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At Home and On the Road

HANDSPAN THEATRE toured across Australia and the world: its work seen by over 750,000 people in theatre performances on 5 continents and millions more in public events and on TV


people sitting on a red desert road

Handspan Company at the end of the Desert Research Intensive for The Haunted, Central Australia, 1985
Fr L: Ken Evans (standing), Helen Rickards, Ian Mortimer, Philip Lethlean (squatting), Greg Sneddon, Lizz Talbot, Andrea Lemon (front), Avril McQueen (bending), Carmelina Di Guglielmo, Peter Oyston

Photograph: © Andrew Hansen, 1985

HANDSPAN THEATRE was established to tour and tour it did. From its home base in Melbourne, Handspan artists took their work across the City, into country regions, to all States of Australia and around the world. 'Go anywhere, do anything' was a company motto from the outset.

From its homes in Richmond, its longtime Studio in Fitzroy and its last headquarters in Southbank, Handspan took its work to theatres, festivals, schools, community events, conferences and workshops and into the street.

The company's primary showcase was Melbourne where productions appeared at the Victorian Arts Centre, the Athenaeum Theatre, the Universal Theatre, St Martin's Theatre, Gasworks, the Last Laugh, for Melbourne's Festivals of Arts, Moomba Festivals, Fringe Festivals and in countless schools, in parklands and in street parades.

Further afield, productions appeared in International Arts Festivals and for theatre seasons across Australia and worldwide - company members were rarely At Home.

On the Road for up to 8 months in some years, Handspan productions toured to all States in Australia, in major metropolitan centres and across country and outback regions. Overseas, the company appeared in England, Scotland, Holland, France, Germany, Slovenia, Italy, North America, Canada, Venezuela, Columbia, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. From its first tour of Hansel and Gretel in 1978 to Mildura in northern Victoria to its last, Lift 'Em Up Socks, in Vienna, Austria in 2001 Handspan's objective was to make new work for new audiences in new locations.

Nevertheless, in tandem with touring, a basic requirement for creating new theatre is a space to rehearse. Visual theatre, performed with animated images, needs workshop space, preferably incorporated into the rehearsal location. Object creation and manipulation go hand-in-hand: an object is both built to its performance requirements, and its performance requirements emerge from its technical abilities - collaborative space facilitates practical development as well as the ensemble participation in the process essential for successful outcomes.

In its lifetime Handspan maintained a home workshop and rehearsal space, in studios around Melbourne, from where its productions and projects ventured forth.


(Click photos to enlarge)

roadcases stacked backstage

Sydney1


posters saying Handspan is Home on street hoarding

Melbourne2


3 people on verandah of single story row house

20 Chapel St3


people in a cobbled laneway

Fitzroy4


3 story Victorian style building

108 Gertrude St5




black studio space with arched windows

The Black Space6


White room as gallery

The White Space7


workbench covered with tools near window with city view

Workshop by day8

workshop space with woman amidst construction materials

Workshop by night9




handspan van on tour with GUTS sign

Mildura10


people dressed in bunyip costumes with TAA staff at airport

Perth11





handspan visual theatre graphic

Handspan Visual Theatre logo12


workshop with man making big faces

Southbank13



Camberwell


In June 1977, with a hastily agreed name, a contract in hand and a need to produce a new show in less than three months, the fledgling Handspan Theatre urgently needed a home to devise, build and develop Hansel and Gretel.

Initially, the company took over the spare rooms and living rooms of its founders' share houses from which construction materials and fabrics encroached into hallways and porches and recording sessions blared into the night. These weren't ideal conditions, but by day Handspanners were working for The Parry-Marshall Puppet Theatre headquartered nearby and at least the leafy eastern suburbs location facilitated their moonlighting timetable.

Once the show opened however, it was time to rapidly decamp. Parry-Marshall saw the production opening and in the face of his employees' independence, which he felt was disloyal to his own operation, dismissed everyone immediately. What might have been a blow, cemented the troupe and gave Handspan its wings. With freedom to move, the company found a new base in Richmond.


20 Chapel St


Handspan's first official premises in Chapel St were the front rooms of an elderly 4-room row terrace cottage squeezed amongst the factories and cobbled lanes of inner suburban Richmond. If anything, the company's facilities actually worsened.

The cottage was shared with a button-making enterprise that had a fabric dyeing contraption set up in the back courtyard, which wafted choking fumes throughout the dingy and very dimly-lit house. One powerpoint was shared between all the occupants and all their tools. Again, Handspan and the ever-increasing paraphernalia of its projects began to take over all corners of the building, making rehearsal almost impossible.

With some regular income from commercial ventures with puppets at Poppa's Pizza Parlour and for Billy Guyatt TV ads, Handspan made a confident move and rented the whole floor of a warehouse building.


