The Art of Eric Bass
by Reay Kaplan
student paper for Trends in Contemporary American Puppet Theater
University of Connecticut
Eric Bass is truly an innovator in the world of puppetry. His career in the puppet arts has spanned a mere twenty six years, and yet he has already made an international impact on the art by questioning and challenging the limitations that have been imposed upon puppets from their very beginnings.
Eric’s history in puppetry began in the late sixties while a theatre student at Middlebury College in Vermont. A professor told him that his directorial work was like a cartoon in its episodic, exaggerated and pictorial qualities. Eric realized that contemporary, kitchen-table realities bored him due to the fact that they were merely commenting on completely believable situations. Eric’s philosophy on theater has always been that it exists in order to explain things that can’t be explained any other way. “[Art is] not seeing life more clearly, what I’m interested in is seeing a much larger context to see the real Pieces of life”. (interview)
Eric’s intrigue in theater’s potential for transforming human experience seemed to lead him quite naturally to puppets. In 1970, being a native New Yorker, he headed home after college and began performing with the Pickwick Puppet Theatre in NYC with Larry Berthelson and, later, Ken Moses. Then, in 1972, Eric’s international explorations began when he worked with Contadores De Estoria in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with Marcos and Rachel Ribas. (Avery, Don. “Challenge and Growth”) Back home, Eric worked as a street performer in Manhattan, and puppeteer for New York’s Recreation Department. Six summers were also spent in the Catskills at the German Alps Festival’s Kasperle Theater.
From 1975 to 1979 Eric worked at New York’s Theatre of the Open Eye, headed by Jean Erdman. (Avery, Don. “Challenge and Growth”) The Theatre of the Open Eye was a total theatre company in that it considered every type of performance to be equally important on the stage. The company was a true collaboration where any member could generate a piece, thereby creating a wonderful exchange of medium. While with Jean Erdman’s company, Eric wrote, designed, and directed four full-length multimedia productions, “The Masque of Dawn “, “The Cobra and the Crows “, “Raven’s Dance “, and Twilight Crane ”
Eric remained at the Theatre of the Open Eye for five years. During that time, he was asked to direct children’s theatre shows that were supported by the New York State Council of the Arts. “Brother Raccoon”, a woodland Indian tale, was performed at a Puppeteers of America National Festival.
Joseph Campbell, Jean’s husband and a mythologist at Sarah Lawrence College, was a great inspiration to Eric and the entire company with his knowledge and eye for art. Eric was particularly affected by Campbell’s theory that everything is defined by its complement. Whether it be inner versus outer, past versus present, or the see-er versus the seen, “what’s interesting is the relationship” (interview). The idea of a constant dialogue between two separate worlds has greatly influenced Eric’s aesthetics and use of puppets to this day.
Joseph Campbell’s theories were soon put to the test. As Eric was discovering the incredible potential of puppet theatre, he began to move away from children’s theatre and became anxious to try some innovative work for an older audience. In 1980, Eric first performed his renowned solo show, “Autumn Portraits “. (from “Village Child” bio) Eric is still performing this production which is a series of vignettes which focus on characters in the autumn of their lives. Utilizing only a small puppet stage, Eric’s masterful storytelling technique and stunning puppet manipulation leads his audience on a fascinating, and somewhat macabre journey that constantly asks the question of who has control, the puppets, or their master? By intertwining the use of masks, table-top rod puppets and a combination of the two, “Autumn Portraits” concentrates on the relationship between Eric and his puppets, told through a constant, yet ever-changing dialogue between the two.
“Autumn Portraits” made quite an Impact on the world of new performance art, receiving much critical acclaim. Although the piece was highly successful from the start, Eric did have his share of critics who felt that this production was too introspective and inaccessible. This audience still expected theatre to answer questions for them, and were caught off guard when asked to take an active role in figuring the meaning out for themselves. “As a dramatist he is not always entirely communicative. There are moments as Mr. Bass performs in his black box puppet theater in a small darkened room that it seems as if we are peering though the wrong end of a telescope.” (from “Theater: 2 Stunningly Visual Shows”)
“Autumn Portraits” gained Eric great international as well as national recognition. Almost immediately after it began touring in 1980, this production won an UNIMA Citation of Excellence and the Diploma of Excellence from Pec, Hungary. In 1983, Eric won the First Prize Critics Award for Best Production at the International Puppetry Festival in Adelaide, Australia, a ten day festival hosting eighteen international puppet theatres and puppeteers. Eric had taken the puppet world by storm.
At this point, however, Eric was feeling the pressure to be part of the fad of emerging puppetry for an adult audience. In order to break free from this imposed conformity, Eric traveled to Europe in order to pursue an alternate audience. In 1982, after settling in Munich, Germany, Eric formed the Sandglass Theatre along with puppeteers Ines Zeller and Arne Bustorff The company’s first production was “Sand”, a story about a man and a woman on the night before they are to begin living together. The story is told through their respective dreams and the sandmen that summon the grains of these dreams, as well as the phantoms of each dreamer who sum up their respective daily lives, histories, memories, desires and fears. Thirty puppets along with three human actors/puppeteers and music, create “multiple worlds of dream, life and theatrical realities”. (from promotional brochure) In “Sand”, Eric continued to challenge the audience with questions such as whether there are many different sandmen for different types of dreams. If so, how do they relate to one another? And, why do they choose to bring the dreams they do?
“Sand” passes like a dream, with no apparent logical sequence, as does most of Eric’s work. This approach “demands an openness to the idea that things simply are a certain way, regardless of what they should or shouldn’t be”. (from interview) This production has a weightless quality in its patterns of images in no realistic order. What is important is that each image be fully integrated into the relationship of the piece. “One way of staying true to your intuitions is to accept a responsibility to resolve images”. (from interview)
Through transformations such as serpents into Sandmen and a grandfather turning into a dead calf, Eric utilized puppets side by side with actors in order to focus on the relationships between the characters and components of the story. “Anything can exist together, so long as they can see each other as ‘other”‘. (from interview) Metaphor is one of the best ways to see these components: “two things that have no relationship beyond their metaphor in which they are the same.” (from interview)
Once again, Joseph Campbell’s theory of complements came into play as Eric concentrated on how the dreamer can affect a dream, just as a dream can affect the dreamer. In choosing to produce this piece, Eric’s company decided to focus on the relationship between the world of dreams and the world of reality. The definition of these two worlds could be subjective to the audience as long as the relationship between the two was real. Different layers of understanding are woven into the story as the lovers’ personal relationships are illustrated by puppet metaphors. ” ‘Sand’ is a dream play, in which the provider of dreams, the proverbial Sandman, takes many faces. Sand is, in fact, the very stuff that these dreams are made of; sand, like the sands of the hour glass, or the sands of Time itself.. And in this dream-world of sand, two lovers see their relationship and their self-images played out, and thereby altered.” (from promotional brochure)
“Sand” was first performed in 1985 in Munich and won an UNIMA Citation of Excellence. Shortly thereafter, Eric and wife, Ines Zeller-Bass, moved to Vermont and “Sand” was produced at the first New York International Festival of the Arts. (from “Village Child” bio)
Eric had lived in Germany for four years, and has spent much of his career touring shows all over Europe. When asked about the differences between Europe and the US as an artist, Eric’s response was that Europe has more money designated for the arts, therefore, there is less expectation that art has to supply an educational message as there is here in the States. In Europe there is more understanding that culture is part of everyone’s life, which is enough justification for art, rather than in the United States, where unless they create an increase on the learning curve, new discoveries in art aren’t worthwhile.
