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Secrets

Premiere 21 January 1983
Venue The Space Adelaide Festival Centre, Australian International Puppet Festival

stage set with 5 hanging parasols over light squares & venetian blinds, central monk-like head & ship sails

Nigel Triffitt's Secrets Full stage
Photograph: © William Struhs, 1994

No longer is the puppet merely the extension of the hand - Handspan comes out from behind the black gauze to expose the puppeteer as actor. The actor becomes icon; icon becomes deity.
Prof. Ernest Mauer, Dominion University. Norfolk, USA,
‘’Spoleto ‘84’’ Journal unknown,1984


SECRETS’ stellar career began with a Best Production award in its premiere season at the 1983 Australian International Puppet Festival in Adelaide, and from then toured in Australia, Europe and North America until 1986. It both spearheaded Melbourne’s connection with Italy’s Spoleto Festival and helped pave the way for small Australian companies to tour internationally – a rarity at the time.

Devised, designed and directed by Nigel Triffitt in collaboration with the Handspan ensemble in 1982, enigmatic, innovative, and provocative, SECRETS was a landmark production in the company's development. It was its first Mainstage production and from the outset, an extraordinary work, that brought both Handspan Theatre and Triffitt Australia-wide and international recognition.

SECRETS was developed by its original cast and crew: Andrew Hansen, John Rogers, Peter J.Wilson, and Carmelina Di Guglielmo. Ian Cuming. After the opening season, Lizz Talbot replaced Carmelina di Guglielmo in the role of the Fan Lady and Winston Appleyard replaced Ian Cuming as the Black Samurai. For its 264 performances in the following five years, the touring cast remained relatively intact their creative investment assuring a compelling ensemble presentation, performed with unnerving exactitude1

Handspan handle Triffitt’s dream with tender love and theatrical expertise.

John Larkin, Sunday Press, Melbourne 19th June, 1983

Each effect is so complex its pleasure doubles back like an undertow when you finally figure out how it is achieved

Robert Massa, The Village Voice, New York, 31st July, 1984

Secrets Video Compilation
Nigel Triffitt interviewed on SBS TV, 1984
Compiled by Andrew Bleby 2016

Lauded and lambasted, SECRETS polarised audiences, provoking responses ranging from 'a visual symphony' to 'industrial strength twaddle'. To anyone who sought a definitive explanation of SECRETS' polymorphic parade of imagery, Triffitt's reply was "If you want a story, go read a book."

Staged with puppets and moveable objects in a kaleidoscopic design of universal and multicultural symbols, SECRETS was performed to a soundtrack that mixed popular music and contemporary voice-over snippets in a pulsating and dramatic continuum. Its themes of anger, alienation and despair referenced the global and universal issues of assassination, terrorism and survival, as topical in the early 1980s as they are relevant in the 21st century.

It was an ambitious dream for all concerned, one that created a unique theatrical production.

The Play

SECRETS was a series of choreographed tableaux: operators in black ninja costumes enclosed the exquisite Fan Lady in a Star of David; an empty trenchcoat revealed disembodied secret-selves; oriental warriors jousted in a stylised battle; a traveller followed a phallic serpent; a sloth licked a high-heel shoe hanging in the stern of a revolving ship; and psychedelic circles spun on a ferris wheel. Through it all a parcel, delivered in a pram, travelled by sea to the ending where the box opened to reveal a tiny, fragile wire figure floating in the beams of its mirrored lining.

Secrets Handspan Theatre man carrying two suitcases, silhouetted against a shaft of light

The Traveller
Photograph: © Stephen Hall, 1983
Click photos to enlarge

Triffitt's approach is that of an imagist who paints in light and sound, drawing on his subconscious for inspiration

Leonard Radic, The Age, Melbourne, 1 March,1983


SECRETS’ soundtrack, effectively the 'script' for the show, mixed fragments of voiceover from documentaries, newsreels and broadcasts with excerpts from contemporary music. These were recording on cassette tapes by Nigel in hotels rooms around the world.For the premiere Puppet Festival season these were mastered to reel-to-reel tape by the production department at the Adelaide Festival Centre - two closely guarded copies only, always retaining a faint but discernible background hiss.

