'Surrounded By Puppets': Shoshana Bass Looks To Helm Family's Sandglass Theater
Shoshana Bass first appeared on stage with her parents during the second act of the Bertolt Brecht play The Caucasian Chalk Circle when she was only nine years old. Since then she's toured the world with Sandglass Theater, the puppet and theater company in Putney that was founded by her parents, Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass.
Her parents are both 72, and they're ready to retire from the full-time administrative duties it takes to run a nonprofit theater group. Shoshana, now 32, is in training to take over as Sandglass Theater's creative director.
It's not easy keeping a nonprofit theater group afloat: you have all the creative work that goes into developing and performing shows, plus to keep the doors open you also have to teach, run children's workshops and host festivals. And as Shoshana said she's been learning, there's even more to it than that.
"Grant writing. Understanding budgets. All the things that go into bringing guest artists here," she said after a recent summer intensive that brought about two dozen artists from across the country to the Putney theater. "Cleaning the toilet. Sweeping the stage. Spreading the gravel when we have shows in the wintertime. All the things that one has to learn to think about."
Eric and Ines Zeller Bass started Sandglass Theater in 1982, in Germany. Eric Bass had attended Middlebury College, and in 1988 the family returned to Vermont.
The couple built a small theater in an old barn, right on Main Street, and quickly gained a reputation for their puppet shows that address social and political issues with music, dance and theater.
Shoshana grew up performing and watching her parents write and rehearse.
"As the youngest child I was often with my parents on tour, and surrounded by puppeteers and surrounded by puppets — some of which were bigger than I was," she said. "And also meeting cultures through their art forms, and the architectures, and the puppeteers that we met, and the languages that were in all the shows. So a lot of my education was an artistic one."
After high school, Shoshana spent her twenties out in California and Colorado, going to college and working in the circus arts and in dance and theater. However, she said, the roots of her artistic growth were always anchored in where she grew up.
"People always ask me if there was a time that I rebelled against puppet theater, or the form of my parents, and I don’t think I really did,” she said. “I think that it always was part of my approach to other art forms as well. Like all the principles that I grew up listening to and hearing in the way my parents taught, and the way they performed and the way they rehearsed and developed work, was always part of everything else that I did."
Shoshana said there were never expectations from her parents to work at Sandglass or to get back into puppetry; her father even joked that it might have been better for Shoshana to find a more financially stable career. But as she approached the end of her 20s, Shoshana said she wanted to come back to Vermont.
"I think it’s in a lot of sense kind of an old-fashioned idea to take on the family business and to mentor with your parents,” she said. "And what was most meaningful to me was to move back to Vermont and really practice this art form. ... And I think there’s an investment in that, in coming back and wanting to be a participant in the health of this area and this region. And the way I understand best to do that is through this art and through the work of the theater."
After living out on her own in other parts of the country, Shoshana said she's grown to appreciate Vermont’s tight-knit art community.
She said space is a lot easier to come by for artists to grow and take chances, and she's found more collaboration and support here among the writers, musicians, visual artists and actors who live in New England.
"I think small communities are the spaces where things can really happen," Shoshana said. "We have open space. We have a deep relationship with the land we exist in. It’s easier to make connections and knock on people’s doors and know the people in your community.
"And I think the health of all these communities depends on building strong partnerships between people, between organizations, between agencies and between businesses. We need each other. We're in a small area."
Along with learning how to run a theater group, Shoshana is also writing and performing. She's working on a puppetry, dance and spoken-word piece that she says addresses the complicated nature of navigating generational artistic legacy.
In one scene from her show, called When I Put on Your Glove, Shoshana stands on stage with some of her father's puppets:
"These are my father’s puppets, built to live within his show Autumn Portraits," she tells the audience. "Four puppets, and four stories, and a fifth whose story was never told. Built over 30 years ago, they contain his memories. They also contain mine.”
Shoshana said When I Put on Your Glove is giving her a chance to explore what it means to be an artist who’s inheriting almost 40 years of theater history.
As she trains to take over the business, she's contemplating just how much of that history she brings forward and what she leaves behind. She's wondering when the right time will be for her father to step down, and if she'll have time to still write and perform when she's running the organization.
During an interview, Eric Bass said one of Shoshana's big responsibilities will be to come up with a vision for Sandglass for the future; he said figuring out how to pay for it is important.
But more crucial, Eric said, will be for Shoshana to figure out where she wants to take Sandglass Theater. He wants his daughter to figure out what she is passionate about and what stories the community wants to hear — and then, he said, figure out how Sandglass can produce those shows.
The Sandglass Theater board of directors is giving the family's leadership transition around three years.
This story is part of our series, Young At Art. Every Monday this summer we'll hear from artists under 40 about what inspires their work and how they view the future for artists in the state. Support for Young At Art comes from Quantum Leap Capital.