An Article about the Summer Puppet Arts Training Intensive at Sandglass Theater
by Peter Sampieri
This article is published in the Winter 2014 issue of the Puppetry Journal,
the quarterly magazine of the Puppeteers of America
I’m there again in Putney, Vermont, on a warm summer morning. Dappled sunlight. No sounds save for a light breeze and creaking floorboards. I’m alone and wandering the intimate converted-barn-into-theatre workshop and performance spaces. Bees buzz around my head; day- glow wildflowers are tipping over, heavy with morning dew. The grass, like a thick tuft of green fur, feels incredible under my feet.
It’s odd for me, a professional director/playwright and academic, to have these kinds of dreams. I teach university theatre. I wear a tie to work. I’m thirty seven and I’ve racked up creative work- time at theatres in cities and towns all over the U.S., but I never long for them in my dreams like an inflamed fourteen-year-old. Maybe it was because in those two weeks training in their summer intensive last August, it never rained.
Of all the places you could study puppetry in the country, Sandglass should be at the top of your list; not just because of its picturesque location in the green mountains of Southern Vermont. The real reason Sandglass stands out, towering above all the others, is because of its tremendous heart and authenticity, formulated over thirty years of white-hot-creation, sound theory, and rich performance history. At times the teachings feel a bit sacred and mysterious, mostly because they are held so close by its creators Eric Bass and Ines Zeller-Bass.
The two first met in the early 1980s, and have been collaborating ever since. From the moment I arrived, they welcomed me whole-heartedly into their world with open arms (and a mouth- watering pot-luck cookout on the first “move-in” day that featured lively conversation, steaming native corn and cold microbrews sipped under a purple Vermont sunset.) Yes, Eric and Ines are incredible hosts and puppeteers, but more importantly, they are profound theatre artists, teachers, and kind-hearted people. They combine the patience and love (and brutal honesty) of all great teachers, along with the technique and innovation of great story-tellers.
Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a touchy-feely vacation; the Sandglass Summer Intensive program is rigorous. It demands your sweat, your breath, your whole self. The program begins each day promptly at nine in the morning (don’t be late!) with physical warm-ups that include breath-work, yoga, flexibility/strength-training, and Tai-Chi. Afterward follows three intense hours of manipulation (“a terrible word to describe what it is” says Eric) training, in one/two/three-person-collaboration(s). After a short lunch, you endure more physical warm-ups that involve ensemble-building and/or sharpening your kinesthetic awareness with an ensemble. Besides getting a nice farmer’s tan, I think I lost five pounds in two weeks.
The afternoon program is a potpourri of more manipulation classes, brief discussions of “performance theory”, puppetry improvisation, movement classes, singing classes, “fast-and- dirty” puppet-making called “material processes”, and ensemble-creation of original performance pieces. After dinner, more time spent in the workshop and rehearsal hall, generating, building, and refining until nine or ten. Eric and Ines invite other performance experts in these afternoon hours to augment your training with a rich variety of perspectives.
All of this is to say the Sandglass Summer Intensive uses an experiential training method: you learn by doing. You are constantly asked to create: either through on-the-spot improvisation or challenging performance prompts, like “an un-cooperative world” that needs to contains some random element like “a pizza delivery”. And for a relative puppetry-newbie like me or a seasoned puppetry professional (we had both), you get thrown into the deep-end and do. And do and do. It is baptism by fire.
Every puppeteer has the chance to share their work publicly while there – on the first and second Saturdays of the programs, before an invited audience from the local Putney arts community. By the second day of the program, you are working on your solo “proposition” – which you present to your classmates and teachers for further feed-back on day three. At that point the core group chooses which pieces will move forward into the Saturday show.
My core group reflected Sandglass’ international reputation: like all great creative bands we were a motley crew – an actor from Vancouver, a Lithuanian film-maker, an Israeli woman with a masters in puppetry, a costume design professor from Virginia, a lawyer from NYC, a Californian sculptor and visual artist, and me. Our rich differences in age, place, religion, and culture were embraced by Eric and Ines as something unique and profound, something to be mined for creative substance, which it was.
Sandglass’ two teachers have complimentary styles. Eric is the master-teacher (though the most down-to-earth one I’ve ever met) and Ines the super-practitioner. What he articulates so clearly in words and stories, Ines demonstrates with the reckless abandon of a child. The focus begins with the basics: the breath, presence, sight, and heart of the puppet, and quickly branches out into more complex exercises and concepts from there, all of which is based on their field research, fueled by decades of production. At the core of their teachings is the message of deep empathy with the puppet through recognizing that the puppeteer’s idea of control “is an illusion”.
At one point in the middle of week two, they pull out a four-foot-tall puppet from Between Sand and Stars, their show about Antoine St. Exupery. It is a complex humanoid creature, operated by at least 6-8 puppeteers, each with a long retractable string in each hand connected to one of its many anatomical joints. By synchronized loose-then-tight tensions from ten-feet-away, it moves.
The only way to describe it is as a “horizontal marionette”. Six of us were struggling with getting it to lift its head, never mind “crawl across the desert floor to reach a bottle of water” as our teachers coached us to do.
Later the same day, Eric and Ines invited us to a lunch in their home (they live in a beautifully renovated loft space above the stage) where we watched many clips of their previous shows. One clip after another, a new puppetry style, a new and complete fictive world emerged. I suddenly saw the same “horizontal-marionette” puppet in practice and performance come alive before our eyes with a remarkably nuanced life. At that precise moment (on day twelve) everything crystallized: I realized every single technique we learn at Sandglass is based on some near- impossible illusion or moment they have actually done.
The simple fact is this: Eric and Ines need to put this brilliant stuff in a documentary or a book somewhere – until that time however the only substitute is that you absolutely need to train with them.
Eric changes the way you look at puppetry forever; Ines is a profound technician. They both find a way to teach non-narrative puppet theatre that presents a sensory dream-logic, but still manages to touch your heart, to move you. It’s a tremendous theatrical aesthetic that combines daring experimental values with a populist, accessible heart.
On the last night, after the final performance, we gathered outdoors again for a final breaking of bread, with our host families and other members of the Sandglass tribe. Eric and Ines presented a work-in-progress for their outdoor Puppets in Paradise festival. While Eric played banjo and Ines operated her “cranky” – a two-dimensional paper scroll that used child-like-collage to tell a story about a naughty Frenchwoman named Marguerite – I felt deeply moved. Not just to laugh, but to longingly wonder that when the bubble popped, when the dream faded, and I was back in the “real” word, would I remember?
The dream of Sandglass didn’t fade, and neither did the lesson: Puppetry can be much more than just dream fragments, than just the sum of its parts. It can change your life.
To learn more about the Sandglass Summer Intensive, visit the webpage here
About the author:
Peter Sampieri is a professional stage director and playwright, who teaches theatre at Salem State University in Salem, MA. His newest play, Kafka in Tel Aviv, is the 2014 recipient of the Kennedy Center’s David Mark Cohen National Award in Playwriting. It features puppets.