It intersperses music and noise with the voices of assassination victims like Martin Luther King and John Lennon; the audio on Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting by Jack Ruby and various radio announcers’ report of the Kennedy shootings.

Jacques le Sourd, Gannett-Westchester Newspapers 16th July, 1984


For its public premiere Philip Lethlean developed the Lighting Design and plot with Triffitt guided by Lorraine Wheeler from the Festival Centre. Manually operated by Philip for every performance, the downlights, side light-curtains and congo blue insensified the show's impact.


Secrets Handspan Theatre a mournful soft-sculpture head rests atop a buff-coloured overcoat hanging from a coathanger, with a small sign saying Do Not Disturb

The Secret Self does not wish to be disturbed

Secrets Handspan Theatre woman costumed in large fans

The Fanlady

Secrets Handspan Theatre large red soft-sculpture snake, head upright, attended by black-clad operator with bamboo umbrella

The Serpent emerges from the darkness
Photographs: © Stephen Hall, 1983

Things are never what they first appear to be. Puppets appear in midair, heads float across the stage; a baby carriage rolls on stage apparently pushed by a puppet figure, but the figure proves to have only head and arms and is really being pulled by the carriage. Each scene subtly shifts through a slow movement, where the images build and mutate with a fascinating, unexpected rhythm, to a sharp snap of light and all is gone – immediately replaced or transmuted to start another episode.

Carl Babcock, Review, The Evening Post,
Charleston, S.C., USA, 31st May, 1984

Nigel Triffitt tried to look on humanity as a cultural totality: That is why he mixed symbols of different cultures and suggested their common existence. That is why among Japanese screens we saw characters which might as well have belonged to the Christian or to the Muslim world. For the same reason the warriors threatening the world were like some characters of Peking Opera though they were not nationally marked.

Henryk Jurkowski, President UNIMA International,
London International Puppet Festival, Animations June/September, 1984

Secrets great strength is its non-verbal attack on the creeping complacency of mainstream theatre … Punch and Judy fans will probably be the first to acknowledge that Nigel Triffitt’s Secrets has hurled the art of puppetry irretrievably into the twilight zone

Bruce Dickson: National Times', Sydney,12 October, 1984

Secrets Handspan Theatre white costumed warrior with wooden lance in Asian-style robes

White Samurai
Photograph: © Maeve Vella, 1983

Secrets Handspan Theatre rectangular white paper and bamboo sails. figurehead and dolphins

Monk figurehead
Photograph: © Stephen Hall, 1983

Secrets Handspan Theatre head and arms in arabic robes float above a parcel in front of walls hung with venetian blinds

The Sheik
Photograph: © Cathy Koning, 1982

The Journey

The concept for what was to become SECRETS evolved from discussions between Helen Rickards, Ken Evans and Nigel Triffitt in a series of meetings in Edinburgh in 1980.

Triffitt's previous work with the Tasmanian Puppet Theatre Momma's Little Horror Show (1978) had sparked his interest in trying to find a visual language in his work. Rickards and Evans were keen to create develop the form of Momma's ... to create an equally entertaining, but conceptually more substantial, new production. Influenced by their travels outside Australia, the work was conceived to represent a perspective on contemporary world tumult through visual metaphor and symbols. It was to be produced for touring to Australian audiences (initially envisaged to fit in a Kombi van!), and potentially overseas as well.

With a small project grant, 2 Handspan was able to commission the work to be developed with the company ensemble in 1982. Triffitt brought his draft soundscape and conceptual drawings to the Handspan studio where he harnessed the performance and technical strengths of the ensemble in a focused collective development process. Under the working titles, Rough Cut and Yassassin, SECRETS evolved over two intensive workshop/rehearsal periods between which Triffitt finalised the soundtrack and built his models based on the staging and imagery that had been created in the rehearsal room.

