Festival draws puppeteers to the Green Mountains

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(Host) Puppeteers from all over the world have been performing in Putney, Brattleboro and Marlboro this week. The “Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival” culminates this weekend.

VPR’s Susan Keese goes backstage to find out more.

(Keese) It’s lunchtime in Brattleboro. And in a public space on Main Street, something special is going on. A man in a black shirt is bringing to life a puppet. It’s a jointed white-faced clown, barely five inches tall, playing a tiny concertina. He bends and sways. His passion is so extravagant the audience can’t help laughing.

You almost forget there’s a puppeteer behind the clown, except to wonder how his fingers work the wires and sticks that make it move. Andras Lenart is the puppeteer. After the show someone says she heard him say good morning to his puppets as he took them out of their box.

(Lenart) “I say – because I travel with them everywhere in the world, and I think we are together – they are my sons, they are my children.”

(Keese) Lenart is from Budapest. He’s one of the many puppeteers gathered for the puppet festival in southern Vermont this week.

Eric Bass directs the festival. It’s been held here every other year since the mid 19-nineties. Bass and his wife, Ines Zeller Bass, are the founders of Sandglass theater, a puppet performance company based in Putney. They’ve traveled the world with their puppets. They’ve seen Lenart perform on the streets of Paris and in Brazil.

(Bass) “Andras is kind of our gift to the town. His performances will be free and he’ll be appearing in caf and at lunch hour in various places around the town of Brattleboro.”

(Keese) Other participants in the festival have been performing all week in theaters in the area. This weekend they’ll stage a final extravaganza of performances.

There are companies from Slovenia, Sweden, Germany and Spain. Some perform on a grand scale. They spill out over the stage with music and color and spectacle. Others are intimate and small. Bass says one troupe, from Chile and Argentina will perform a version of Romeo and Juliet with hand puppets.

(Bass) “But they are after all only hand puppets. And the heart with which they really try to perform this Juan Romera and Julietta Maria, it’s very, very funny, very direct in its communication with the audience. It’s a little bit of what I used to love about Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which was never only for children.”

(Keese) Some of these puppet shows are not for children. But Bass says most are for theater lovers of all ages.

Puppetry is an ancient tradition in cultures almost everywhere. The art saw a resurgence starting in the sixties and seventies. Bass thinks of it a rebellion against the literalness of twentieth century movies and plays. A puppet show, he says, requires some imagination on the part of the audience.

(Bass) “It’s a sad myth, I think this idea – that it’s the puppeteer who gives life to the puppet by controlling it. It’s the audience who give life to the puppet. The puppeteer through his or her skill makes the invitation to do that. Of course a good invitation is hard to resist.”

(Keese) “Between Wind and Stars” is the Sandglass theater production that opened the festival. It’s based on a famous book in which a pilot crashes in the Sahara. In this work, actors on stage manipulate puppets and life-sized figures. The Gemini twins, identical twin trapeze artists, formerly of Cirque du Soleil, mirror the actions and emotions of the play with graceful acrobatic movements. Flying on a trapeze overhead with her hair streaming wildly, twin Serenity Smith embodies the turbulence of the sandstorm that brings the pilot down.

Bass says all over the world artists are using new and unexpected dramatic elements to bring the magic back to theater. He says the puppet artists in Vermont this week are an excellent example of what he means.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese, backstage in Brattleboro.

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