HANDSPAN THEATRE was an incubator for contemporary Australian theatre, not only in puppetry but across the performing arts industry. Handspan's people were its lifeblood, driving the company’s artistic vision and contributing to its vitality as well as its artistic programs. Their unique contribution to Australia's contemporary artistic expression in the company's own quarter century resonates in the legacy that continues in their work, and in the work of many others influenced by the Handspan experience.
Handspan's people are listed individually in People A - Z, and where information is available their names link to entries outlining their role in the company and its productions. Credit listings in the tabs on production pages group personnel in the following categories:
Creative Teams are the people who threw the ideas up and took responsibility for the creative roles identified in production credits: Writers, Conceptual artists, Devisors, Directors, Composers, Designers – stage and costume, Puppet designers, Choreographers, Manipulation directors, Dramaturgs, Sound designers and Producers
Performers appeared on stage with the company including: Puppeteers, Actors, Musicians, Circus artists, Dancers and Magicians
Production Teams: are all the people who realised the productions technically and in promoting them to audiences:Puppet makers, Constructors and fabricators, Production assistants, Production and Stage managers, Production crews, Production publicists, Photographers, Graphic artists and Work experience students or secondments
Handspan Theatre's structure evolved throughout its lifetime influenced by its Members, its Staff and its Supporters.
The people who created and committed to Handspan's artistic vision and signed up to the company's manifestos
Handspan was founded by Ken Evans, Andrew Hansen, Helen Rickards, Peter J.Wilson, Christine Woodcock and Maeve Vella in 1977. All had been working for The Parry Marshall Puppet Theatre, a Melbourne-based schools touring puppetry company. They had a burning ambition to use this artform, with so much potential, to make relevant contemporary theatre. Together, and seized an opportunity to create a new puppetry production of their own. (See: Hansel and Gretel)
The founders initiated the energy that drove Handspan's mottos to: 'go anywhere, do anything'; 'innovate through improvisation and adaptability'; 'believe that anything can be a puppet'; make new relevant work and be advocates for the artform. Their ideals were to create 'theatre for social change', and 'theatre that broke the boundaries', particularly in puppetry, a medium still largely hamstrung in 1977 by its own traditional and dated practice.
From its inception, Handspan founders networked across the arts industry widely and generously, taking on leadership in state-wide and national arts bodies and opening workshop and studio doors to share resources with artists of all persuasions. Founding members held various roles and portfolios within the organisation over its lifetime, and came and went in their active participation in Handspan projects. They remained influential throughout the company's history from its first Manifesto, drawn up by Maeve Vella in 1982, (and sadly lost from the archives), till its closure in 2002.
Handspan was led for its first five years of comparatively unstructured collective activity by its Founders in a Partnership Agreement, which was variously at times extended to include: Roy McNeill, Peter Seaborn, John Rogers and Philip Lethlean.
In 1982 Handspan Theatre formalised its organisational structure and Handspan Theatre Limited was registered as a membership-based Incorporated Company Limited by Guarantee. Its mildly bewildered artists dutifully drew up a legal constituition and received an array of documentation with an official Company Seal - the latter admired briefly, and then consigned to the bottom drawer. Nevertheless the structure clarified the 'business' that Handspan had become.
This structure established formal membership rights and responsibilities and extended the collective to embrace artists who had by that time worked with the company over several projects and whose vision and practice aligned with Handspan’s manifesto and operation.
From 1982, Handspan's artistic programming was devised through annual dreaming meetings of all members who discussed overall artistic directions, ambitions and timelines for Handspan as well as ideas and initial project proposals for new work and the company's existing repertoire. Consensus more often than voting identified priority projects for each year, sometimes with a designated aim for the coming months.
- 1982, with opportunities but few resources, was called the Year of the Dollar - and the company not only maximised its touring program in the ensuing year, but received its first annual General Grant from the Australia Council for the Arts.
- 1983 was declared the Year of International Repute - and Secrets was invited to the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy beginning Handspan's 15 year high-profile international touring adventures.