Coinciding with the first preview of the production's development, Nigel was told of his adoption at birth, previously a family secret. It was this momentous personal revelation that not only gave the play its title, but deepened the drama and poignancy of the work as it progressed to its final version. Never explicit, its undercurrent connected the universal imagery with raw personal emotion that contributed significantly to the production’s subsequent palpable artistic impact.

Triffitt explained that when one finds out one is adopted, one goes through a number of emotional states. Anger is one of them. "And I translated that anger into a kind of brief examination of terrorism and violence."

Bruce M. Smith, Sun News, Myrtle Beach South Carolina, 6th June 1984


The work evolved as it was created, Nigel adding found images and objects from around the studio and beyond3 . as much as drawing designs to be articulated by the puppet makers there.


Secrets Handspan Theatre 1983 portrait of Nigel Triffitt seated

Nigel Triffitt on the set of Secrets
Photograph © Fiona McDougall, 1983 (detail), courtesy The Age, Melbourne

I can’t sum it up other than to say it’s connected with terrorism. It’s connected with getting that angry and that frustrated that you could pick up a gun and start shooting. Now this is not an adult way of going about solving problems, so I suppose the show is about – it’s legit to go through that range of emotions, but obviously you have to come out at the other side, and that’s the rebirth thing at the end of it. I wanted to reflect a state of mind…I wanted to say well here are these emotional conditions … can I find a visual language which will somehow translate to other people what it’s like to have these feelings. If I could sum it up in words, I would have written a pamphlet or a book on it. I’m not able to sum it up in words, I can only sum it up in pictures.

Nigel Triffitt: SBS News,1983

SECRETS was booked by Andrew Bleby for the Australian International Puppet Festival immediately after the Showcase in June 1982. With a gig lined up and time, if little money, both Triffitt and Handspan were excited by and committed to, its continuing evolution and refinement.

SECRETS development extended throughout 1982, a rewarding process that tightened the work's focus and dramatic balance and allowed for the extensive rehearsal its techniques required. The play showcased again in December 1982 and secured a Melbourne season at the Universal Theatre for the following year.

When the play premiered at the Australian International Puppet Festival in January, 1983 it was to success and acclaim.


Secrets Handspan Theatre red poster for Palais des Glaces Paris 1984

Paris
Poster design: Palais des Glaces, 1984

Secrets Handspan Theatre black and white street posters Sydney 1984

Sydney
Poster design: Sydney Festival 1984

Secrets Handspan Theatre black and white program cover Charleston 1984

Charleston


Watch out! Here's a mind stormer!

So warned the headline of SECRETS first review written by Alan Roberts in the Adelaide Advertiser in January 1983. Thus began the copious commentary about its meaning, its place in contemporary, alternative theatre and its definition as 'puppetry' that followed its appearances around the world. With a Best Production Award from the Festival its reputation was enhanced, and public curiosity saw sold out seasons become commonplace.

Handspan called SECRETS a 'ballet of movable objects' and others variously described it as:

'an animated sculpture exhibition'4
'close to the genre of rock video'5
'an outstanding work of visual art ... a ballet commandingly choreographed' 6
'a piece of alternative theatre'7
'an immersion into the world of sensory experience'8
'industrial strength twaddle'9
'a visual symphony'10
'Variations on a Trenchcoat, played on a Perambulator by a Bamboo Fan'11


SECRETS was discussed, questioned and argued about in over 100 written reviews, countless radio broadcasts, at arts forums around the world, and by audiences for whom it was either engaging or provocative, or both. Files of newspaper clippings are held in the Handspan Theatre archives at the Performing Arts Collection.

International observations often focused of the Australian origin of the piece.

