…As the Puppet Turns…Interview with Eric Bass of Sandglass Theater

…As the Puppet Turns… Delving into the lives of the puppeteers… Installment #4:  Co-Founder and Performer of Sandglass Theater, Eric Bass interviewed by Drew Allison

Sandglass Theater is an award-winning company located for the past 20 years in Vermont.  Their work has received 6 UNIMA Citations of Excellence, various theatrical awards, and honors from Germany, Australia, and Hungary.  Eric Bass will be performing a piece they created 30 years ago, “Autumn Portraits.”

If you are unfamiliar with their work, Sandglass Theater may garner your interest in 2 simple ways:  the lovely photos of their work, and their elegant artistic statement: In the microcosm of theater, the puppet is a means of integrating, of pulling back together pieces torn apart from each other. The puppet is the embodiment of a world no longer ours, an abstraction of a memory, a dream which is recalled. It is other than us, but it lives through us. We grasp it, and in grasping it, it takes hold of us. In dancing with the puppet, we are dancing with our more secret side. We are integrating parts of ourselves. -Sandglass Theater

DA:  Eric, everyone on the Port City Puppet Fest staff is excited about you coming. You refer to Autumn Portraits as a “classic.” Tell us a bit about the show, the process of putting it together, etc.

EB:  I made Autumn Portraits in 1980. I was just coming off five years at The Theater of the Open Eye in New York, a theater ensemble of actors, dancers, musicians and puppeteers. I felt that I needed to make a solo show. It was inspired by that strange meeting point of classical Japanese puppetry and American Vaudeville.

DA:  I am sure that you’ve performed the piece countless times. What are some of the most memorable performances of Autumn Portraits that you recall?

EB:  In 1983 I toured in Australia for 6 weeks. Just about every performance was memorable, although not all of them for “good” reasons.

Perhaps the most interesting was one in northeastern Australia where I found myself in a seacoast town with a big prejudice against punks. I have a section of the show where I bring people up onstage with one of the puppets. I brought up a young woman with a green mohawk haircut. After the show, a woman from the audience told my tour manager that she had always hated punks but now, because of the show that evening, she discovered that they could be funny and nice, just like real people.

DA: Wow. Can you tell us a bit about Sandglass Theatre? Origins, goals, mantras, etc?

EB:  Sandglass started in Germany in 1982. I had moved there to live with Ines [Eric’s wife] and we started working together. We needed a name so that we could register as a company. Tax issue.  The hourglass was an image in both Autumn Portraits and in Sand, the show that Ines and I were working on. We liked the image but we didn’t like the word. It’s a cumbersome word, and besides, an hour is an arbitrary amount of time, isn’t it? Hourglass in German is a sanduhr, a sand clock. So we combined the languages and came up with Sandglass. Years later, I discovered it was not our invention. I found out that there had been a theater society in the 1940s (I think) call “Sandglass.”

DA: Will Ines be coming with you to Wilmington in July?

EB:  She will. We often tour together with Autumn Portraits and her solo for children, Isidor’s Cheek. We run the lights for each others shows.

DA: I believe you said you will be at UConn prior to the Port City Puppet Festival. Will you all be teaching? What’s happening there?

EB:  Ines and I and Dave Regan teach a 3-week intensive training workshop most summers. It is training in manipulation, in connecting the breath to the puppet, and also in composition. It also trains in developing a relationship between the materials of the puppet and the metaphor that creates.

DA: Ok, here’s another lofty, conceptual question to try and stomach first thing in the morning. Personally, I am excited about the current state of puppetry in this country. It seems elevated, fresh and re-birthed. I wonder what your thoughts are on the current state of puppetry?

EB:  I don’t get to see enough. That’s one reason why Ines and are happy to be coming to a festival again. We don’t get to see many of the shows we hear about. We are too caught up in our community and sometimes too caught up in our own work. So, things look interesting, but we need to see more. We have been running an international puppet festival up here in Vermont since 1997, bi-annually. This is the first year that we will be presenting some American companies from outside of our area. Blair Thomas is coming, and Paul Mesner, and Larry Hunt.

DA:  You all are doing some exciting things in Vermont. I see where you, Ines and Sandglass were awarded the Governor’s Award. Tell us what that was like.

EB:  We went up to the State House and performed in the House Chamber. The Arts Council wanted to make an event of it. We thought it would be great to celebrate not only Ines and me, but the art of puppetry. So we invited some friends to perform: Crabgrass, Larry Hunt, and Rob Mermin (founder of Circus Smirkus) with his “puppets” made of soap bubbles.

The high point was the governor’s escorted entrance to the podium. He was escorted by tow of our camels from Between Sand and Stars. During his speech, they read over his shoulder, chewed their hooves, and spit at the audience. He took it well, though.

DA:  Hilarious! Is there anything else you would like to add, or let folks coming to the festival know about?

EB:  Just that inspiration can come from anywhere. In Autumn Portraits, one piece was inspired by music, one by image, one by a game, one by a dialogue. So there’s that and — oh yes, we are getting older.

DA:  Yes, this age thing rolls along. But life is good! Thanks so much for your time, Eric.

EB:  Thanks for the chat.  Hasta la vista.

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