- In 1984 the Dreaming was held in upstate New York in the company digs for Secrets' engagement at the Pepsico Summerfare at Purchase, where plans were made for a Year of Australian Inspiration - from which Handspan's future indigenous and multi-cultural collaborations emerged.
Later Dreamings in Melbourne became more formalised and lasted for a full weekend. with agendas and with sessions prepared and facilitated by company members. These gatherings not only introduced new ideas and projects and ratified programming and touring priorities, but formulated operational and management policies as Handspan grew in scale and reputation.
The most memorable and certainly the most intense Dreaming saw the membership decamp to a weekend retreat at Lord Somers' Camp on Western Port Bay, Victoria in 1986. At what proved a cold and windy seaside escape, 25 passionate artists wrangled the wording and intent of a new company Manifesto (Handspan Manifesto, 1986).
The Manifesto aimed to enshrine a Handspan commitment to an egalitarian, collective and visionary artistic future led by its members. It outlined a clear framework that empowered individual decision-making responsibility to facilitate Handspan's mature operations. While its interpretation was a continuing discussion point, the Manifesto remained the guiding principle of the company for its next decade.
Handspan Board Members were elected by the company membership and from its ranks.
Handspan’s first formal Board formed in 1982 comprised its founders Ken Evans (Chair), Helen Rickards, Peter J.Wilson and Andrew Hansen, who were actively working with the company, plus Handspan’s accountant and financial advisor for 10 years, Alastair Stevenson.
Handspan established a Board as its governing body only to comply with its legal requirements. Decisions made by its collective membership were rubber-stamped and meetings and minutes were open to everyone who had joined up. As the organisation grew however and its membership dispersed beyond those actively engaged in company work, the Board became a more powerful force in guiding Handspan's direction and priorities.
In 1985/6 recently joined members from the Melbourne arts industry led the Board. Jon Stephens, from the Australian Children's Television Foundation, was elected Chair with Andrew Bleby, Director of Melbourne's Next Wave Festival, as his Deputy. The Board continued to be dominated by active company artists until the mid-1990s but from then included outside experts co-opted to its ranks for particular responsibilities. Some of these Board members served for several years such as Peter Anthonsen (Treasurer:1987 -1997); Joy Geary (Chair: 1991 - 1992), and Meredith King (Publicist 1993 - 1998).
Until 1991 Handspan Chairs continued to be active members closely associated with its day-to-day activities but Handspan Chairs Janice van Reyk (1994 - 2001) and Jennifer Colbert (2002), although supportive of Handspan's work, had no affiliation with its artistic practice and raison d’être. The changed nature of the Board and loss of company 'corporate memory', was symptomatic of the change nature of the company that led to its winding up in 2002.
The Ebb and Flow
Many early members of the company remained active in Handspan Theatre for many its 25 years, significantly influencing Handspan's development, work and directions.
Key members during the 1980s included Ken Evans, Andrew Hansen, Peter J.Wilson, Helen Rickards, Maeve Vella, Philip Lethlean, Michele Spooner, Carmelina Di Guglielmo, John Rogers, Lizz Talbot, Trina Parker, Rod Primrose, Winston Appleyard; Andrea Lemon, Cliff Dolliver, Avril McQueen, Annie Wylie, Paul Judd, Katy Bowman, Gilly Farrelly, and Paul Newcombe.
Several of these people remained the company during the next decade but membership began to fluctuate in the 1990s.Gradually, as the original collective assumed responsibilities and careers outside Handspan, membership became a vehicle for individual project opportunities rather than the continuing evolution of a group ideology.
New members joined in the 1990s through projects and productions that involved professional puppeteers and visual performance artists, and graduate students introduced to Handspan through Swinburne University or Victorian College of the Arts training school. For a brief period Associate Membership was instituted to differentiate long-term and short-term engagement with the company.
Some who were significantly involved in several Handspan activities in its final decade included Rob Matson, Mary Sutherland, Hugh Wayland, Megan Cameron, Laura Bellamy, Alison Bogg, Mikkel Mynster, Craig Hedger, Katrina Gaskell, Liss Gabb, Darryl Cordell and Heather Monk.
The people who were employed by Handspan to lead and facilitate Handspan's development and work.