Since puppetry is a metaphorical medium, especially Eric’s approach to it, “[an audience] has to be able to let go of literalism” (from interview). Eric felt that Europeans had an easier time letting go of literalism than Americans, therefore, were more receptive to his way of working. Because of this acceptance, Eric felt much less skepticism of his art in Europe than in the US, except in England where there still remains a “fear that a diminutive medium necessitates the diminution of the viewer”. (from interview)
In order to truly succeed in his mission, Eric felt that he needed an audience willing to take a chance and live with a sense of mystery when they go to the theater. Theater can evoke feelings that one may not understand until there is some personal connection sometime after the experience. Audiences must be able to accept and appreciate the journey to understanding, rather than having it spoon-fed to them. “I am not interested in telling a child (or an adult, for that matter), ‘you are like this’, or I am like this’. I am interested in opening up my own unknown, and inviting the audience to do the same. [Theatre should] show us that it is all right to not understand, and encourage us to look to our own feelings and perceptions for the answers to our questions.” (from “Some Thoughts on the Subject…”) This was Eric’s mission as he returned to the United States.
In 1986, Eric moved his company to Vermont. His next production, “Invitations To Heaven (Questions of a Jewish Child)”, was produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. Again, the story focuses on a duality, the creative versus the destructive aspects of human nature. The idea for the piece originated from questions that Eric had as a child about his grandparents’ relationship. In his production, he played both a human boy, himself, as well as puppeteer for the grandparent puppets. Audience members were deeply moved as the story touched them through personal recollections and experiences from their own histories. Said David McWilliams, Director of The Pentangle Council on the Arts, “It was because of the passions the play brought up in me through the boy, and through the grandparent’s difficult relationship. In truth, it reminded me of some of the relationships in my own family.”
By encouraging audiences to use their imaginations and make the theatrical experience a personal reality, Eric was fulfilling the purpose of art that he wanted to create. “The puppet manipulator makes the puppet move but it’s the audience members who give it life”. (Cole, Joni. “The Man Who Pulls The Strings”)
After receiving the Figurentheater Prize of the City of Erlangen, Germany in 1991 for his work to date, Eric Bass and the Sandglass Theater developed a new work, “The Village Child”, that was performed at the 1993 International Festival of Puppet Theatre in New York, (Latshaw, George. “The Village Child”) This production combined elements of vaudeville and fairy tales to tell the story of an inventor, played by Eric, who devotes his life to dreams of flight, only to be constantly dragged back to the roots of his earthbound reality. Again, Eric deals with duality on many different levels. On the surface, the audience is brought into the man’s private existence where a child flies through the window and builds a village for birds which is destroyed as the man tries to hold on to it too intensely. “The assumption that all fairy tales have happy endings is not quite correct. While the prince and princess do sometimes ride off together on a white stallion, they never do so without having met their own ‘dark sides’, for the evil in a fairy tale is seldom external. The victorious prince has not vanquished evil, he has accepted it in himself. Living with our darkness is a process, not an end. In the happily ever after, there is irony”. (from program notes)
If one looks a bit deeper, themes of the holocaust are introduced as the man finds ultimate freedom through reliving memories instead of escaping them. Even messages reminiscent of Edward Gordon Craig are touched upon as the inventor fulfills his dream of flight through his puppets.. “In the play’s denouement, the puppeteer celebrates flight through the perfection of his craft… the art of the puppet… the uber-marionette. As his doll proclaims, ‘I am better than the actor, I have no ego. I am rising,’ ” (McDonnell, Evelyn. The Village Voice 12/93)
The puppets used in this production help to illustrate Eric’s themes and ideas in a symbolic reality, unable to be achieved by human actors. For instance, as our inventor struggles to find the formula for flight, puppets demonstrate his efforts through attempts of flight through propulsion, bodily strength, spirit, art, and the harnessing of nature. The images that these puppets evoke are profound. For example, the lady who levitates by breathing can’t become free of Earth without letting go of her Earthbound baggage, therefore, her arms grow longer with every breath. Try doing that with your run-of-the-mill human actor!
