A TCG Global Connections grant supported the second phase of development of a collaboration between Vermont’s Sandglass Theater and the Teatro Luis Poma (TLP) in El Salvador. The collaboration was designed to find the common ground between the two companies through their joint interpretation of an 18th century German epic, G.E. Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (Natan el Sabio). The play is set in Jerusalem during the Crusades, and depicts a world in which sworn enemies find themselves unexpectedly rescuing each other, a situation that is unsettling to all of them. Essentially a melodrama in which great wisdom is embodied, the job of the two companies is to bring the text into contemporary relevance and interest by finding a form that is correspondingly epic and non-literal.
I did the adaptation, and a new translation was created by TLP director, Roberto Salomon. With these, the companies began work together in March of 2013, supported by a national Performance Network Performing Americas grant. During that time, my wife, Ines Zeller Bass, and I traveled to San Salvador to teach a workshop in puppetry to TLP actors, who had never worked with puppets before. The workshop concluded with experiments in staging the opening scenes of Nathan, and awakened a strong interest in the TLP actors to continue the project.
In October 2014, Ines and I returned to El Salvador to begin staging the actual production, co-directed by Roberto Salomon. This phase of the project was funded by TCG Global Connections and by the Fresh Sound Foundation. I took the role of directing the physical staging of the show, and Roberto the role of directing the expression of text by the actors, as they projected their voices into the puppets, or interacted in an actor/puppet relationship that explored the power struggle between the world of the central characters and the world of the forces that determined and challenged their fates. Ines created puppets for the five central characters – and a camel! Scenic elements for the show were created in El Salvador, many during the rehearsal period. Scott Ainslie, American blues musician and composer created music loops for the rehearsals which will eventually become the recorded score. The music played a strong role in inspiring the actors and establishing the rhythm and character of the physical movement of the piece.
Phase three of the project will take place in July/August 2015 and lead to the opening of the show at Teatro Luis Poma.
Why an 18th Century German Play? And Why Puppets?
The project began when Roberto Salomon and I discovered that Nathan the Wise is a favorite play of each of us. At a first and obvious level, the play addresses contemporary violence in the Middle East. Roberto, however, is more interested in how the play addresses current violence in El Salvador. The disruptive gang violence, the colonial history, the proliferation of weapons since the civil war of the 1980s, and the rise of right-wing Catholicism, all point to the relevance of a play that takes a fresh look at racial and religious intolerance.
In a read-through of the play on the first day of rehearsal, the actors were visibly moved by the text. Roberto’s translation retains a sense of language from another time, and the characters, represented by puppets, exist in that time. The puppeteers, however, live in the El Salvador of today. The relationship between the actor and the puppet allows the actors to tell the story in a way that shows that it comes from them, and from their response to their own society. The audience sees the story through the eyes and hands of the actors, their fellow citizens. And the puppets see their manipulators, as if they can see into the future. Is that what gives them Wisdom?
We are looking forward to the next stage of this project. We are hoping that we can tour the show in the US in the future. Thanks to TCG for the support that has made it possible for us to come this far.
Eric Bass has worked in the theater as a director, writer, performer and puppet maker. In 1982, he founded Sandglass Theater in Munich, Germany, with his wife, Ines Zeller Bass, and moved to Vermont in 1986. Mr. Bass has directed in America, Australia, and several countries in Europe. In 2003, he co-directed The Story of the Dog with Sovanna Phum of Cambodia. Mr. Bass taught theater at Marlboro College from 1996-2002 and Arts for Social Change at the School for International Training from 2009-2011. His recent projects include Richard 3.5: Light Ruminations on Murder, a ragtime production with Bob Berky, Black Birds of Bialystok, an examination of anti-Semitism in Poland, and D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks, a piece about dementia, touring with support from the National Theater Project/NEFA. He and Ines run a two-week intensive training program in puppetry at Sandglass Theater in Vermont, in August. They are currently collaborating with Teatro Luis Poma in El Salvador on a deconstruction of G.E. Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (Natan el Sabio), which will premiere in August 2015 in San Salvador.
Photo above is from a workshop of “Natan el sabio”