how we host. Through living with locals, lasting friendships have been made. Years later, some of these families have gone abroad to visit their hosted artists in their own countries and at other puppet festivals.”

Eric and Ines Bass discover companies for Puppets in the Green Mountain while touring with Sandglass Theater.

“As we perform in festivals, in places as distant as Europe, Israel and Japan, we see what we like and people we would like to work with,” Eric Bass said. “The festivals we most love are the ones that encourage our meeting the audience and learning about the foreign community. We hope to bring this idea to Vermont.”

A variety of performances

“Many things contribute to what companies we invite to Puppets in the Green Mountain,” he added. “First of all, we look for shows that have a special aesthetic appeal. But since we are a community event, we also look for shows audiences will enjoy.”

Bass said Sandglass has to consider if the festival can achieve the proper technical support to put on a company’s performance. And, he said, he tries to strike a balance in what will appeal to families and what will be primarily for adults.

The organizers also search out a variety of styles, such as shadow puppets, hand puppets or two-dimensional puppets.

“Some companies we invite highlight music, and others are like a circus,” he said. “In short, we are searching for variety. We hope that if a person goes to just one performance, he will be satisfied, but there will be enough variety that he could happily go see everything.”

Bass is eager to point out a few highlights of this year’s Puppets in the Green Mountains. The festival opens with a special performance of Peter and the Wolf.

In this tale, Peter, the Wolf, and other woodland characters are animated by puppets and by Prokofiev’s score performed live by the Hugh Keelan Ensemble. Woodwind, brass, percussion and string melodies personify each character as Peter, a Russian peasant boy, courageously captures the Wolf that threatens his forest friends. This production, created by the University of Connecticut Puppet Arts students and directed by Bart Roccoberton, is narrated by guest Tony Barrand, known for his British pub songs, ballads, and wry music hall recitations.

Bass said he is excited to present two local performers who grew up with Sandglass Theater, Finn Campman and Jana Zeller.

A Vermont company, Company of Strangers, presents Of Bread and Paper, in which Campman uses paper figures “to relate the tale of a paper man who possesses only a small round of bread. As he seeks his fortune, the paper man is confronted by a dream that seems to foretell his future: his deep love for a child and the need to return home. When released from the dream, he finds himself facing the ghost of his future in the form of the storyteller himself.”

Another Vermont company, Spybird Theater, presents Eye of the Storm, a work in progress.

Jana Zeller’s new piece tells the story of an elegant woman, stuck on an eroding island, awaiting rescue by her sailor son. Caught up in a desperate correspondence of letters, a distant world of shadows, and fear of the rising water, she breaks through her boundaries and makes a decision. With music by local performer Anna Patton, Eye of the Storm is a puppet theater piece for adults, marked by Jana’s use of strong visual imagery, humor and playfulness.

Supplemental events

Bass also wants to draw attention to two nonperformance events. One is a presentation on Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects in Therapeutic Puppetry by Matthew Bernier at BMAC.

The second is a symposium, International Collaboration and Conflict Transformation, at Landmark College on Sept. 24, at 7 p.m., by the creators of Blackbirds of Bialystock, who will discuss International Collaboration and Conflict Transformation.

Bass said, “One of the most prestigious puppet theaters in Poland, the Bialystok Puppet Theater, tackles a controversial theme in contemporary Polish culture: Poland’s history of anti-Semitism, leading to the eviction of 40,000 Jews in 1968.”

In this collaborative work written by Eric Bass, Polish and American performers bring to life the spirits of Poland’s ghettos, pogroms, and expulsions, and carry them into the present day.

“They ask the question: how do we create dialogue in the face of this history? Fluid choreography, and Miamon Miller’s original score carry us deep into a haunted past to find hope for a brighter future,” Bass said.

Finally Bass wants “to draw some special attention to the show John-Eleanor, which will be performed at Marlboro College. The show is a delightful and moving piece about an actual court case in medieval England in which the defendant was tried for impersonating a woman (and having sex). In other words, cross dressing in the Middle Ages. It’s a show I like very much, wonderfully performed by a company from Finland. At Marlboro, it will be done in English.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #170 (Wednesday, September 19, 2012).

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