Performance through puppetry

Performance through puppetry

Puppets in the Green Mountains marks 10th festival with theme of inclusiveness

PUTNEY — Every few years, southeastern Windham County welcomes puppeteers from around the world for Sandglass Theater's Puppets in the Green Mountains.

This year's festival, held from Sept. 19 to 23, is the 10th edition, and features companies from Wales, Taiwan, Canada, and around the U.S.

The theme is “Opening the Doors.” Building directly on the themes introduced during the 2015 festival, “Walking to the Borders,” which focused on issues of immigration and humanization, this year's lineup includes performances for all ages, shows specifically for adults, a film featuring puppets, workshops, discussions, interviews, and more.

“From a stirring performance by a mixed ability cast that takes a timely look at marginalization in today's societies, to Sandglass Theater's newest piece that delves into the complicated issues of the refugee crisis, this year's festival highlights stories of access and inclusion. The festival offers an invitation to open our doors, to listen and engage with the voices and stories around us,” a news release says.

The director of Puppets in the Green Mountains is Shoshana Bass, who is also an ensemble member of Sandglass Theater. She and her staff of two produce the festival, which typically happens every other year. This year it includes 18 different events in five days held in seven venues in two towns.

Bass said producing Puppets in the Green Mountains “takes a huge amount of preparation, and we rely a lot on fundraising and networking to bring in the best artists, and pay, house, and host them.”

Renowned for hospitality

To accommodate the artists, Bass and her staff work with the community.

“We have a reputation internationally for our hospitality,” Bass said. “We attribute that to how deeply rooted [the festival] is in the community,” she said, and noted the relationships endure beyond the festival. “Hosts have gone to visit performers in their countries. It can be very special.”

Bass said she finds festival artists mostly through touring around the world with Sandglass Theater and through the puppetry newtork. Some have trained with Sandglass, too.

“We get a lot of solicitations, but we need to see the work before we bring it here. The community trusts us to bring in good work,” Bass said. “It also has to do with who the artists themselves are. It's about connection and building international relationships. We want to bring good people into our community.”

The first Puppets in the Green Mountains festival took place in 1994. It was founded by Shoshana Bass's parents, Ines Zeller Bass and Eric Bass, who had established Sandglass Theater in Munich, Germany, in 1982 and moved it to Putney a few years later.

“It happened because my parents were feeling like strangers in their own community,” Shoshana said, adding that “it came out of a desire to have a connection” with the area and its people, and to increase understanding of the art form.

It worked.

The festival has since outgrown Sandglass Theater's 60-seat venue, and Puppets in the Green Mountains uses the area's many performance spaces to present its shows, discussions, interviews, and other events.

“It's great to partner with other venues,” Bass said. “For a small town to thrive economically with a strong cultural backbone, we can't silo ourselves.”

'More puppet activity'

When Puppets in the Green Mountains started, it was unique in this country, Bass said.

Since then, “there's been more puppet activity” across the nation, she said, including Puppeteers of America, a regional festival that changes location.

This year, the two entities are collaborating, and for the first time, Puppeteers of America is holding its event as part of Puppets in the Green Mountains.

Puppeteers of America will bring different styles of programming to the festival, including a puppet slam - “which is just what it sounds like - short-form puppetry for an adult audience, emceed,” Bass said - as well as pop-up shops and exhibits, workshops for therapists and teachers, and a puppet open mic.

About the latter, Bass mused with hope, “are there some hidden local talents?”

By working with Puppeteers of America, the festival is also bringing in new attendees from out of town - about 80 of them, Bass said.

Bass said a crucial component of producing Puppets in the Green Mountains is the partnership the organization has with its sponsors and supporters, “because it doesn't happen without them.”

The festival sponsors are The Clowes Fund, The Bay and Paul Foundations, The Thomas Thompson Trust, Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Community Foundation, and The Windham Foundation. Festival supporters include the New England Foundation for the Arts, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Chroma Technology Corp., Ministry of Culture: Taipei, Brattleboro Savings and Loan, and other local supporters and sponsors.

This year's festival theme, “Opening the Doors,” came from “conversations with other community members, and challenges we faced in other programming,” said Bass, including, but not limited to, accessibility for people in wheelchairs and other mobility-assist devices.

“What is access? It's economic, cultural, and physical. And if we want to be an organization that's welcome to everyone, what does that mean?” she said.

Going on a 'touch tour'

“Meet Fred,” a puppet show performed by Hijinx Theatre, features a “touch tour” for people with a visual impairment, or anyone who would enjoy the show more thoroughly through additional sensory input.

“You can come an hour early and get up-close and touch the scenery and the puppets,” Bass said. Those who would like a touch tour should contact the Sandglass office ahead of time to secure a spot.

Hijinx Theatre, based in Cardiff, Wales, trains and casts actors with and without learning disabilities. “It's a beautiful model to look at a professional field and break assumptions of who's in that field,” Bass said.

Another way the festival organizers are trying to increase access to the shows is by offering ticket subsidies to anyone for whom cost is an economic barrier, supported by a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation.

Two of the shows, “Meet Fred,” and “The Joshua Show” will have an American Sign Language interpreter, and all seven venues are accessible. The news release notes that upon request, festival staff will help attendees with priority seating and parking.

The “Opening the Doors” theme, Bass said, is timely. “When everything seems so divisive - politics, inequalities, borders, whose history gets told - that is the call to our work, to lean on how we as artists can think of new, creative ways to include people and listen to people as the main access of our work.”

“The connections we make will make us stronger, maintain our curiosity, and inspire us,” she said.

“Our biggest practice as artists,” Bass said, “is - or should be - listening. It's been our training, and now is the time when it's needed.”

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