The audience for “The Village Child” is left with the message that love and freedom cannot be captured and held, it has to exist of its own volition. In “The Village Child”, we have created a modern fairy tale. There are two worlds, and we know them both to be in ourselves. They both speak to us. As in traditional fairy tales, one voice is more difficult for us to hear, and more threatening. It is the one that leads to our redemption.” (from program notes)
This message is not come upon easily, however. The entire piece forces the audience to think by constantly asking questions of them, yet never demanding more than their attention, a hallmark of Eric’s work to date. “While other puppet theaters sometimes lose themselves in virtual fantasies which often only circle around themselves, Eric and Ines Bass present images of such intensity that the audience steps further and further out from its quiet spectator reserve and finds itself unexpectedly as part of the plot. Their performance becomes a kind of healing therapy which asks everything of the audience, without expecting anything except its attention. With playful lightness, the puppeteer couple understand how to give their audience wings, to lift them, if only for moments, above their own ghetto.” ( “Thoughtful World of a Dreamer: Eric Bass at the Husum Puppet Theater Festival ” Bufumer Nachrichter )
Eric Bass’s philosophies and convictions concerning his art form enhance every aspect of the pieces he produces. The puppet, itself, is the means by which he seeks to achieve a truthfulness in his work that doesn’t try to imitate real life, but rather, to create a metaphor for life. Again, Eric’s theory contains a duality in the concept that, just like in our dreams, it is often more possible to gain absolute truths from non-reality. Puppets are strong reflections of ourselves, but they are not us. By constantly reminding an audience that they are artificial, puppets illicit some reflection that isn’t real, but a true abstraction that allows us to see ourselves in a more honest light when set apart from everyday reality. (from lecture at Trinity College)
When asked about puppet manipulation, Eric feels that it’s the puppeteer’s obligation to manipulate, not the puppet, but the environment in which the puppet exists. “[The puppet] is other than us, but it lives through us. In dancing with the puppet, we are dancing with our more secret side.” (from lecture at Trinity College)
According to Bass, a great benefit to working with puppets is the ability to see outside and beyond one’s “actor” to view the space that the actor is in. This “projected” acting allows the audience to marvel at the world that’s been created, rather than the “Actor Technique”. (from lecture at Trinity College) The puppeteer plays not with the puppet, but with the environment through the puppet. He interacts with the object he’s manipulating through a sort of give and take where the puppet leads as much as it follows. This allows the puppeteer to explain the world in which the puppet is in. The puppet needs to see and sense in that world to be alive and the puppeteer needs to create that world. (from Master Class)
Eric defines his puppet manipulation through breath. He believes that there is only one right timing for everything on stage, and that is found within the breath resulting from stimuli such as looking, listening and feeling. As the puppeteer releases his own tension, allowing his own breath to move into the puppet, reactions come organically, rather than being cerebrally imposed. This release of tension may seem easy enough, but it is a technique which must be practiced and honed. Although the audience isn’t directly watching a puppeteer’s technique, the technique must be flawless in order to accurately portray the essence of the character.