This show may not give us an understanding of indigenous Australian art but it shows us the diverse cultural influences from which this young country is nourished … this is a work rich in intellectual interest

Paolo Emilio Poesio, Nazione, Italy 8th July 1983

The student has become the master: Australia has learned how to find the sounds, images and words to express itself. Australian culture is no longer the nth replication of an Anglo-Saxon world driven by the American model … Nigel Triffitt is the product of this abundant culture, nourished by influences and mixes, of this strange, immense country, with too short a history (200 years!), where everything is still beginning!

Lionel Povert, France (1985)

Occidentals cannot regard Orientals with dispassion, least of all after the events of the past 45 years. This applies one would hazard, even more completely to those people of European descent living in the Antipodes. This fascinating show is at the same time a tribute – an offering, an acceptance, a submission, and a theatrical catharsis.

Anne Morley-Priestman, The Stage, London, 1984


Others wrote descriptions and analysis of its techniques and its meaning, and compared Triffitt with contemporaries world-wide.

Additional review extracts can be found here


The Presenters

After its successful premiere in Adelaide, SECRETS played four seasons at the Universal Theatre in Melbourne (1983-85) presented in partnership between Handspan and Hocking and Woods. It toured Australia's eastern seaboard to capital cities and country towns for Wendy Blacklock at the Australian Content Department of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and to Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, UK, Scotland with London producer, Donatella Bernstein.

European touring began when Gian Carlo Menotti saw the production at the Universal Theatre during its first Melbourne season, and invited it to his Festival dei duo Mondi in Spoleto, Italy and to its companion festival in Charleston, South Carolina in 1984.

Spoleto Festival performances of SECRETS were exhilarating occasions. As the play ended on opening night in the Cortille della Rocca a hush descended on the audience and a fine rain began to drift through the beams from the exposed lighting grid. A suspended, breathless silence held, the finale music sounded, Riders on the Storm, 12 and the performers appeared pinpointed in the darkness and slowly bowed. The applause began slowly, and built to a crescendo, sustaining for some 7 minutes and finally erupting in shouting and cheers.

Under the rainy sky, at the final moments of the piece, the applause of the public was the most enthusiastic and intense that I have seen at this festival

Guido Davico Bonino, La Stampa, Italy 8 July, 1983

Italian medieval castle high on wooded rocky outcrop above town

La Rocca Albornoziana, high above Spoleto, Italy

Carved stone arch and beyond it a demountable stage hung with black curtains

La Rocca courtyard with stage set-up viewed through the arch of a well.
Company snapshots, 1983

wooden seats laid out in rows and full view of stone well beyond back row

La Rocca courtyard with seating ready for Secrets' opening night


In contrast, a year later, on opening night in the Garden Theatre, Charleston, there were walkouts during the performance and some booing as well as cheers. As the play ended, many stood and cheered, but others stood and yelled, ‘How dare you?’ …What do you think you’re trying to say here? As Riders of the Storm played out and the house lights came on audience members remained for almost an hour as they stood and argued with each other in furious and heated debate. Unfortunately a largely negative review in the New York Times curtailed any opportunity for Handspan to find a USA producer.

Nigel Triffitt and the Handspan Theater are reprocessing visual tricks from the experimental theatre….the connective material is gossamer-thin and the techniques should be familiar to those who have followed the work of Bread and Puppet Theater and Ralph Lee, or have marched in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade

Mel Gussow, New York Times, 6th May, 1984

Nevertheless, SECRETS never lost its European appeal touring successfully there in several locations until its final performances as an official Australian presentation in the Cultural Program of the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.

A Lasting Legacy

SECRETS remained Handspan’s most iconic work, despite the success of the company’s later works, and was arguably the foundation for the opportunities and achievements in its future.

More than any other Australian work, SECRETS moved puppetry beyond its conventions. It showed that visual theatre could speak to audiences anywhere. Its influence was felt in the wider performing arts industry too. Over the years, many theatre practitioners in Australia and overseas have identified the play as an inspiration: it has been recalled as 'the show that led me into theatre'; 'the play that changed my perception of what made theatre' and 'what made me realise that theatre could say something'.


