BRATTLEBORO -- You gotta love Elwood.
Outgoing and mischievous, he’s an old guy whose personality matches the bulldog on his sweatshirt. He’s got a salty sense of humor, a robust laugh and a ready supply of dirty jokes. In younger days, he probably pinched a waitress or two.
Today, he is confined to a wheelchair and constrained within the walls of dementia, but his personality blooms, especially when three people from Sandglass Theater come to see him and get him telling stories.
It’s absolutely no stretch to say that Sandglass Theater gives him life. As real as he seems, Elwood is made up -- three-feet tall, inanimate and the fictional creation of Eric Bass, Ines Zeller Bass and Kirk Murphy.
Yet there he is, on stage in Putney, alive and cackling, reminding us that the spark of life is there, even in someone slumped in a wheelchair.
Which is basically the essence of "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks," the new full-length piece Sandglass Theater will present to local audiences as part of its biennial Puppets in the Green Mountains festival.
Three years in the making, "D-Generation" explores the potential for creativity and communication that exists even in people with late-stage dementia. Insightful, poignant, by turns wistful and funny, "D-Generation" explores a realm all too often marked by stigma and quiet sorrow -- and one that seems to touch everyone, directly or tangentially.
Sandglass Theater became involved when Renya Larsen, who knew of their work, told Sandglass about TimeSlips, an innovative storytelling program for dementia patients.
"She knew that our work was essentially visual and, more importantly, non-linear. She was looking for a theater company that was looking at stories that were less-than ... or more than ... linear," said Eric Bass, Sandglass co-founding artistic director.
TimeSlips is a program founded by playwright and theater teacher Anne Bastings in 1996 originally designed for people with dementia. TimeSlips gathers people in a circle and shows them a photograph or painting. The people in the circle then describe what is happening, and a story is built from what they say. There are no wrong answers, and everything is included in the story.
TimeSlips immediately resonated with the folks at Sandglass, and the Basses and Murphy took the training to become TimeSlips facilitators.
"We felt intuitively it was right for us, and we felt interested in how to make it right for us," said Eric Bass. "There are different kinds of research, and the best research that one can do is the research that comes from experience."
When you think about it, Sandglass is ideally suited to give voice to dementia patients.
"Our art form is about working with something that seems to be limited and requires that we use that limitation as a significant element of our tools," said Bass. "What seems to be a limitation is actually an open door."
Armed with their training, Sandglass conducted TimeSlips sessions at Holton Home and Pine Heights. The results of those sessions provided inspiration for "D-Generation" and were transformational for both residents and Sandglass.
"For us, it was a completely joyful experience. We would go into Pine Heights and Holton Home and have a great time," said Murphy.
What emerged was not only material for a theater piece, but also some important lessons in life, inspired by the dementia patients for whom TimeSlips represented a set of wings.
"All past and future are irrelevant, and all you have is that very moment when you’re interacting," said Murphy. "The more present you can be to receive what’s there being given, the more you get out of if. The more you are there, the more beauty you can experience."
From those TimeSlips sessions, the characters in "D-Generation" emerged. Each one of the five dementia patients in the piece represents an amalgam of two or three or more people Sandglass met at the local homes.
Eventually, the characters of Rose, Henry, Florence, Mary and, of course, Elwood, came into being.
The script emerged from those sessions, as well, including two stories taken word-for-word from their work with local dementia patients. Eric Bass and director Roberto Solomon, who has worked with Sandglass on two other productions, went over the script and assigned lines to each of the characters.
As that was happening, Sandglass connected with some other important collaborators on what is a multi-media piece.
Local filmmaker Michel Moyse created video segments that not only accompany but also often take center stage in the telling of the stories. He also proved a valuable sounding board since he could draw on his own experiences caring for a loved one with dementia. Brattleboro musician Paul Dedell, another frequent Sandglass collaborator composed the score.
"What Michel and what Paul brought went way beyond their particular arts and media," said Bass.
The same can be said of Coni Richards and Jana Zeller, who built the puppets and Sabrina Hamilton, who designed the lighting.
"D-Generation" had its premiere at the Ko Festival in Amherst, Mass., in August and was well-received. Audiences here should appreciate the balance it strikes between sorrow and sweetness. That balance is symbolized in the title -- the darkness of the play on words in "D-Generation" tempered by the "joy and upward energy" of "Exaltation of Larks."
"D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks" will presented at the Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival on Saturday, Sept. 22, and Sunday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m., and again on Sunday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m., all at New England Youth Theatre.
"D-Generation" is one of two new Sandglass pieces featured at Puppets in the Green Mountains.
Sandglass will also be premiering "Black Birds of Bialystok" in collaboration with the renowned Polish company Bialystock Puppet Theater.
Written by Eric Bass, "Black Birds" tackles the controversial history of anti-Semitism in Polish culture. In addition to the collaboration of Sandglass and Bialystock Puppet Theatre, "Black Birds" features Shoshana Bass and music by former area resident Miamon Miller.
"They’re really two of the most exciting projects Sandglass has ever worked on," said Eric Bass.
"Black Birds of Bialystock" will be performed at a gala premiere on Thursday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m., at NEYT, and again on Sept. 28, at 8 p.m., at NEYT. There will also be a panel discussion on "International Collaboration and Conflict Transformation" with the creators of "Black Birds" on Monday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m., at Landmark College.
Puppets in the Green Mountains features performers from Turkey, Quebec, Spain, Israel, Poland and Finland, as well as Vermont and Connecticut in offerings for all ages in Brattleboro, Putney, Bellows Falls, Marlboro and Dummerston from Sept. 22-30.
For more information on "D-Generation," "Black Birds of Bialystock" and Puppets in the Green Mountains, visit www.puppetsinthegreenmountains.com or call 802-579-4554.