Puppet manipulation should focus on the puppet’s motivation, goal, state of being, and emotional life much more than on its physicality. Eric concentrates on perfecting detail of human behavior through puppets since the character’s intentions and desires come through movement. He feels that the effect of simplicity is understated. Characters don’t need to “describe” themselves as much as they need to just truthfully “be”. “What’s more important? The puppet’s feet or the puppet’s heart?” (from Master Class)
When asked his opinion on why people are attracted to puppet theatre, Eric answered that much of the attraction results from the fact that puppets can achieve so many things that we, as humans, can’t, and yet are still able to represent us. “Humanity often lies in recognition of limitations. By having puppets do what we can’t, we are removing it from the depth of our human experience, but when the puppet accepts its own limitations, it becomes human. To find beauty in limitations is rare in a society that revels in success.” (from Trinity College)
“Theater has the unique ability on life by being nothing like it.” (from Vermont College) Eric Bass is much more than just a puppeteer. For him, puppets are a mode of expression to convey ideas that cannot be explained any other way. In developing new productions, Eric doesn’t find work that is appropriate for puppets, rather, puppets are the often among the only tools appropriate to express his unique images. The puppet symbolizes deepened thought and the Universal notions of humanity that speaks to all people. Eric feels that where an actor can only play the role of a dream or memory, the puppet’s symbolic nature allows it to actually become an immediate and direct metaphor. A critic from Germany in the early years of Eric’s career said it best, “Should one give a title to this sympathetic young American, there is only one fitting title: he is the Philosopher of Puppet Theater” (from “Sand” publicity brochure: Neue Westfalische, Bielefeld, W. Germany)
ERIC BASS: CAREER CHRONOLOGY
Late 60’s- First introduction to puppetry while a Theatre student at Middlebury College, VT
1970- Heads home to NYC and worked as a street performer, as well as for the Parks and Recreation Commission
Performs with the Pickwick Puppet Theatre in NYC with Larry Berthelson, and later, Ken Moses
1972- Works with Contadores De Estoria in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with Marcos and Rachel Ribas
1975-1979- Directs Children’s Theatre at New York’s Theatre of the Open Eye, headed by Jean Erdman
1980- First solo show, “Autumn Portraits”, tours nationally and internationally
” Autumn Portraits ” wins and UNIMA Citation of Excellence
“Hugo and Claude “- a variety vignette that helped to create the basis for “Sand” the next major production
1982- ” Autumn Portraits ” wins a Diploma of Excellence from Pecs, Hungary
Eric moves to Munich, Germany and forms Sandglass Theatre with Ines Zeller and Ame Bustorff
Company creates “Sand”, their first production
1983- ” Autumn Portraits” wins the First Prize Critics Award for Best Production at the International Puppetry Festival in Adelaide, Australia
Eric wins Critics Circle Award Nomination in San Francisco, CA
1985- “Sand” is first performed in Munich and wins UNIMA Citation of Excellence
Sand is produced at the First New York International Festival of the Arts
1986- Eric and Ines, now married, move the Sandglass Theatre to Vermont
The next production, “Invitations to Heaven” is produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival
1991- Eric wins the Figurentheater Prize of the City of Erlangen, Germany for his work to date
1993- Sandglass Theatre performs their new work, “The Village Child”, at the International Festival of Puppet Theatre in New York
1996- Sandglass Theatre opens their newly renovated theater in a farm on their property in Putney, VT Eric is guest artist at the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT
Eric begins full-time teaching at Marlborough College, VT
Sandglass Theatre produces “The Caucasian Chalk Circle ” for New York’s International Festival of Puppet Theatre
1997- Sandglass Theatre performs “That Is No Country for Old Men”, by Castle Freeman, at the Puppeteers of America National Festival in Toledo, OH
Eric continues teaching part-time at Marlborough College to fit around his touring schedule
Avery, Don, ed. “Challenge and Growth: Eric Bass Puppets”. The Puppetry Journal, Vol. 33, # 1.
Bass,, Eric. “Some Thoughts on the Subject of Educational Theater”. The Puppetry Journal, Vol.43, #2, p. IO.
Cole, Joni. “The Man Who Pulls the Strings”. Upper Valley Magazine: Preview of the Arts, Jan./Feb. 1992.
Gussow, Mel. “Theater: 2 Strikingly Visual Shows”. The New York Times, 11/22/81
Latshaw, George. “The Village Child”. The Puppetry Journal, Vol. 44, #4.
McDonnell, Evelyn. “Review: The Village Child’. The Village Voice, 12/28/93.
Rudiger, Otto. “Thoughtful World of a Dreamer: Eric Bass at the Husum Puppet Theater Festival”. Bufumer Nachrichter, 10/93.
Master Class at the National Puppetry Conference- 6/10/96
Lecture at Vermont College- 2/15/97
Lecture at Trinity College- 3/14/97
“Breaking Boundaries: American Puppetry in the 1980’s”- Center For Puppetrv Arts exhibit brochure
Sand- Program Notes
The Village Child- Production Biography