Hugo and Claude, a pair of foam and gauze gargoyles, will be brought to life by Shoshana Bass and Kirk Murphy.
Courtesy photo
Hugo and Claude, a pair of foam and gauze gargoyles, will be brought to life by Shoshana Bass and Kirk Murphy.

Puppetry abundance

Puppets in Paradise returns to the Retreat Farm with a two-day festival celebrating work by artists from near and far

BRATTLEBORO — Sandglass Theater, founded in 1982 by Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass, has a mission that's clearly manifest in all they offer.

The nonprofit is "dedicated to the arts of theater and puppetry as a means of exploring contemporary issues, inspiring dialogue, and sparking wonder - by creating original ensemble performances and collaborations, presenting diverse theater artists, producing events that serve our communities, and teaching our art."

Living up to it all, this venerable player on the area's lively arts scene presents the 10th Puppets in Paradise (PiP), a biennial tradition, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 9 and 10 at Retreat Farm on Route 30.

Earlier iterations of PiP were held at Mary and Gordon Hayward's gardens in Westminster, but "the event outgrew the gardens," says Sandglass Artistic Director Shoshana Bass.

Thus, in 2019, they partnered with Retreat Farm in Brattleboro to produce the festival there. Interrupted by the Covid pandemic, this will be the third PiP at that locale.

Bass says the appeal of the collaboration with Retreat Farm is the mutual benefit. "We're reaching toward the agricultural sector in Vermont, and they're reaching into the arts sector with the spirit of partnership," she said.

Being "such a central and beautiful location," Bass says, the Retreat Farm presence offers expansion into other audiences beyond Sandglass's valued loyal following.

At this all-family festival, audiences stroll the farm choosing one of three performance circuits that weave through the grounds to enjoy "short-form puppet performances, theater artists, and musicians amidst the fields, historic barns, and animals," according to a Sandglass media release.

Returning to the Retreat's common, festivalgoers will be invited to participate in a collective Sheep Dance.

The aim, according to Bass, is to give audience to "our regional artists, to what we have here in our region in terms of puppetry abundance." Because each piece is short-form puppetry - eight minutes maximum per piece, according to Bass, PiP gives artists a choice opportunity to try new material.

Some highlights

Jeghetto: While most PiP puppet artists come from around New England, Tarish Pipkins, a.k.a. Jeghetto, hails from North Carolina. A self-taught master builder and puppeteer, according to a news release, "his puppets are abstract moving sculptures made of mostly found and recycled materials."

Recipient of grants from the Jim Henson Foundation, Pipkins's credits include performing puppetry on NBC's The Voice and on HBO's Random Acts of Flyness. Jeghetto's Pop Up Variety Show and his unique style of puppetry will yield "a magical experience for children of all ages."

Pipkins will stay on after PiP to lead a two-day workshop for puppetry and performance at Theatre Adventure of Brattleboro and will join some of the participating students in their primary public schools for a series of additional classroom workshops.

Sova Dance & Puppet Theater: Returning to PiP with "Bee Resilient," part of a new piece in progress, is Connecticut-based internationally acclaimed mask and puppet performer Adelka Polak, whose company, Sova Dance & Puppet Theater, according to the Sandglass release, "celebrates humanity and the environment by engaging audiences through live performance, communicating that which cannot easily be described in words alone, making art accessible to communities around the globe."

Her new work is an "exploration of life connections and cycles," and Sova "seeks to highlight the relationship between their ancestral Slovak cultural representative, the busy bee, and the sunflower, the symbol of neighboring Ukraine."

"Each relies on the other as neighbors, cousins, and further yet as a global community, so when the safety of one is threatened we all are," Sandglass writes.

CactusHead of western Massachusetts will present an excerpt from its "Magnificent Monster Circus." The group's website proclaims that viewers will "encounter magnificent creatures from the wilds of your imagination as their quirky human caretaker tries to teach them new tricks."

New England Youth Theatre, based in Brattleboro, will also be featured in an excerpt from "A Conference of the Birds," directed last spring by Sandglass co-founder Eric Bass, assisted by Mackenzie Doss.

"It was so beautiful," Shoshana Bass recalls, "and it had only a one-weekend run, so I asked if they could reassemble the cast and perform an excerpt. I'm amazed and excited that the company will gather again."

Students from the only puppetry master's degree program in the country at the University of Connecticut are also in the PiP lineup.

