The only company to appear at both the Chicago and Edinburgh puppet festivals this year was the venerable Sandglass Theater of Putney, Vt. Since 1982, co-artistic directors Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass have been creating puppet work for adults and children distinguished by its precision in design and technique, its seriousness of purpose, and its commitment to community engagement and international collaboration. Case in point: Their next project will team Sandglass with El Salvador’s Teatro Luis Poma on an adaptation of Nathan the Wise, G.E. Lessing’s 1779 verse drama about religious tolerance.
At Manipulate in Edinburgh, Eric Bass dusted off his signature work Autumn Portraits, a solo piece created in 1980 and performed hundreds of times since then. Each of its five vignettes presents a distinct puppet character—an Irish vaudevillian, an old crone, a monk from the East, a Jewish cobbler, and so on—caught in an existential predicament.
In Chicago, Sandglass presented its latest work, D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks, which features five autumn portraits (or a little past that): Rose, Henry, Florence, Elwood and Mary are all wheelchair-bound seniors living with late-stage dementia in a nursing home, where they are cared for (and operated) by three puppeteers (Eric Bass, Ines Zeller Bass and Kirk Murphy). Directed by Roberto Salomon and based on a series of workshops Sandglass did in care facilities, D-Generation asserts the humanity of those whose minds are gone by inviting them to use their imaginations and then turning those impulses, however kooky, into a charming, loving play-within-a-play. The figures are sculpted with exquisite realism by Coni Richards, and digital animation by Michel Moyse and original music by Paul Dedell amplified the tender beauty of the piece.
While Sandglass spends much of the year on tour, the company returns to Vermont in the summer for a two-week training intensive, and in the fall for homegrown festivals they produce in alternating years. Puppets in Paradise is a family-friendly weekend of music, toy theatre, and puppet shows staged in the country gardens of local landscape architects. The more ambitious Puppets in the Green Mountains is an international festival which, in September ’15, will focus on the theme of immigration and cross-border identities and feature companies from Cuba, France, Germany, Canada and the U.S. It is all in dogged pursuit of Sandglass’s civic and artistic mission to bring their puppetry to the world—and the world of puppets to their community in southern Vermont.