The Artistic Directors
Handspan’s Artistic Directors from 1977-1989 were its working founders and members, represented from 1983 by an Executive Director: Helen Rickards (1983-1986) and Trina Parker (1986-1989). Trina assumed the title of Artistic Director from 1988 to clarify external perceptions of company leadership.
A co-Artistic Directorship between Trina and Peter J.Wilson was implemented in 1990 in a bridging process towards membership acceptance of the role and its power to shape company directions. Briefly in 1991/92, Handspan experimented with an outside-the-company appointee in the role, David Baird. His tenure was short, and in 1993, Ken Evans was appointed to the position.
During Ken's incumbency the autonomy of the role, a much discussed concept, was redefined and artistic leadership passed from company members to the personal vision of an individual in the role. The membership, by then diversified from its original ensemble core, ratified this change to the Company Manifesto and opened the door for David Bell who held the position from 1998 to 2001 to re-brand Handspan as Handspan Visual Theatre. Cazerine Barry was appointed for 2002 though never took up the role in the event of Handpan's closure.
In its first 20 years Handspan’s work was generated through collective company creative development and ensemble performance. Most people in early ensemble productions were members, but some were guest artists. The company was eager to explore new artistic ideas and styles in new cross-genre inventive and experimental projects with its collective visual theatre skills. Guest artists were eager to work with those skills and in the adventurous and challenging milieu that Handspan offered.
From 1979, when Lyndon Peter Wilson from the Tasmanian Puppet Theatre was invited to redirect The Apple Show, guest artists were a key influence in the trajectory of Handspan's development. Guest writers included: Daniel Keene, John Romeril, Karen Corbett, Tony Rickards, Wendy Harmer; Maryanne Fahey and Ian McFadyen; Guest directors included: Nigel Triffitt, Peter Oyston, Ariette Taylor, Douglas Horton, Angela Chaplin and Frank Italiano; Guest composers and musicians included: Uncle Bob's Band; Paul Grabowsky; Stephen Kent, Greg Sneddon, Gavin Dunn, Boris Conley, Dalmazio Babare, Peter Crosbie, Marcia Howard and Peter Neville.
Production listings also include details of Independent puppeteers and performers who worked as guest artists in many Handspan productions and sometimes in production teams. With them and in co-productions with other arts companies and groups Handspan people moved in a mileau of artistic exchange where 'ideas were currency'.
In its early days, Handspan's administration, production management and marketing were carried out in a voluntary capacity by artists working with the company at the time. It was part of the 'collective' ethos - and an economic imperative. As Handspan grew touring nationally and internationally and became supported by and accountable for Government subsidy, these roles demanded increasing professional expertise, independent job specifications and remuneration.
Until 1986 administrative positions at Handspan were fragmented and generally short-term. Helen Rickards was ratified as Executive Director in 1983 with part-time administrative people Diana Kidd (1983) and Geoffrey Harrison (1984). Jude Bourguignon joined the company in 1984 initially as a part-time administrator and created the role of Company Publicist. In this position until 1987, Jude was instrumental in Handspan's transition from a schools and community-based touring troupe to a recognised theatre company on the national and international mainstage. With the appointment of Trina Parker to run the organisation in 1986, full-time Administrator (and later General Manager) Stephen Armstrong became part of the team.
Professional management was a significant boon to the growing organisation and accountable for much of its success in securing sustainable funding to pay its people appropriately, in formalising engagements for company work and in accessing its expanding marketplace. General Managers, Vivia Hickman (1989 - 1993), who replaced Stephen, was instrumental in fully professionalising Handspan's administrative operations, followed by Rachel Healy (1994 - 1996) and Fleur Parry (1997 - 2002). All were cornerstones of Handspan's operation during their time and have continued in high-level arts management careers since. Dion Teasdale, who stepped from Administrative Co-ordinator into the Interim GM position for some months in 1996, oversaw Handspan's era-ending move from its Fitzroy studio in 1995 and relocation to Jesse St in Richmond.
