There’s a theater in Vermont where the puppets tell the stories. Their stage is in a renovated barn that can seat 60 humans, but their influence reaches far beyond the site nestled off Kimball Hill Road in Putney.
Sandglass Theater is the creation of Eric Bass and his wife, Ines Zeller Bass, both of Putney. It began in 1982 when the couple was living in Munich, Germany, Ines’ home country and where the Basses met. In 1986, they moved to Vermont, and brought the theater with them. But it wasn’t until 1996 that the theater had its own performance space in the barn in Putney.
It’s there, and through community outreach and events, that the not-for-profit organization shares its mission of using puppetry, music, actors and visual imagery to explore contemporary issues, inspire dialogue and spark wonder. The theater, while primarily a performance venue, is also a teaching space, offering programs and workshops geared toward children and adults.
“I think that everyone kind of understands the feeling of being excluded, or being forgotten, or being other than most people,” said Shoshana Bass, co-artistic director and Eric’s and Ines’ daughter. “We’re particularly interested in the use of puppetry when we have dialogue about social justice issues or issues in the kind of disconnect of worlds where we’re reaching out to understand someone else’s world, and it’s maybe a world we can’t understand.”
Puppets are useful in tackling those feelings because they tap into people’s capacity to listen and learn, she said. They’re empty vessels that need to be filled, whether by the puppeteer or audience, or both. That invites people not only to reach outside themselves, she noted, but to reach deeply within. According to Eric Bass, by essentially being an inanimate object, the puppet is a safe space that allows the listener room to approach the character. This has benefited the theater staff in the content, quality and depth of the programs they’ve been able to create and perform, he said.
One of those most recent productions, “Babylon (Journey of Refugees),” takes on the topic of the global refugee crisis and its effect on communities in the United States. Another project, “D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks,” is about the experiences of people with late-stage dementia and their caregivers. That performance ran from 2012 to 2019.
“In all of these cases, we’re able to go fairly deeply in the subject matter because the puppets essentially give the audience room to approach at their own pace,” Eric said, adding that the goal of the theater and its performers is to try to help the world become a more welcoming and inclusive place. “I would say this: that our relationship to each other as people is based a lot on being able to listen to each other’s stories, and that’s one of the key roles of theater.”
In her letter nominating the Sandglass Theater for a Ewing Arts Award, Leigh Niland of Brattleboro wrote that the organization is dedicated to artistic excellence in its productions and a spirit of inclusivity in presenting diverse guests and community events.
“Sandglass is inspired by a love of puppetry and live performance, engagement with local and international community, and respect for audience,” she wrote, adding that it seeks to present thought-provoking art responsibly, teach the process and traditions of puppetry, and cultivates a fire to create and keep creating.
Niland said she nominated the theater after meeting Associate Producer Jana Zeller at the Brattleboro farmers market. Zeller, who lives in Brattleboro, was winding her way through the crowd with a cloth-covered basket, according to Niland, and from “under the cloth popped out a small, very intriguing little puppet of an old woman inviting my little son and I to attend a puppet performance at the Sandglass Theater.”
Weeks later, Niland invited Zeller to sit as part of the “Secret Lives of Shopkeepers” portraits series of Brattleboro merchants at the River Gallery School of Art. Niland, a painter and printmaker, is a member of the school’s faculty. In conversation during the portrait, Zeller spoke about the history of the Sandglass Theater, of her father, Eric Bass, and of their move here from Germany.
The theater’s name, Sandglass, is a composite word based on the English “hourglass” and the German “sanduhr,” which translates to “sand clock” in English, according to Eric. “Since Ines and I created it as an American and German company,” he said, “we were looking for a word that kind of spanned both languages.”
The image of the hourglass, or sandglass, appeared very strongly in the first show the couple created, “Sand,” which premiered in 1985. The show contained many examples of the ways time is cyclical and fragile.
“When the glass breaks,” he said, “the essence of time can be strewn. It can be lost.”
Besides performing at its physical space in Putney, Sandglass Theater has taken its productions on the road for national and international tours. This year is different, though, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing how theater productions are performed and shared. To start, the theater has had to close, and all touring has been canceled, Shoshana said. It has also had to cancel one of its popular community events, Puppets in the Green Mountains. The festival, which began in 1997 and is held biannually, features artists and their puppets from around the world. The theater plans to hold the festival again in 2022, according to Shoshana.
While those performances have been put on hold, Sandglass Theater has sought to increase its online presence, including through what Shoshana describes as “little art bursts,” such as a virtual workshop where children can use materials they have at home to make puppets. The theater has also been live streaming past productions on its Facebook page.
This would have been the first year of performances of “Babylon,” and an accompanying piece geared toward children about refugees and inclusion. The theater was, however, able to share “Babylon” with a live audience before statewide restrictions intended to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus took effect in Vermont, New Hampshire and elsewhere. Eric Bass said he has an emotional attachment to that performance because, to date, it was the last time the company was physically gathered together, and it was at a venue where the theater has performed often throughout its years.
“One of the things that strikes me about the pandemic is the last live performance we did was on the night before we had to shut down,” he said. “It was actually at Keene State College at the Redfern Arts Center, with which we have a long history.”