Break-Fast Puppets, directed by Anthony Sellitto and Joanie Papillon, is a movement- and puppet-based duo which, according to the Sandglass release, "seeks to tell compelling stories that process the non-material world through sculptural techniques, choreographic vocabulary, and visual storytelling."

Their performance, "Fly," will feature the Swan and the Flamingo, "two giant birds built entirely from garbage and obsolete items, who live between two worlds and remind us of times when we were perhaps more in tune with nature around us."

Stoph Scheer, having just earned her master's in the UConn puppet arts program and having worked with the Jim Henson Company, the Muppets, and Banksy, will present "King's Justice," a "very interactive piece," says Bass, with whom Scheer is collaborating on a new work.

"She's awesome, very funny," Bass adds.

Jana Zeller will perform "Bug," a new piece for PiP. As described by Sandglass: "An unsuspecting scientist peeking through a microscope beholds a bug that opens its wings and reveals a series of mysterious transformations that are entirely unscientific."

A working artist, Zeller is a painter and scenic designer, as well as a puppeteer. She's been performing and teaching puppetry in New England and abroad for almost three decades.

Samantha Sing: Also on the PiP program is 2022 Sandglass summer-intensive puppetry program participant Sing, who "will be coming from New York City with New York flavor in a story about subway creatures," Bass says.

Shoshana Bass and Kirk Murphy: Bass and Murphy have resurrected puppets that have been in boxes for years - Hugo and Claude, shaped from foam and gauze. Murphy, long associated with Sandglass, is a local puppeteer and musician who has toured exclusively with the company.

As he and Bass bring these two favorites back to life, they tell this story, according to the Sandglass release: "High on a French cathedral sit this gargoyle duo. Alike in stone only, one delights in the daily visits from pigeon friends and dreams of flying freely with them, while the other can't stand them and can only grumble about those pesky little birds. One day, a miracle happens."

Gabriel Pasculli and Virginia Scholl: Pasculli, Sandglass's creative director, is just completing his first year - a year that began with his jumping into the theater's biennial Puppets in the Green Mountains, an international puppet festival that alternates with PiP.

Putney choreographer and dance educator Scholl joined Pasculli, an interdisciplinary performance artist, theater director, and educator, to resurrect a sheep dance that Scholl choreographed 20 years ago for the 250th anniversary of Putney's incorporation as a town.

According to the Sandglass release, Scholl is "delighted to be reimagining it for Puppets in Paradise."

"We are but sheep in the wild, and so we dance," she says. "Perhaps for fun, maybe for hope, or even a bit for protection, we build a dance one step, one body, one gathering at a time."

Play: essential to change, growth, and community

"Puppetry necessitates intersectionality," Bass says - an embracing of all the arts. And, she adds, "with a lot of Sandglass's work," at least, puppetry centers on engagement with certain social issues.

"With organizations and initiatives that are not arts based but are justice based or humanities based, puppetry is such a good tool for responding to the things we see in the world and to finding joy," she adds. "At the core of puppetry is play - play, whether we use it as joy, wonder, dialogue, conflict transformation, community building, or activism."

Bass emphasizes that play is an essential component of change, growth, and community.

Puppetry is an art form that dates to ancient Asia and Greece - even, it's believed, to ancient Egypt - and that's evolved worldwide over generations. It boasts a vast range of materials and techniques - even in the U.S., she says, where puppetry has grown in production and popularity in myriad directions in recent decades.

A puppeteer's work, Bass adds, "is an invitation for an audience to participate with their own imagination." Moreover, "the audience is an essential part of a puppet's life."

* * *

Puppets in Paradise will take place rain or shine, thanks to an increasing array of covered spaces at Retreat Farm, on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 9 and 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, with last performances beginning at 3:45 p.m. Golf carts will be available for increased accessibility to most performance locations.

Sandglass estimates that the full festival experience takes at least two hours. Tickets can be purchased at the entrance or at on an as-able-to-pay scale from a $24 Equity Ticket to an $8 EBT and Medicaid cardholder ticket. Children under 3 are free. Food and refreshments from local vendors will be available.

And, for just a bit of symbolism for the weaving-arts-and-agriculture idea, visitors will find, in the midst of all the puppet art, the gentle giant from Retreat Farm, Carlos the Bull, to whom they're welcome to say "hi."

This The Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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