Footnotes

1 Peter Whitebrook, The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 31st July, 1986
2 Theatre Board, Australia Council Special Project Grant: $20,000
3 The Secret Self and the tiny figure revealed in the mirror box were both picked up by Nigel from Maeve Vella's workbench to effectively translate his wordless intent into theatre of image.
4 Kay Hartley, Centralian Advocate, Alice Springs 9th October 1985
5 Pat Donnelly, The Gazette, Montreal 15th June 1984
6 Alan Roberts, The Advertiser, Adelaide 24th January 1983
7 Geelong News. Geelong 23rd March 1984
8 David Foster, The Riverina Leader, Wagga Wagga 19th September 1984
9 William Starr, The State, Columbia S.C. June 1984
10 Carl Babcock, The Evening Post, Charleston S.C. 31st May 1984
11 J.L.L. Johnson: Post-Courier, Charleston S.C. 1984
12 The Doors, from the album L.A. Woman, 1971

Secrets Handspan Theatre mirror box with white wire and cloth figure inside

Inside the parcel, a mirrored box and inside that a tiny figure
Photograph (detail): © Ken Evans, 1983

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The People, The Performances & The Pictures


Creative team
Devised, designed & directed Nigel Triffitt
Producer Helen Rickards
Staging & image design concept realisation Ken Evans with original cast
Lighting design realisation Lorraine Wheeler with Philip Lethlean
Soundtrack compilation Nigel Triffitt
Sound engineering Adelaide Festival Centre Sound Department
Performers
Fan Lady Carmelina Di Guglielmo (1982-84); Lizz Talbot (1984-86)
Black Samurai Ian Cumming 1982/3; Winston Appleyard (1983-86)
Red Samurai Andrew Hansen; Avril McQueen (1985)
White Samurai Peter J.Wilson
The Traveller John Rogers; David Hope (1986)
Soundtrack credits
Music David Byrne & Brian Eno; Ultravox; David Byrne; Andy Partridge; Steve Hackett, Talking Heads; Human League; Yellow Magic Orchestra; Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; Vangelis Papathanisiou; Penguin Café Orchestra; Irene Pappas & Vangelis; The Residents; The Doors; Dunya Yunis; Dyara Khan; Habibora Halika; Puk
Found Voices J.G.Bennett; James Dean; Ian Breakwell; Lenny Bruce; Jory Graham; Elizabeth Kubler-Ross; Paul Jenning; Graeme Webb; Mel Oxley; Lowell Thomas; Ron Jenkins; George Martin; John Lennon; Martin Luther Ling; Peter Grimshaw; Nigel Hart
Survivors Robert B.Hudson; Liliana Hughes; Capt. R.N.Hogg; Alice Antell; Jackie Heinz; Joseph Spa
Unknown Announcers, Newsreaders, Eyewitnesses, Doctors, Reporters, Officials & Victims
Production team
Production manager/lighting operator Philip Lethlean
Stage manager/sound operator Ken Evans (1982/83); Paul Judd (1984/85); David Hope (1986)
Puppet makers Maeve Vella, Ian Cumming; Ken Evans, Laurel Frank, Philip Lethlean and original cast
Construction assistants Vincent McLellan & Paul Enion (work experience students)
Photograph: © Stephen Hall, 1983

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production, The Performances & The Pictures

