Puppet theater: Keeping a 400-year-old tradition alive


BRATTLEBORO — Jana Zeller, a puppeteer and designer, is nearly breathless as she arrives by bicycle for a scheduled interview with the Reformer. She says she has just finished writing a new hand puppet show called "Puppet Crimes" which she will present at the Stone Church on Thursday, June 20, at 7:30 p.m.

The show was three years in the making. It will be performed in a kind of cabaret style setting where people can eat and drink at small tables while they watch the production. Zeller says, "I love the Stone Church. It's so beautiful. The new food menu will be available during the show."

"Puppet Crimes" comes out of a 400-year-old tradition of hand puppetry which originated in the fairgrounds of Europe. Hand puppet heroes spoke out against the church, the monarchy, and the police. This theater form was a voice for the common man and affirmed a counter-culture, anti-authoritarian viewpoint. Zeller says, "It's always been a marginal art form. I find it remarkable about how the things that these puppets were dealing with in the 1600s still have relevance in today's world."

Zeller has done extensive research into this art form, including traveling to Glover, Vt. twice to work with Bread & Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumann. He witnessed some of the old German fairground performances, knew some of Germany's most renowned hand puppet players, and has always been inspired by this art form. "He was an inspiration for breathing lots of life into the Kasper character," Zeller said. "Bread & Puppet has invited me to perform 'Puppet Crimes' at Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover later this summer, on July 28 at 5:30 p.m."


"Puppet Crimes" is a raucous satire about what it takes for a common puppet to survive in the face of tyranny, war and economic oppression. German hand puppet heroes Kasper & Gretel (based on our own Punch & Judy) struggle to survive in an old shack on the margins of society. As the centuries pass through their little puppet booth, war is raging and Kasper tries to avoid getting blamed, arrested and drafted, yet this puppet always ends up being the scapegoat for larger crimes.

Zeller explains that in a grotesque world of gun-runners, outhouses and a declining monarchy, Kasper (with the humor and wit of the common man) ducks out from under authority and manages to survive another 200 years. The third character in this spectacle is the villain Dietmar, a corrupt emissary to the king who deals in weapons and bullies. Each scene poses a grotesque circumstance with a comic twist that explores the tradition of Kasper's character and its timeless relevance today. This is an action-packed, hour-long show for teens and adults, inspired by German, British and Italian hand puppet traditions. It is a one woman show and Zeller performs all parts, sings and plays the ukulele, too.


Erich Bass, her father and founder of Sandglass Theater in Putney, co-wrote "Puppet Crimes" with Zeller. Her mother, Ines Zeller-Bass, made all of the costumes. Her husband, Zak Grace, carved all of the puppet heads and made her a stage. Her friend Anna Patton wrote the music. Zeller adds, "All the sounds and sound effects are performed live, nothing is recorded. It's a very low tech production but it's very complicated. The scenes move quickly, with snappy dialogues, and lots of props and puppet action."

She goes on to say, "And we do cover 400 years of history in one action-packed hour." To prepare for this show, she researched what was going on in Germany over those time periods. What did people wear and what did puppetry look like then? Kevin O'Keefe, a friend and founder of Circus Minimus, co-wrote the 1600 years with Zeller, who calls him her "joke doctor."


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Born in Munich Germany, Zeller moved to the U.S. when she was 14 years old. She moved to Putney with her family in 1986. Her father, Erich, went to Middlebury College and he and her mother fell in love with the foothills of the Green Mountains in Vermont. They thought it looked like the foothills of the German Alps. Her parents had already founded Sandglass Theater in Munich and at that point it was a touring company. In 1995 they found a permanent home for Sandglass Theater on Kimball Hill in Putney where it is today. Jana's sister, Shoshana Bass, is co-artistic director of Sandglass Theater with Erich.

Jana Zeller attended the Putney School for two years and then graduated from Brattleboro Union High School. She studied at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and then moved to San Francisco where she was a painter and set designer. She had interesting jobs with the opera, television and film industry. She and her husband Zak lived in Santa Fe for a while and they created a paper puppet show and gave parlor performances on the road for one year. "By the time we came home (to Vermont) we had a finished show about Tom Thum," she recalled.

Zak Grace is a glassblower and creates functional and art glass in a studio on Williams Street. They have two sons, Desmond is 11 years old and Django is 13.


Zeller founded Spybird Theater in 2001 with the creation of "Sensational Prodigies!" a toy theater show about the life of midget Tom Thumb who became famous under the guidance of P.T. Barnum. That show was developed and performed on the road while traveling throughout the United States. In the following year they made "Egg Noir," a solo object theater piece about an ailing system of communication, which played in Vermont, Chicago, and Mexico. In 2012, "Eye of the Storm" was a bizarre fairy tale about the difficulties of trying to stay connected to the world and facing a set of obnoxious neighbors. She has created work for both children and adults. Her work has been presented across the U.S., in Canada, Mexico, Germany and India.

"It feels like my heart is in it. I feel really at home in this show," Zeller said.

She goes on to explain the mechanics: hand puppets are also called glove puppets. They sit on your hand. Their head is in one of the fingers and their hands will be on the pinky and the thumb. The rest of the body is a glove over your forearm. The puppeteer is not visible in a hand puppet booth. She experimented with different puppet styles: paper theater, rod puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, and really got a feel for the different puppet worlds.

Zeller's work has been supported by a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation. She said, "I was very lucky to be awarded this grant. Many companies apply and the Hensons are the only funders in the country who support only Puppet Theater."


"Puppet Crimes" is a show for teens and adult audiences. Tickets are $15 each and can be purchased at www.stonechurctvt.com or at the door.

For more information, visit www.spybirdtheater.com


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