Contrarily, over time, Handspan's professionalised management contributed to the erosion of the company's venturesome flair. During its first 20 years Handspan works had been developed and re-developed to maximise its touring potential and maintain a professionally experienced ensemble of interdependent artistic expertise. By the 1990s the company had on-going infrastructure funding but its activities relied on grant-specific projects which rarely managed to find the entrepreneurial leverage to sustain the company's full-time activity. Creative, performance and production teams were engaged for short-term project contracts only although a full time management team were employed.
In 2001, after three years of minimal output and increasingly lukewarm public reception, Handspan lost its General Grant subsides from both the Victorian State and Federal Governments.The Board had already appointed a new Artistic Director for the following year and was reluctant to wind up the organisation, but the membership voted to "take the band off the stage" in 2002. The majority of members felt it was preferable for Handspan Theatre to be remembered for its vibrancy and its unique and internationally-known productions than to fade into mediocrity and sporadic output.
Handspan members were energetic in trying to pass on the legacy of their company's time and Handspan's remaining funds and equipment were dispersed to the wider puppetry community. Swinburne University Library received Handspan's puppetry library and a donation towards the creation of its David Williamson Theatre Studio (initially named the Handspan Studio). The Australian branch of UNIMA, the International Puppetry Association, received funds for a five-year program of annual scholarships to enable emerging puppeteers to take up professional development opportunities overseas. The company's remaining documents, photographs and memorabilia were given to the Performing Arts Collection at the Arts Centre Melbourne.
There were many organisations and venues that presented Handspan productions – often at considerable risk. People inside and outside these organisations took the company on because they believed in its work, and generally they were happy with the outcome of their investment. Some of them were crucial in giving Handspan opportunities long before the company had established a track record and recognition:
- Herman Van Wichen at Anatol's Restaurant in Melbourne commissioned Handspan's first work Hansel and Gretel (1977)
- Sue Clark, from the Community Arts Network gave Handspan chances to perform, and thus survive, in the Melbourne FEIP (Free Entertainment in Public Places) programs: Hansel and Gretel (Out of the Booth) (1978/79)
- The Victorian Dental Health Association people organised Handspan's first interstate tour - to Brisbane The Mouth Show (1980)
- Don McKay from the Victorian Arts Council facilitated Handspan's first Arts Council tours to outback Australia The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek (1980)
- Come Out Director, Andrew Bleby introduced Handspan to South Australian audiences through the Festival's education program The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek (1981);
- Cate Fowler, in Adelaide followed suit with Streetwise, (1984) and she and Susie Leigh, in Melbourne, Education Officers at the Adelaide Festival Centre and Victorian Arts Centre respectively commissioned Handspan to produce new work for young audiences The Carnival of the Animals (1983) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, (1984)
- Andrew Bleby, Festival Director booked Handspan for its first Mainstage appearance with Secrets for the Australian International Puppet Festival (1983) and subsequently, The Haunted for Melbourne's first Next Wave Festival ((1985)
- Greg Hocking and Tim Woods presented seasons of Handspan work at their contemporary performance showcase venue, the Universal Theatre in Fitzroy Secrets (1983 & 1985), Cho Cho San (1984) and The Haunted (1985) and later, with Glenn Elston, at the Athenaeum Theatre, Four Little Girls (1988) firmly establishing the company's Melbourne audience
- Gian Carlo Menotti saw Secrets and took it to Spoleto (1983), opening doors to the world for the company and, with the success of the production a significant contributor to the establishment of the Melbourne Festival
- Wendy Blacklock toured Handspan through Australia’s eastern seaboard through the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust Secrets(1984) and later through Performing Lines Viva La Vida - Frida Kahlo(1993)
- Donatella Bernstein secured tours for Secrets in Europe (1985/86)
- Clive Scollay took Handspan to the Central Australian desert in an eye-opening experience that created The Haunted (1985)
- Clifford Hocking partnered Handspan with Regurgitator in a major Australian International Arts Festival production Raised By Wolves (1987), the first work supported under the Australia Council's Major Festivals Initiative Scheme.