Seasons
1982
17 - 20 June Showcase previews: Handspan Theatre Studio, Fitzroy
6 - 8 August Showcase previews: Handspan Theatre Studio, Fitzroy
1983
21 January – 5 February The Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre for the Australian International Puppet Festival. National Health Services Association Critics Award for Most Innovative Australian Production
25 February – 19 March The Universal Theatre, Melbourne the Melbourne Moomba Festival
15 – 25 June The Universal Theatre, Melbourne
6 – 9 July Cortile Della Rocca, Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, 1983, Spoleto, Italy
Dec 1983 Universal Theatre, Melbourne
1984
5 – 21 January Off Broadway Theatre, Festival of Sydney, NSW
14 – 16 March Ford Theatre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre, VIC
3 – 22 April Palais de Glaces, Paris, France
1 – 5 May Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre, London International Puppet Festival, UK
30 May - 3 June Garden Theatre, Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, Charleston, South Carolina, USA
13 – 15 June La Biblioteque, Quinzaine International du Theatre Quebec, Canada
13 – 22 July Theatre D, State College of New York (SUNY), Pepsico Summerfare, Purchase, New York, USA
Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust tour
27 August Mildura Arts Centre, Mildura, VIC
4 – 15 September The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, ACT
18 – 19 September The Wagga, Wagga Civic Theatre, Wagga Wagga NSW
21 – 22 September Civic Theatre, Orange NSW
24 – 24 September High School Hall, Scone NSW
27 – 29 September Civic Theatre, Newcastle, NSW
2 – 13 October Twelfth Night Theatre, Warana Festival, Brisbane, QLD
1985
16 January – 24 February Universal 2, Universal Theatre, Fitzroy, Melbourne
24 April Teatro Due Torri, Incontri a Theatre Portenza, Italy
26 April Teatro Dante, Incontroaziona ’85 Palermo, Sicily
27 - 30 April Teatro Petruzzelli, Festival Musical a Square Bari, Italy
2 - 4 May Teatro Verdi, Milano, Italy
6 - 7 May Akademie der Kunst, Pantomime Muzik Tanz Theatre, Berlin, West Germany
2 - 5 Oct Araluen Arts Centre, Breakout Festival, Alice Springs NT
1986
29t July - 2 August Music Hall, Assembly Rooms, Commonwealth Games Arts Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
9 - 15 August Music Hall, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh Fringe Festival Edinburgh Scotland, UK
2 - 6 September The Place Theater, London UK
8 - 10 September Salle Patino, Festival de la Batie, Geneva, Switzerland
12 - 13 September Palais des Congress, XXIX Festival du Jeune Theatre, Liege, Belgium
14 - 15 September Centrum de Warande, Turnhout, Belgium
17 - 18 September Centre Culturel du Hainaut, XXIX Festival du Jeune Theatre Mons, Belgium
19t - 20 September Kulhurzurkus ’86, Nurengberg, Belgium
22 - 23 September Maison de la Culture, XXIX Festival du Jeune Theatre Tournais, Belgium
Total performances 264
Total audience 46,027


Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production, The People & The Pictures



SECRETS was extensively photographed from its creative development and rehearsal in Handspan's Fitzroy studio (1982) and throughout its national and international tours (1983 - 1986).

The production's most memorable image, The Fan Lady, photographed by Stephen Hall in 1983 for the Victorian Ministry of the Arts, appeared on countless posters and marketing documents across the world.

For me it was a joy to be associated even briefly with Handspan. Secrets was a revelation for me, and even several decades and many, many theatrical experiences later, I can’t think of any production that I have found more magical and moving. Nigel Triffitt’s vision and the amazing skills of the Handspan troupe created something extraordinary there. It was difficult to photograph but we did get some great images to record it.

Stephen Hall, 2016

Other SECRETS photographers include:

Cathy Koning, Melbourne, 1982
Fiona McDougall, The Melbourne Age,1982
Ken Evans, Melbourne, 1982 & 1983
Maeve Vella, Melbourne, 1983
Stephen Hall, Melbourne, 1983
David Simmonds, Adelaide, 1983
Lanfranco Gasparri, Spoleto, 1983
Kaye Tucker, Sydney,1984
Chooi Tan, Sydney, 1984
Anna Sherbany, London 1984
William Struhs, Charleston, 1984


Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production, The People & The Performances

Secrets Handspan Theatre 1984 Palais des Glaces poster black, red and white photo of fans open around dark figure

Secrets poster, Paris1984, design: Palais des Glaces
Photograph © Stephen Hall, 1983




Mainstage: