PUTNEY -- Nobody ever paid much attention to the thousands of black birds that roosted every night in the main park in the Polish city of Bialystock.
They were just there, quietly sitting on branches, like large black leaves.
Then one day in 2005, Sandglass Theater Co-Founder Eric Bass, who was in Bialystock to teach at the theater academy, happened to be walking through the park when a loud noise startled the birds into raucous chattering.
For Bass, who had just learned about Bialystock’s sad history of anti-Semitism -- a pogrom in 1906 when Bialystock belonged to Russia; the extermination of 50,000 Jews during the Holocaust; and the expulsion of 40,000 more Jews in 1968 -- the moment was powerfully symbolic.
"These birds felt to me like they were Old World Jews in a synagogue, disputing the discussing. I realized that they are the spirits of 50,000 Jews who had died. ... That stayed with me very strongly," said Bass.
That image became the starting point for what is now "Black Birds of Bialystock," a piece Bass wrote in collaboration with the Bialystock Puppet Theatre. The piece is a powerful examination of this history of anti-Semitism and the question of how to foster dialogue and understanding in the face of this tragic history.
"Black Birds of Bialystock" will be presented as part of Sandglass Theater’s eighth Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival, features puppet and theatre companies from
"Black Birds of Bialystock" will have its American premiere at a Festival Gala on Thursday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m., at New England Youth Theatre. Tickets are $25, and the after-show gala will feature a chance to talk with the shows collaborators and Sandglass’ board, an opportunity to enjoy homemade desserts and the presence of some distinguished guests, including the Honorary Consul of Poland, Marek Lesniewski-Laas and his wife, attending from Boston, and Avital Peleg, Cultural Attache of the Consulate General of Israel to New England.
Their presence is testament to the importance and potential impact of of "Back Birds of Bialystock." Performances this spring in Poland offered further testament to the show’s power.
"The experience was mixed because it’s a controversial theme. ... The high school audiences were completely rapt. These shows were absolutely thrilling," said Bass. "I see this a piece of active conflict transformation, and that’s where the dialogue is going to happen. It’s not my generation that’s going to change the world anymore."
Changing the world is a tall order for anybody, let alone a puppet troupe, but that’s very much a current that runs through the Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival.
The full spectrum of the art of puppetry is on display, from light entertainment for children to powerful contemplations of weighty issues of our time to subject matter not normally associated with puppets, is all on display at the festival.
In addition to "Black Birds of Bialystock," several other festival offerings take puppetry into the realm of art for social change.
Take for example, Sandglass’ "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks," a poignant new piece about the despair and joy experienced by those with dementia as well as their families. Performances will be at the New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro on Sept. 22, 23 and 30, at 8 p.m. This collaboration between Sandglass Theater, Michel Moyse (video), Paul Dedell (music), Sabrina Hamilton (lighting design) and Roberto Salomon (direction) is based on stories collected by Sandglass artists during visits with local care facility residents.
For children, "Garbage Monster" by the Cengiz Ozek Shadow Theatre of Turkey takes a fabled Turkish character of the peasant Karagoz into the modern day for a fun, action-packed story which asks questions about how we dispose of our trash and what price we pay for polluting our water. Performances of "Garbage Monster," which are suitable for young children, take place on Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 26 and 27, at noon, at Landmark College, as well as on Saturday, Sept. 29, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., at Scott Farm in Dummerston.
Another intriguing international offering for adult audiences is "Paper Cut" by Yael Rasooly of Israel. Recently presented in New York City’s International Fringe Festival, "Paper Cut" explores the tale of a lonely secretary seeking to escape her dull reality through her vivid imagination. But as the story unwinds, her romantic tale becomes a Hitchcock-like nightmare.
"She’s an exquisite performer," said Sandglass Co-Founder Ines Zeller Bass.
Also for adult audiences, there is "John-Eleanor," a work of collaboration between two Finnish troupes, which mined actual court records from medieval London to find the story of John Rykener, who dressed as a woman and was caught engaging in sexual acts with another man for money. This performance uses hand puppets to tell a story, with humor and sadness, which probes questions of human rights and gender identity carried forward from the middle ages to the present day.
"It’s a wonderful gender-bending romp," said Eric Bass.
A co-production of TEHDAS Teatteri and HOX Company of Finland, "John-Eleanor" represents another theme of the festival -- collaboration.
Sandglass collaborated with Bialystock Puppet Theatre to create "Black Birds," which also features music composed by Miamon Miller, a former resident of the area. "D-Generation," which its video and music components and its creative adaptations of stories created by local dementia patients, is a beautiful study in the best that can come from collaboration.
Collaboration is evident in another piece by a local artist, "Eye of the Storm" by Spybird Theater. Jana Zeller called on well-known local musician Anna Patton to create the music for this piece.
Appropriate for youth and adult audiences, this work-in-progress is the story of an elegant woman stuck on an eroding island while awaiting rescue by her sailor son.
"Eye of the Storm" is interesting because it combines puppet styles -- the woman is a rod puppet; the other denizens of the tiny, eroding island are hand puppets; the woman’s dreams of her son present a different style.
"We’ve been working really hard in finding the common ground where these styles interact," said Zeller.
Though the piece has its wistful and melancholy moments, "we have tried to find the lightness of the piece and the humor," she said. "We are definitely wanting to leave people with a sense of dreaminess and hope and humor."
"Eye of the Storm" will be presented on Saturday, Sept. 29, at 5 and 10 p.m., at Sandglass Theater in Putney.
There is another local piece with a strong theme of collaboration -- Company of Strangers’ "Of Bread and Paper" -- which tells the story of a poor man made entirely of paper, who learns some valuable lessons about the gifts and blessings in life that are most important.
"A good fairy tale often is telling our story. We are revealed the truth about ourselves," said Campman. "The man recognizes a very simple truth about himself. Those gifts that we are given are not always great gifts, but that doesn’t diminish their strength and their potential."
The show grew out of gatherings local puppeteers held to create work "to keep our chops hot," Campman said.
It grew from there and was presented in festivals in Turkey in 2010. To create the show, Campman collaborated with Melanie Fletcher, a local resident whose expertise in costuming and stitching resulted in the paper costume that Campman wears. "Of Bread and Paper" also came about thanks to the help of guest directors Amanda Maddock and Barbara Whitney. Gordon Scott helped out with engineering and paper work, and Campman’s daughter Maeve runs the technical aspects.
"Of Bread and Paper" will be presented on Sundays, Sept. 23 and 30, at 5:30 p.m., at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. It will also be featured on Wednesday, Sept. 26, following a 7:30 p.m. presentation at the Brattleboro Museum on "Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects in Therapeutic Puppetry." The varied roles that puppets can play in therapeutic puppetry are explored by Matthew Bernier, associate professor in the Graduate Art Therapy and Counseling Program at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
That talk is one of several special events the festival features. On Monday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m., Landmark College in Putney hosts a panel discussion, "International Collaboration and Conflict Transformation," in connection with "Black Birds of Bialystok." Eric Bass and Marek Waszkiel (director of Bialostocki Teatr Lalek and a long-time friend of Bass’) will discuss the artistry of puppetry and how it can inspire dialogue that will help deal with issue of the treatment of Jews in Poland’s history openly.
"The Polish-Jewish history and relationships are long, fascinating and complicated at the same time. ... Each generation should say something by themselves. I believe it is our time, especially if we are regarding the strange history of 20th century. I think we are ready to talk about this topic, to create a vision of the past for the future," write Waszkiel.
The Sept. 24 talk is free and open to the public.
Other special festival features reinforce another important festival theme -- community. Two events come under the pleasant heading of "Bountiful Table" and provide opportunities for festival-goers to break bread together. On Friday, Sept. 28, at 6:30 p.m., Gail Murray of Sarkis Market creates a Middle Eastern buffet as a prelude to Israeli artist Yael Rasooly’s "Paper Cut" at the Dummerston Grange. On Saturday, Sept. 29, at noon, Tristan Toleno celebrates the harvest with a localvore lunch at Scott Farm, prior to a performance of "Garbage Monster."
There is a post-performance informal Festival Club Thursday, Friday and Sunday, Sept. 27, 28 and 30 at 9 p.m. The Putney Inn provides the setting to relax with friends and festival puppeteers.
Community has been an important aspect of Sandglass’ programming, performances and projects, and it permeates the festival as well. Artists stay at local residents’ homes, and perform at different venues throughout the towns of Putney, Bellows Falls, Marlboro, Dummerston and Brattleboro.
It’s a community that takes care of its children. Many festival offerings aim at enchanting young children and their families.
Launching the festival this Saturday at the Latchis Theater at 3 p.m., and Sunday at the Bellows Falls Opera House at 3 p.m., is "Peter and the Wolf." Created by the University of Connecticut Puppet Arts Program, Sergei Prokofiev’s acclaimed symphony for young audiences is performed live by the Hugh Keelan Ensemble, large, colorful, table-top puppets, and narration by Tony Barrand.
Appealing to the very young and the young at heart , "Scenes From a Tree," presented at New England Youth Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 29, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., encourages children to hear and see the world as the tree sees it. Nathalie Derome and her Quebec company Des Mots d’la Dynamite developed this fanciful piece in collaboration with a group of educators and children from a Montreal daycare center. In it, three half-tree, half-fairy women celebrate the passing of time through the four seasons.
"Memories of a Circus Tiger" by Circo Los of Spain will tickle your family’s funny-bone as contemporary circus performer, clown, acrobat and master of balancing and fixed bar, Boris Ribas, presents a circus seen through the memories of a performing tiger. Performances are at Landmark College on Sunday, Sept. 30, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
A festival schedule is available at www.puppetsinthegreenmountains.com. Tickets can be purchased online or at the festival’s walk-in box office at New England Youth Theatre, 100 Flat St., Brattleboro, through Sept. 28 or by phone at 802-579-4554. Advance ticket purchase is recommended as most festival performances sell out. All performance venues are wheelchair-accessible.