108 Gertrude St


Handspan's home in Gertrude St was its longterm headquarters and the alternative artists' territory that was Fitzroy became the company's milieu.

Fitzroy was a very different landscape when Handspan moved there in 1978 than it is in the early 21st century.

The studio was housed in the third floor of a late 19th century warehouse – the tallest building on the skyline apart from the housing commission flats opposite. Handspan's was the top floor with views across Melbourne's suburbs and, from its own rooftop access, across a wider horizon to Port Philip Bay. From there, the helicopters that protected CHOGM* in 1981 thundered close above as they circled Fiztroy's conglomeration of rooftops and hidden byways; and in January 1983, the dust cloud that rolled into Melbourne from Victoria's northern plains was a spectacular, if eerie sight.

The company's floor had been a photographer's studio in the immediate past with tromp l’oeil painted walls and a grim chemical-spattered darkroom; and before that, according to the cops on the street, a casino and sometime brothel. Three contemporary sculptors worked on the second floor. On the first floor sewing machines whirred and piece-workers came and went with bales of cloth or finished garments. The ground floor shop front sold bric-a-brac and furniture for a song.

Some of the genteel houses around the corner in Gore Street and Brunswick Street still housed discreet brothels, old codgers sat on their steps and told yarns, and sweet-faced nuns from the Mary McKillop Convent mingled in a rough but neighbourly community. There were shysters and crims around, the local police warned against drinking at the local pubs, and the area was certainly impoverished if not actually a slum.

Melbourne’s alternative theatre culture flourished in Fitzroy and its comedy scene was born in the late 70s and early 80s in its venues: the Flying Trapeze Café, the Last Laugh, Le Joke and Marijuana House - all influenced by Amsterdam's Melkveg and its burgeoning European counterparts.The Universal Theatre, Open Channel and the Next Wave Festival were established in Victoria Street. The Black Cat Cafe, Baker's/Marios came later bringing the coffee connoisseurs - as Fitzroy, and with it Melbourne and Australia, changed, fuelled by the burgeoning post counter-culture arts movement and reawakened cabaret entertainment industry.

In this rich environment Handspan's work and its influences were expanded and productions and projects created at Gertrude Street make up the bulk of the company's output.

The space at Gertrude Street was decrepit and unfurnished when the company moved in, but the Handspan cohort laboured with energy and enthusiasm to partition and paint the third floor space into workshop, office and a black rehearsal studio. Equipment and furnishings came from garages and junk stores. A blood-stained bread knife was unearthed from a hidey-hole on the stairs, washed and then used in the kitchen for years. Asphixiation was narrowly averted during the building and installation of a fiber-glass sink workshop sink and the refurbishment of the darkroom.

For a while rent was shared with freelance designers Laurel Frank and Trina Parker, who each had a bench in the workshop. When Handspan wasn't in rehearsal the black studio was hired to colleagues and small companies too to rehearse their projects. The space allowed Handspan's horizons to expand rapidly. Guest artists were invited to work with the company and Melbourne artists from all communities met to discuss policy and practice for alternative theatre and its hybrid artforms in dynamic and enthusiastic groupings.

n 1984, with a company of more than 20 working artists, and devising Cho Cho San, its biggest and most complex work to that time, Handspan also rented the second floor of its Gertrude Street headquarters and this added a second, ' white' rehearsal room, relocated the office and meeting areas and provided extra storage and less primitive bathroom and kitchen facilities.

Handspan also acquired its own wheels. Its Kombi van criss-crossed Australia's eastern states touring performers and shows to schools and community events over uncounted kilometres, till its motor blew up in a freeway debacle and a sparkling new leased Hi-ace took its place in 1983. Tours departed with their roadcases and entourage, bumped in and out up and down the six flights of the broad timber staircase that opened onto Gertrude Street. Productions touring to schools sometimes required carting the gear up and down on a daily basis

Schools touring was Handspan's bread and butter for its first 15 years with its performance troupes not only playing up to four shows a day, sometimes in as many as three locations, but bumping in and fitting up equipment and driving themselves. Most such tours were self-managed by the company itself but some were organised by Arts Councils and had the luxury of an accompanying tour manager and occasionally a stage manager as well. Exhausting it may have been, but it was an adventurous life with considerable appeal to young artists who could continually refine their work and adapt to widely differing audiences and circumstances.

Touring stories are legion and legendary. In the early days accommodation was basic - on the floors of obliging friends and colleagues or in shared on-site caravans where discussion of future projects and running repairs to show equipment went on long into the night. 'Improvisation and adaptability' became another motto as awkward performance spaces were reconfigured before the show could go on; theatres caught fire and vehicles broke down.

