For Alzheimer's patients memories are elusive, but as far as Doug Anderson is concerned, "D-Generation" is unforgettable.
In addition to the usual publicity avenues, the executive director of Middlebury's Town Hall Theater is sending personal emails extolling the latest work by Sandglass Theater. Sure, he has a little conflict of interest: Sandglass' "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks" is appearing tonight and tomorrow at THT.
But Anderson is not the only one raving about this puppet-theater piece based on stories written collaboratively with individuals with late-stage dementia.
"The idea of sensitively portraying Alzheimer's patients with puppets proved inspired," writes Boston's Hub Review. "Sandglass has developed some superbly realized marionettes."
Fans of Putney-based puppeteers Erik Bass and Ines Zeller Bass already know the extraordinary artistry of their work, and that the couple has tackled heady topics before, using texts from the likes of Bertolt Brecht and Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin. Of course, Sandglass has created child-centric pieces as well (think flea circus, or a hippo who lives in a tree).
"D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks" seems a work of another order. Its three puppeteers act as the caregivers, its five puppets residents of a senior care facility. Set to original music by Paul Dedell, the text derives from the "complex world" of individuals living with dementia and those who take care of them. It was created using TimeSlips, an improvisational storytelling technique developed by Anne Basting for individuals with cognitive impairments.
A serious and frightening subject for many, memory loss is also, sadly, germane to just about all of us. According to a description on its website, Sandglass explores the "dark private terror" of dementia, but also its playful moments and "lyrical inner visions."
Regardless of subject matter, huge props to the amazing artistry of these puppets by southern Vermont sculptor and photographer Coni Richards, as well as to accompanying video by filmmaker Michel Moyse, founder of the Center for Digital Art in Brattleboro.
Earlier this week, Seven Days intern Meredith White visited Sandglass Theater in Putney. This is what she reported:
Sandglass Theater has two blue doors. One leads into a hallway lined with puppets of past performances, and on to a theater. The other opens up to a staircase and into the home of Sandglass cofounders Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass. Puppets and humans coexist here in Putney, Vt., where the company has resided since 1996.
The challenge of puppet theater, Eric told me, is in finding the point of intersection between the puppet and human worlds. In the duo’s latest project, "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks," the puppeteers find that intersection with patients of late-stage dementia and their caregivers.
The project began with TimeSlips, a method of tapping into the still-active imaginations of dementia patients and creating collaborative stories.
“We were approached by [a group in New York] that practiced TimeSlips," explained Eric, "and they were interested in our company staging some of the stories that came out of TimeSlips story circles.”
Company member Kirk Murphy is now a certified facilitator in the technique. The puppeteers paid 20 visits to two nursing homes in Brattleboro, prompting the residents with images and making note of their responses.
The sessions proved fertile for story making. Director Roberto Salomon and Eric Bass deconstructed the stories and then worked backward from them to craft their performance.
“The piece we made is not just about the stories we collected," said Eric, "but about the process of collecting stories and about our reflections on the process and the people we worked with, and on ourselves and our own aging.”
The result is a surprisingly uplifting celebration of the here and now. Puppeteers Eric, Ines and Kirk play the roles of caregivers to the five puppets/nursing-home residents.
“Our craft as puppeteers has a lot to do with how we become visible or invisible on stage without hiding,” said Eric.
At times they interact with the puppets they are controlling, stooping down to make eye contact with the puppets designed by Coni Richards.
Facing the challenge of manifesting personalities who were mostly immobile, Coni constructed wheelchairs for them out of crutches and baby buggies.
“The wheelchair is part of their whole being,” observed Eric.
The set is simple. Three screens function as walls, curtains and room dividers. One screen serves as a window in certain "mind moments," featuring video artist Michel Moyse's interpretation of what's going on in the characters’ minds.
Yet not all is glum. “We’re not trying to suggest that this isn’t a very serious disease," said Eric, "but that doesn’t mean, within, that there’s no humor, no joy.”
"D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks" appears at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury tonight, July 5, at 8 p.m., and tomorrow, July 6, at 2 and 8 p.m. If you miss it, Sandglass is bringing the performance to the FlynnSpace in Burlington November 21-23. See an excerpt of the play here.