|Premiere||30 April, 1983|
|Venue||The Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, Come Out Festival|
STREETWISE was created by the Handspan ensemble in early 1983, following the company’s successful premiere season of Secrets in Adelaide at the 1983 International Puppet Festival. There the company had received accolades for its work and gained confidence in its ability to develop an entirely original piece for its young audiences.
STREETWISE returned to the puppetry roots of the company’s discipline, and its central staging was a remarkable booth that could be set up as a self-contained rotating black theatre space around which actors and bunraku-style puppets performed. The production was a new, issue-based touring work for Handspan’s primary school market place that could not only be presented in theatrical venues, but could take visual theatre into classrooms and alternative spaces with its magic and illusion intact.
The play was envisaged by the ensemble to stage a child’s imaginings of walking in the streets of his inner city neighbourhood. His excitements and fears were staged as a journey from his high-rise home to the local corner shop – a brave quest to achieve his goal despite fantasy encounters en route – that left him ‘streetwise’.
The work addressed ‘stranger-awareness’ as a relevant and important issue for children, but as its marketing material emphasised:
With a small Australia Council Grant, playwright John Lonie was commissioned to write the first draft script for the work. The first of Handspan’s many complex collaborations with writers, John’s draft proved densely dialogue-based and over-complicated and thus inappropriate for the live animated visual production proposed. In later Handspan ventures with commissioned writers continuing script development became part of the production process in the ongoing tussle to create drama with images and little spoken text. But in this case, Handspan abandoned Lonie’s final draft. Graciously, Lonie accepted that his play didn’t fulfil the expectations of Handspan’s brief and left the project. Ultimately however, his draft did stimulate the shape of its final version, if not directly.
Peter Charlton, equally experienced in writing issue-based theatre for the young, subsequently joined the creative team as dramaturg. The play that finally evolved was a collaborative piece, directed by Helen Rickards, researched by the ensemble with local primary school students and driven by its image storyboard and workshopped improvisation. The complex staging was under-rehearsed for its opening Come Out Festival season:
Later that year it was evident that this had happened:
STREETWISE began with a small two-dimensional central character Sam seeing the world from the window of his high-rise flat. The miniature scene transformed and Sam, now a 60 centimetre high puppet figure, set off to walk to the shop by himself for the first time. To quell his anxieties, he became his fantasy superhero, ‘Starfighter Sam’, his trip punctuated by adventurous imagined escapades – escaping from the bear under the cracks in the pavement; struggling with the zebra crossing’s red man and saved by the green; and running from a tramp into a spooky alleyway of looming graffiti.
Ken Evans design was based on the streetscape of Fitzroy that surrounded the Handspan studio, and stylistically on childrens’ drawings. At each quarter turn of the revolving booth a new scene of Sam’s journey was revealed and scale and perspective changed – dramatic scenes of imagery occurred inside the set using light-controlled black theatre spaces and a range of puppet and object manipulation styles.
Puppets Sam and his mate, Raff, were designed and made by Laurel Frank to be realistic and accessible figures for young audiences as well as having maximum versatility in their manipulation. a modified bunraku technique. Operated by visible manipulators, the characters were designed to be lifelike children in their interactions with actor characters, as well as work effectively within the confines of the puppetry sequences within the booth. Sam’s mother, the shop keeper and George, a grubby old bloke on the street were played by actors.
Sam’s apprehensions came to life in animated representations of the street: two- dimensional red and green traffic walking signals glowed in the darkness; headlights bore down, dragon-like; scary graffiti and clanking rubbish-bins were operated by pulleys and strings, and under the footpath a toy theatre scene came to life when Sam - now a 2-dimensional cut-out - slid away from a swaying crowd of tall legs, down through the cracks in the pavement..
The soundscape for the play was devised in the rehearsal room by percussion musician, Stephen Kent, from Circus Oz. Recorded sound from Fitzroy corners and intersections were interspersed with eerie percussive instrumentation and ghostly whispers that added suspense to the visual illusions that dramatised Sam’s experiences.
Popular with the contemporary community awareness Stranger-Danger and Safety House campaigns, Handspan was joined by local police personnel for seasons in Adelaide and Geelong, in 1983. Squad members not only ran Q & A sessions in conjunction with performances, but took part in the on-stage action.
STREETWISE toured as a companion piece to Secrets to the London International Puppet Festival in 1984; and engaged for further performances at the subsequent Scottish Puppet Festival in Edinburgh - not only an under-publicised and under-attended event, but, it was revealed when Handspan’s fee was due, a completely impecunious one.
STREETWISE, while built to be tourable, was a complicated set up. Its set and props broke down into sections that jammed into and on top of Handspan’s newly-acquired Hi-ace van to travel surrounding its cast of four who also wielded its relatively heavy equipment into place and bumped it out. It could be set up anywhere that was a level playing space crucial for its revolve mechanism, but the chipboard-on-grass platform in the Elder Park Tent for its initial Come Out season called for revolves to be executed by a turn and ‘lift the whole thing’ process, and the stage in Edinburgh for its final tour proved to have a rake towards the stalls that called for ‘hanging on tight’ and the attachment of additional brakes to stabilise the turns.
For a performing ensemble with increasing opportunities to work in mainstage venues for adult audiences, STREETWISE was hard work and theatre for young people with its exhaustive touring began to lose its appeal. As the complex and delicately interlocking equipment began to need extensive refurbishment, new projects burgeoned and the production went out of repertoire in mid 1984 – its leading puppet, Sam Starfighter, however, remained a key demonstration character in Handspan workshops for years to come, and the Streets icecream logo, displayed on the Handspan van in gratitude for the company’s first (small) sponsorship donation for one of its tours remained immovably stuck for the lifetime of the vehicle.
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|Devised by||Peter Charlton and Helen Rickards with the Handspan ensemble|
|Researched with||Grade 5/6W (1983) Fitzroy Primary School|
|Assistant director||Peter Charlton (1983); Mic Carter (1984)|
|Lighting design||Philip Lethlean|
|Soundscape composer||Stephen Kent assisted by Winston Appleyard|
|Puppet design (Sam & Raff)||Laurel Frank|
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|18 – 21 April||Preview: Handspan Theatre Studio, Fitzroy|
|Come Out Festival tour, South Australia|
|23 - 29 April||Murraylands schools tour|
|30 April||The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre|
|May||Riverlands, Yorke Peninsula & Port Pirie schools tour|
|16 - 20 May||The Tent, Elder Park, Come Out Festival, Adelaide.|
|May, August, November||Melbourne metropolitan schools|
|31 August – 3 September||Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Geelong, Victoria with Victoria Police|
|September||Melbourne Town Hall|
|6 October||CEMA Arts Centre, Portland|
|17 - 22 October||Theatre 62, Adelaide, South Australia with SA Crime Prevention Squad|
|24 – 30 October||Children’s Week, Victoria Tour|
|Wangaratta, Myrtleford,, Geelong Performing Arts Centre with Geelong Community Policing Squad|
|March||Alexander Gardens, Melbourne Moomba Festival|
|May||Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre, International Puppet Festival, London|
|7 - 12 May||The Playhouse, Scottish International. Puppet Festival, Edinburgh.|
|Total performances||13 (1984 only)|
|Total audience||1500 (1984 only)|
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