Once Handspan began touring on the mainstage for other presenters and into well-established professional venues, touring conditions improved. Not only were production crews on hand to get shows in and out, but generally, dressing rooms and local transport were supplied as well as local hosting and support. Opening nights could be magic and season closings often sad. Relationships and emotional tensions punctuated the journeys making the company its own family. Life on the road contained the best of times and if occasionally the worst of times too, its lifestyle and intimacy were themselves a foundation of the company's work.

At its Gertrude Street home, Handspan could build and rehearse its projects over several weeks, and preview its new works to invited audiences. Many memorable parties happened on these floors too: pre-tour farewell events, post-tours home-coming celebrations and special occasions such as the company's 10th Birthday Gala and Ten Year Exhibition in 1987.

After seventeen years in residence, the building in Gertrude Street, still an un-renovated and un-maintained edifice, was sold. A rich prize for developers and the end of an era for Handspan.


33 Jesse St


The move to Jesse Street in 1995 took the company back to the quiet factory streets and lanes of Richmond alongside the recently constructed south-eastern freeway. Workshop and office space were ample, but rehearsal space was limited and visitors rare. With no public frontage or local street life, the company lived behind closed doors there during its two year residence. The workshop was used to primarily to construct large scale processional images for street parades and outdoor events, although Dante - Through the Invisible, Handspan's last new, independent mainstage work was built there.

When the lease expired, Handspan made its final move to the emerging Southbank Arts Precinct in 1998.


Southbank


Handspan took up residence in an office and workshop/storage space at 57 Miles St, across the road from the Malthouse Theatre and in the enclave of arts organisations surrounding the Victorian Arts Centre and Victorian College of the Arts. The headquarters now an office above workshop/storage space adjoining a carpark. It was a respectable, if unprepossessing, address but no longer a home for member artists.

Without rehearsal space and an ensemble of willing members, Handspan's work had become increasingly expensive to produce. With no schools and community touring repertoire to underpin the company finances, it was dependent on Government subsidy to maintain core operations. Much of the company budget had to be earmarked to serve the reporting and accountability requirements of its grants and little independent new work, by the now re-named, Handspan Visual Theatre was attempted other than creative development of conceptual project ideas.

After the move to Southbank, co-production partnerships with arts organisations and companies became essential and, with partnerships no doubt facilitated by its new location as well as a new leadership team, Handspan made new Co-productions with the Melbourne and Adelaide Festivals, Malthouse Theatre and the Victorian Arts Centre rather than independently in its own right.

Touring, also increasingly expensive, was no longer a priority for the company although the last appearance of its work was in Germany where Lift 'Em Up Socks was in the program of the Die Macht Des Staunens' Festival in Vienna after an Australian tour



Parisian advertising pole displaying Secrets poster

Paris14

people outside theatre

Hobart15


Bangkok16

Jabiru17

Company snapshots

  1. Loading Bay, Off Broadway Theatre, Sydney Festival 1984
  2. Handspan is Home designed by Ken Evans on street hoardings, Fitzroy, 1984
  3. Outside Little Chapel St, Richmond: Ken Evans, Peter J.Wilson & Helen Rickards Photographer: © Christine Woodcock, 1978
  4. Streetwise company: Fr L front: Peter J.Wilson, Helen Rickards, Peter Charleton, Dian Kidd, Andrew Hansen, Carmelina Di Guglielmo, Laurel Frank & Winston Appleyard Photographer: © Jon Conte, 1983
  5. 108 Gertrude St, Fitzroy
  6. The Black Space - for rehearsal
  7. The White Space as a Gallery for the Ten Year Exhibition, 1987
  8. View of Melbourne from the workshop
  9. Carmelina Di Guglielmo in the workshop at night during construction of Four Little Girls, 1988
  10. Schools' tour, Mildura, Rick Ireland with Guts welcome sign, 1984
  11. Melbourne Airport, The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek en route to the 1981 Festival of Perth Performers: Peter J.Wilson, Helen Rickards & Andrew Hansen, 1984
  12. Handspan Visual Theatre graphic - name change 1998
  13. Southbank workshop with David Hope and images for Main Street project (South Australia), 2002
  14. Secrets poster, Paris, 1984
  15. Viva La Vida - Frida Kahlo, Peacock Theatre, Hobart Fr L: Mary Sutherland, Carmelina Di Guglielmo, Peter Seaborn, Unknown, Jane Bayley, Mikkel Mynster, Michele Spooner, Avril McQueen, 1994
  16. Four Little Girls billboard, Bangkok, 1996
  17. Lift 'Em Up Socks touring poster, Northern Territory, 2001

  • CHOGM: Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting, Melbourne Exhibition Buildings 1981



THE COMPANY: