Gen­naRose Nether­cott with Baba Yaga puppet

Back­ground of bro­cad­ed vel­vet pan­el with Ital­ianate pat­tern, Cleve­land Muse­um of Art 

When I sit down to talk with Shoshana Bass, she’s cradling Baba Yaga’s half-sculpt­ed head in her hands. The eyes are moony, the nose sharp.

I can’t get the mouth quite right,” Shoshana sighs, sweep­ing a thumb over the tiny crone’s pursed lips and smear­ing them away. She rolls a scrap of gray clay between her fin­ger­tips, lays it above the chin. Is it alright if I work while we chat?”

Of course,” I say.

To be fair, her labor is on my behalf. I’ve hired Shoshana to co-cre­ate a pup­petry show based on my forth­com­ing nov­el, Thistle­foot—a sto­ry weav­ing togeth­er Jew­ish his­to­ry and the infa­mous Russ­ian folk­lore fig­ure Baba Yaga. The woman emerg­ing from the ball of clay in Shoshana’s hands will be my com­pan­ion on an exten­sive cross-coun­try book tour.

There’s no one bet­ter to trans­late a char­ac­ter into flesh and blood — or well, fab­ric and wood — than a Bass. Shoshana, age thir­ty-five, is a dancer and for­mer trapeze artist. She also hap­pens to be the heiress to a pup­pet empire — the leg­endary Sand­glass Theater.

Sand­glass was found­ed in Ger­many in 1982 by Shoshana’s par­ents, Eric Bass and Ines Zeller Bass. Their first joint piece was about two lovers — a non-Jew­ish Ger­man woman and a Jew­ish Amer­i­can man — grap­pling with the his­to­ries of their con­flict­ing worlds the night before they embark on a life togeth­er. For Eric and Ines, this was far more than fic­tion. This was their sto­ry. The pup­pet show fea­tured rivers of pale, flow­ing sand, —which became the inspi­ra­tion for Sand­glass Theater’s name.

Though Ines and Eric’s orig­i­nal show fea­tured Jew­ish themes, they always felt that it was vital not to lim­it Sand­glass Theater’s sub­ject mat­ter. It’s impor­tant that some­one who is Jew­ish not have to make Jew­ish’ art,” Shoshana says. That’s some­thing that my father strug­gled with when he lived in Ger­many, at a time when it was not so … wel­com­ing to be Jew­ish. He’d be asked to direct a Jew­ish show, and he’d say But … I just want to direct a show.’”

Nonethe­less, Shoshana feels that her iden­ti­ty – as a woman, as a ruralite, as an Amer­i­can, and as a Ger­man and a Jew – can’t help but leak into her art. To her, pup­petry is an ide­al medi­um for inte­grat­ing dif­fer­ent aspects of one­self. We can take some­thing from with­in us, embody it in a pup­pet, and then have a con­ver­sa­tion with it. I’m not say­ing it’s ther­a­py… But it is magical.”

Per­haps it’s also puppetry’s his­to­ry that lends itself so well to cul­tur­al inte­gra­tion. While the ear­li­est known pup­pets orig­i­nat­ed in Ancient Greece, they have held sig­nif­i­cance in cul­tures from all over the world—like­ly long before any record. Ivory and clay pup­pets have been found in Ancient Egypt­ian tombs; Chi­nese shad­ow the­ater stretch­es back at least three thou­sand years; Indone­sian shad­ow pup­petry — fea­tur­ing cut-leather sil­hou­ettes play­ing over a fire­lit screen — has been around since the tenth cen­tu­ry. String and hand­held pup­pets have been pop­u­lar in Iraq and Iran for over one thou­sand years. In Italy, France, Britain, and else­where in Europe, pup­petry served as a vehi­cle for polit­i­cal and social satire. The list goes on. And of course, as glob­al trav­el spread, so too did these the­atri­cal tech­niques and styles.

Like so many oth­ers, Jew­ish cul­ture has a long-stand­ing rela­tion­ship with pup­petry—begin­ning in East­ern Europe with the six­teenth- and sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry mag­gid—or teller of tales.” A mag­gid was an itin­er­ant Jew­ish preach­er and sto­ry­teller, a sort of rab­binic bard who trav­eled the land recit­ing reli­gious tales. While the mag­gids didn’t use pup­petry, their Torah nar­ra­tions were quick­ly adopt­ed by groups of actors and Jew­ish pup­peteers. These inter­pre­ta­tions often fea­tured life-size pup­pets and elab­o­rate mar­i­onettes. In the mid-sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, a Jew­ish pup­pet com­pa­ny in Prague began per­form­ing a ver­sion of Purim’s Queen Esther sto­ry. This show was such a hit that the pup­peteers were invit­ed to Lon­don — where it became pop­u­lar enough to inspire count­less new troupes to sprout up all over Europe. Car­ry­ing the art form into mod­ern Jew­ish Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, Yosl Cut­ler and Zuni Maud found­ed a pup­pet the­ater called Mod­i­cut (a com­bi­na­tion of their sur­names) on the Low­er East Side in 1925. Their shows blend­ed Jew­ish folk­lore, left-wing satire, song and dance, and par­o­dies of Jew­ish cul­ture — all per­formed in Yiddish.

As an author, I know the lim­i­ta­tions of the writ­ten word. But with the help of visu­al lan­guage those lim­its can be over­come. In the moments that words fail, a pup­pet doesn’t.

It’s into this mul­ti­cul­tur­al, glob­al his­to­ry that Sand­glass The­ater was born. Sand­glass was based in Ger­many for four years, before mov­ing to the US in 1986. For its first decade, it was exclu­sive­ly a tour­ing com­pa­ny. Eric and Ines voy­aged from state to state, coun­try to coun­try, with road cas­es heavy with pup­pets … and lit­tle Shoshana in tow. Then, in 1996, the fam­i­ly pur­chased a barn in the wood­lands of Put­ney, Ver­mont, and trans­formed it into an inti­mate theater.

Shoshana offi­cial­ly inher­it­ed the role of co-artis­tic direc­tor in 2019, receiv­ing the menagerie of pup­pets with which her father had toured for much of his life — plus the the­ater itself. Wan­der­ing past the box office and toward the dim rows of cush­ioned seats feels like enter­ing anoth­er world. Winged women built from feath­ers and wool dan­gle from the ceil­ing. A knee-high clown squats on a pedestal — his bel­ly swing­ing open to reveal a secret hol­low inside. Sus­pend­ed above the tick­et counter, a gag­gle of pup­pets make an escape in a lace-cov­ered hot air bal­loon. Even with­out pup­peteers ani­mat­ing them, the pup­pets feel alive.

We say ani­mat­ing, rather than manip­u­lat­ing,” Shoshana explains. Pup­petry has such a mis­un­der­stood con­no­ta­tion of con­trol — but in its most beau­ti­ful form, it’s not that at all. As a pup­peteer, you’re with a pup­pet, stand­ing behind it, sup­port­ing it. The work of the pup­peteer is to get out of the way, so the pup­pet can real­ly live. There’s a lot to play with in terms of pow­er dynam­ics with pup­pets, so if you want to talk about pow­er or oppres­sion, it’s a great tool.” And Sand­glass The­ater does not shy away from wield­ing that tool. From D‑Generation (a show that gives voice to elders with demen­tia) to Baby­lon (address­ing the world­wide refugee cri­sis) to Shoshana’s cur­rent work-in-progress, Fer­al (explor­ing wom­an­hood and intu­itive knowl­edge with­in patri­ar­chal sys­tems), many of its pro­duc­tions use pup­petry to encour­age social jus­tice. And stitched into all the work: a rau­cous sense of play­ful­ness. Whim­sy and delight become tools for change.

In 2016, Shoshana began per­form­ing a show called When I Put On Your Glove, which tells the sto­ry of a young woman tak­ing her place as the new gen­er­a­tion in a fam­i­ly of pup­peteers. The show fea­tures her father’s pup­pets, the ones he was tour­ing with back when he first met Ines — allow­ing these pup­pets to reawak­en. There’s a minia­ture Yid­dish shoe­mak­er at his work­bench. A monk impa­tient­ly strik­ing a gold­en gong. An acro­bat climb­ing an impos­si­bly tall lad­der. Oh, and sand. Rib­bons and rib­bons of sand, falling from the ceil­ing of the the­ater – the very same sand Eric and Ines used in their orig­i­nal show.

It’s impor­tant to us that there’s a lan­guage that goes beyond words,” Shoshana says. The pup­pet — it helps us reach into places we can­not under­stand. But we can reach. And we can strive to be more empa­thet­ic — always. These are grand ideas, but also very sim­ple ideas. The puppet’s pow­er is in its simplicity.”

This is pre­cise­ly why I grav­i­tat­ed toward pup­petry in the first place. As an author, I know the lim­i­ta­tions of the writ­ten word. But with the help of visu­al lan­guage — with metaphor housed in an ani­mat­ed body — those lim­its can be over­come. In the moments that words fail, a pup­pet doesn’t.

The sun has begun to set out­side the walls of Sand­glass Theater’s work­shop, and Baba Yaga’s mouth still isn’t quite right. The lips are too tight, too thin. But Shoshana will keep work­ing, keep play­ing, keep cre­at­ing — until the lan­guage that goes beyond words is found.

Gen­naRose Nether­cott is a writer and folk­lorist. Her first book, The Lumberjack’s Dove, was select­ed by Louise Glück as a win­ner of the Nation­al Poet­ry Series, and she is the author behind the nar­ra­tive song col­lec­tion Mod­ern Bal­lads and Lian­na Fled the Cran­ber­ry Bog: A Sto­ry in Cootie Catch­ers, among oth­er projects. She tours nation­al­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly per­form­ing strange tales (some­times with pup­pets in tow) and com­pos­ing poems-to-order for strangers on an antique type­writer with her team The Trav­el­ing Poet­ry Empo­ri­um. She lives in the wood­lands of Ver­mont, beside an old ceme­tery. This is her debut novel.