Lift 'Em Up Socks

Premiere 5 April 2000
Venue George Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre

Aboriginal actor with joyful expression holding up rod puppet Aboriginal boy

Lift 'Em Up Socks
Performer: Tom E. Lewis
Photograph: © Jeff Busby, 2000
An ambitious attempt to bridge two cultures with considerable artistry and imagination

Helen Thomson:The Age, Melbourne, 11 April, 2000

LIFT ‘EM UP SOCKS opened at the Arts Centre, Melbourne and showcased in Quebec in 2000. In 2001, the production toured Northern Territory, played a return season in Melbourne, and its final season in Vienna.

puppeteer leaning down to operate Aboriginal boy rod puppet within a stone pattern on the floor

Puppeteer: Rod Primrose

Aboriginal actor standing on chair upstage speaking to a white actor kneeling on red floorcloth beside a white stone pattern

In performance: Melbourne 2000

Photographs: © Jeff Busby, 2000

(Click photos to enlarge)

The play was inspired by a collection of 1950s marionettes made by the Australian puppeteer Bill Nicol,1 which were loaned to Tom E. Lewis for restoration. Most of the puppets were European folk-tale characters but included were three Australian personalities, including a small Aboriginal boy made for the Jim-Vickers Puppet Pantomime2 in 1958. The boy piqued Lewis’ curiosity and led him to approach Handspan Theatre and the development of the play.

LIFT ‘EM UP SOCKS was a semi-autobiographical work, tracing Lewis’ life from growing up in Arnhem land to his sudden fame as a movie star (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith,1978); from the turbulence of alcohol abuse and estrangement from his family and community, to a new journey of self-discovery and reclamation of his life and traditions. Using the events in Lewis’ life as inspiration the work explored themes of personal, cultural and racial unity.

This is the story of a person on a journey, it is about the journey within ourselves and how we treat the rivers of our lives. I am not trying to preach to people. Sometimes you have to fall into your well and it gets darker and darker and it has to be up to you as a person to find a way to your light.

Tom E. Lewis: Interview. Publication unknown, Northern Territory, 2001

The Aboriginal boy puppet replicated by Rod Primrose as a rod puppet for the play, signified Lewis’ spirit and memory of his childhood. The title of the play recalls the instructions Lewis and his mission school mates received before the inspector's visit: lift 'em up socks, boys. It was an important work for Lewis, a high-profile indigenous artist, a Melbourne Olympic torch bearer during the play's opening season. He was keen to illustrate not only the social malaise in many indigenous communities through the paradigm of his own life, but to explain his culture and its stories and their place in his life.

Lewis performed the work with Rod Primrose who, covered in white make up and wearing a white costume, represented the multiplicity of white people, generally figures of authority, in the stories of Tom’s life. Rod and Tom manipulated the small Aboriginal boy puppet in turn. In Tom's hands, he re-enacted childhood memories. In Rod's, he provoked Tom to a protective nurturing or sometimes, to rage.

Lewis rage is startling ...it comes with no warning and transforms this man into a terrifying force. We sense this is not just good acting, but part frustrations coming to the surface.

Tim Richards: Stage Left, Melbourne 27 April, 2001

The production combined actors and puppets with video and projections. Drawings, writing and graffiti merged with water and rock formations, to create a fusion of contemporary Aboriginal experience and Dreamtime storytelling.

impressionist rather than literal, it engages the senses as much as the intellect.

Tim Richards: Stage Left, Melbourne 27 April, 2001

Tom E. Lewis meeting his boyhood self (Puppeteer: Rod Primrose)

(Click photos to enlarge)
Melbourne, 2000

Photographs: © Jeff Busby, 2000

LIFT 'EM UP SOCKS was an innovative work that merged the company's puppetry-based visual performance style with 21st century digital imagery with effective and meaningful fluidity. It addressed contemporary issues, played across all age groups and was widely tourable. It was a new Australian work with flagship potential.

Lift 'Em Up Socks is a fabulous production that is able to display the harshness of contemporary Aboriginal colonised experience with beauty and humour. The sophisticated racial dialogue, which develops between Primrose's silent white figure and Lewis' various fractured Aboriginal identities, speaks volumes for a possible reconciliation between Anglo and Aboriginal Australia... a 'must see' not only for its message but also for its brilliance of theatrical form and style.

Review: Jim McDonald, Publication details unknown.

Nevertheless, the play was last Handspan (by now Handspan Visual Theatre) production to tour. Its development and rehearsal were fraught with personal troubles. Lewis' brother died and so did Director, David Bell's father. There were floods in Arnhem Land which stranded Lewis just before opening night. Bell said:

These experiences of trying to keep afloat through adversity and finding a balance in life are the essence of the play.

Interview: Suzanne Brown, The Age, Melbourne, 4 April, 2000

Despite its difficulties, the work toured with considerable success in 2001 - to seasons in Brisbane, to the Northern Territory where it was performed outdoors in 8 community locations and at the Darwin festival, and a return season in Melbourne before the company's final appearances in Vienna, Austria for the Die Macht Des Staunens Festival.

The play may have ushered in a new creative era for Handspan to lift 'em up socks and continue to operate under a new artistic leadership, but it was not the time3. Artists in other places were however, merging genres and mediums in hybrid production styles - some influenced by Handspan's work over its decades - and visual theatre production for mainstage performance has since become a hallmark of much 21st century work across the globe.

In performance: George Fairfax Theatre

(Click photos to enlarge)
Melbourne 2000

Photographs: © Jeff Busby, 2000

  1. Bill Nicol
  2. Jim Vickers Puppet Pantomime
  3. See Handspan Company History: THE COMPANY and People

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Creative team
Director David Bell
Puppetry direction Heather Monk
Designer Mary Sutherland
Lighting designer Nick Merrylees
Composer Unknown
Costume designer Unknown
Executive producer Fleur Parry
Performers Tom E. Lewis
Rod Primrose
Production team
Stage manager Angela Pamic
Puppet maker Rod Primrose (Aboriginal boy: replica Bill Nichol 1958 (By permission The Actors Agency, Melbourne)).
Set builders Darryl Cordell, David Hope, Nicholas von der Borch

Lift 'Em Up Socks
Company: Fr L: Rod Primrose, Angela Pamic, Heather Monk and Tom E. Lewis
Barunga, Northern Territory, 2 August, 2001

Company snapshot

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5 April - George Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne VIC
25 November - 1 December CINARS Showcase, Moyse Hall, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec
11 – 14 July Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane
18 July - 26 July Northern Territory Tour: Jabiru; Oenpelli; Manangrida; Beswick; Barunga; Daly River
28 & 29 July Brown's Mart, Darwin Festival Fringe, Northern Territory
2 – 7 November David Williamson Theatre, Prahran, Victoria
12 – 14 November Dietheatre Kunstlerhaus, Die Macht Des Staunens Festival, Vienna, Austria
Total performances unknown
Total audience unknown

Lift 'Em Up Socks
Rod Primrose with interested community members
Beswick bump-in, Northern Territory, 2001

Company snapshot

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