Thursday March 21, 2013

PUTNEY -- If you haven’t met Henry, Rose, Elwood, Mary and Florence yet, you should.

The five stars of Sandglass Theater’s latest production, "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks," are about to embark on a big adventure -- a national tour which starts in April in Santa Fe, N.M.

But first, they’ll be appearing this Friday and Saturday at Brattleboro’s New England Youth Theatre, when Sandglass performs "D-Generation" at 7:30 p.m., and they’re really worth getting to know.

Even if they are puppets.

Sandglass introduced Henry, Rose, Elwood, Mary and Florence to audiences when "D-Generation" was unveiled at last fall’s Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival. Now, buoyed by a major grant, Sandglass Theater is poised to introduce Henry, Rose, Elwood, Mary and Florence to audiences across the country and perhaps around the world.

Last fall, as Sandglass was getting ready to present "D-Generation" and to welcome its national and international guests to Puppets in the Green Mountains, word came that it been awarded a National Theater Project grant, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, with lead funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Sandglass was one of seven applicants chosen from a pool of 125, and the $80,000 grant is designated for further development of the piece and the creation of a tour to take the production to wider audiences.


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It also allowed Sandglass to hire William Menezes to coordinate the tour and gave them access to presenters, directors and other kinds of technical assistance.

"For us, this is an enormous grant," said Eric Bass, Sandglass co-artistic director.

Sandglass spent most of January reworking "D-Generation" with director Roberto Solomon. The grant also provided gave them access to a dramaturge who worked with them on the script.

"That was incredibly valuable. Everybody should have a dramaturge," said Bass.

"D-Generation" is based on stories written collaboratively by groups of people with late-stage dementia. It is performed by Eric Bass, Ines Zeller Bass, and Kirk Murphy, who play caregivers to Henry, Rose, Elwood, Mary and Florence. It features original music by Paul Dedell and striking video segments by Michel Moyse. The production delighted and moved audiences when it debuted last August at the Ko Festival in Amherst, Mass., and at Puppets in the Green Mountains.

So, Sandglass, if it ain’t broke, why are you fixing it?

Because audiences told them to, Bass said.

"We became aware of (what was needed) through talking with audiences afterward," he explained. "The trick to reworking the show is how to move forward without disrupting what is already working."

Examples of the suggested changes include giving family members of the dementia patients more of a voice and fleshing out the characters.

"We felt that with one of the characters, Elwood, we didn’t see inside him enough. We didn’t see into his soul," Bass said.

Most of the changes are small and subtle. "Someone who has seen the show might not notice the changes, but they are there, and they took us a lot of work," said Bass. "I think it makes the show richer, perhaps deeper, a little more complex. ... We think the piece is woven together better than it was."

And that reworked show will be the one local audiences see this Friday and Saturday at NEYT and then audiences elsewhere will see on tour.

Details of the tour are still coming together, but confirmed stops so far include: Theatre Grottesco in Santa Fe from April 15 to 23; Middlebury (Vermont) Town Hall from July 3-7; Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem, Pa., from Nov. 10-17; the Flynn Theater in Burlington from Nov. 18-24; Keene State College from March 2-5, 2014; and Full Circle Health Care Festival in Burlington from April 11-15, 2014. Several other stops, including ones in California, Texas, Tennessee and Hong Kong, are still being confirmed.

"The tour will be a mixture of being able to get deeper into communities we’ve been to before and meeting some communities we’ve never been to before," Bass said.

The stories used in "D-Generation" are based on ones collected by Sandglass during 20 visits to care facilities, during which circles of people with dementia were guided through a collective story making method called TimeSlips (www.timeslips.org). Their words, their images and their creative imaginations, yield work that is poetic, humorous and quite mysterious.

"It’s very hard to strike the perfect balance between the amount of terror and darkness and the humor and joy that are often overlooked," Bass said.

The production is further enhanced by Sabrina Hamilton’s lighting design and sound by Finn Campman.

Tickets to the NEYT performances on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. are $16 general, $13 for students and seniors. They are available at Everyone’s Books, 25 Elliot St., Brattleboro, on line at Brown Paper Tickets, www.brownpapertickets.com, two hours before curtain at the New England Youth Theatre, and at the Sandglass Theater administrative office in Putney by appointment (please call in advance 802-387-4051).