- The Australia Council's Theatre Board Director, Michael FitzGerald believed in Handspan, and the company received its first Government funding in the early days of the Australia Council (1980)
- Roger Chapman, Director of Carclew in South Australia, led the protest when Handspan lost its General Grant funding status at the end of 1985, ensuring that it was regained in 1987
- Carolyn Laffan and Janine Barrand at the Performing Arts Centre, Melbourne have accepted and carefully housed many of Handspan's objects and documents for posterity.
Handspan had a Friends of Handspan list from 1983. These were people who helped the company along with financial donations – not huge, but helpful, and were often the families and associates of company members. In return, Friends were invited to Opening Nights and received the company newsletter Fingerprint published from 1983.
Handspan rarely ventured into commercial sponsorship. Company members were not connected in the corporate world and sponsor hosting and rewards were not attractive to that marketplace or a priority for establishment by the company.
In its early days, in-kind support came from Lyndon Peter Wilson at the Tasmanian Puppet Theatre who sold Handspan his company's touring van for a song; John Pinder gave his Gestetner copying machine (originally passed on to his own fledgling business by Clifford Hocking) to the company on their arrival in Fitzroy; Streets Icecream gave some dollars for their logo to be displayed on the vehicle with Streetwise tours; and Malaysian Airlines gave Helen Rickards a round-the-world airfare to set up the company's international touring options in 1985. One memorable closing night party for Secrets at the Universal Theatre was well-oiled by a wine sponsor with his newly-launched and very lethal Pear Liqueur.
Once established, Handspan was subsided by Government Arts Funding agencies in Australia - the Theatre, Literature and Music Boards of the Australia Council for the Arts, and the Victorian State agency through its Ministry for the Arts. Individual productions and projects were commissioned or supported by other bodies, generally Government agencies rather than the corporate world.
So many people made Handspan's quarter century.
- Company Dreaming 1986: Fr L: Jon Stephens, Paul Judd, Lizz Talbot, Michele Spooner, Philip Lethlean, Andrea Lemon, Andrew Hansen, Ken Evans, Stephen Armstrong, Carmelina Di Guglielmo, Trina Parker, Annie Wylie, Helen Rickards
- Founders dinner 1977: Fr L: Andrew Hansen, Helen Rickards, Ken Evans, Christine Woodcock, Peter J.Wilson & Maeve Vella
- A Change of Face Company 1986: Fr L Roberto Micale, Mary Coustas, Sally Minter, Tony Le
- Company Meeting: Fr L around the table: Avril McQueen, Carmelina Di Guglielmo, Andrea Lemon, Lizz Talbot, David Hope, Paul Judd, Michele Spooner, Philip Lethlean, Peter J.Wilson, Annie Wylie and Andrew Hansen
- Company Portrait: Fr L: Back row (standing): Andrew Hansen, Trina Parker, Maeve Vella, Michele Spooner, Joy Geary, John Rogers; 2nd back row (standing): Stephen Armstrong, Annie Wylie, Rod Primrose, Katy Bowman; Seated row: Lizz Talbot, Andrea Lemon, Paul Judd, Paul Newcombe Floor: Avril McQueen with Bill Rogers, Jack Parker-O'May, Jon Stephens, Philip Lethlean with Grace Lethlean.
- Board 1982 - 1985: Fr L: Alastair Stevenson, Helen Rickards, Ken Evans (standing), Andrew Hansen, Peter J.Wilson (seated)
- Board 1987: Fr. L: Back Philip Lethlean, Alastair Stevenson, Jon Stephens, Andrew Hansen, Gilly Farrelly, Centre: Joy Geary Front: Andrew Bleby, Paul Judd, Carmelina Di Guglielmo
- Four Little Girls Fr L Cliff Dolliver, Trish Simmons, Philip Lethlean, Ruth Hardman, Paul Newcombe and (seated) Michele Spooner
- Gulliver's Travels Playwright, Andrew Bovell with puppeteers: Fr L: Lizz Talbot, Avril McQueen, Andrew Hansen, Peter J.Wilson
- Secrets company 1984: Charleston, South Carolina, USA Fr L: Geoffrey Harrison, Lizz Talbot, Helen Rickards, Winston Appleyard, Andrew Hansen, Peter J.Wilson & John Rogers