The Wooden Child

Premiere 9 November, 1990, Castlemaine State Festival
Venue Castlemaine Library Hall

man at a carpenter's bench

The Wooden Child
Performer Rod Primrose

Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes, 1990

This is a haunting meditation - in wood and air, people, puppets, scultpure and light - on being a father and also on failing to be a father.

The Australian, 8 January, 1991

THE WOODEN CHILD explored the subject of boys’ relationships with their fathers and men’s emotional responses to childbirth. It was subject matter close to the lives of Handspan artists several of whom were themselves beginning to have children and experience the complicated reality and conflicting emotions of parenthood at the time this work was produced.

The work was first conceived in discussions during production of Running Up A Dress by Suzanne Spunner. produced by Home Cooking Company in 1986. Carmelina Di Guglielmo and Meredith Rogers performed the play about housewifely roles and realities, and on the sidelines, their husbands, Ken Evans and Ken Harper became inspired to plan a new work about 'men's business'. Putting in a Diff, conceptually to be staged around Ken Evans' 1960s red holden ute.

In the following years, the play evolved written by Ken Harper, during his wife's pregnancy and based on workshops with fellow, male colleagues at Handspan, Ken Evans, Peter J.Wilson and woodcraftsman, Barry Mills.

The Wooden Child arose from my curiosity about the myth and images in our culture that portray men and children... What is it that we do and think as a culture that turns our male children into men and what is the cost and benefit to us all

Ken Harper: Writer program note 1990

There is an implicit sadness in the play about aspects of being male. There is a certain sense of solitude handed down from father to son - a fear of intimacy. And a sadness about the things children learn from their fathers - obsessions with the outer world for example, war and business. The play looks at the constructive rather than the destructive side of the quality.

Ken Harper: Metro Interview: The Age, Melbourne 1990

THE WOODEN CHILD was staged in black theatre on a full stage, and set in a carpenter’s workshop.

Its plot wove three father-son narratives together. Carlo Collido’s story of Pinocchio paralleled a story of an adult making toys for his unborn child while reflecting on his own childhood relationship with his father. He became the young boy watching his father go off to business and to war - always distant. And his nurturing love illustrated the man’s potential to be both a creator and a destroyer as he carved and animated his toys.

Some critics were utterly unmoved by the production:

The characters, whether human or puppet were merely representative of character and emotionally sterile. While many of the images in the play were initially stunning, repetition rendered them ineffectual. After the initial emotional response, the images became static and retained only their symbolic meaning which became tired.

Peter Donahue, Unknown publication, Melbourne 1990

But predominantly they were impressed:

The play is masculine but delicately so: it holds up the male psyche for recognition rather than aggressive celebration. It is absorbing and richly rewarding and requires concentration and intelligence from its audience. A challenging, warm and satisfying piece.

Fiona Scott-Norman, The Sunday Herald, Melbourne 1990

Its theme is the making of a male child into a man. The images of the play are mostly those of growth, development and caring: a small child measuring himself against the awesome and imposing figure of his father, a child's hobby horse which sprouts wings and Pegasus-like acquires the power of flight, and two wonderful prancing horses, one of which breathes smoke and fire and turns into a spitfire piloted by the one-time airman grandfather. The storyline is not always clear but at its best this is a gentle and affecting piece of visual theatre.

Leonard Radic, The Age, Melbourne 13 November 1990

The stories are told with a minimum of language, focusing on the complex and suggestive symbolic images Handspan has made its own, which reach beyond narrative into an instant and deep psych recognition. This show has a quality of enthralling gentleness, an innocence which makes it an unusually moving experience. I remember in particular two scenes: one in which the puppet-child watches his father go to war and build a mock-father out of the bloodied shrapnel pieces he brings back as the only tokens of love he can give him; the other is when the carpenter puts together the beautiful toy he has made for his baby.

With a sense of enormous delicacy and a sincerity marked by doubt and pain, The Wooden Child suggests an alternative beyond the absent father so embedded in our culture as a mark of maleness: the possibility of a father giving his children an articulate love instead of inarticulate pain.

Alison Croggan, The Bulletin, 4 December, 1990

This is a dense and intriguing work: sometimes too dense. is Harper vision father as nurturer? Or is it father as sole nurturer? Does he even intend to imply the second question? Perhaps not, but he does. Ind the end The Wooden Child is disturbing, highly provocative, perhaps too obscure - but always visually astonishing.

Pamela Payne, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 January, 1991

The production too moved some audience members to send notes of affirmation about their emotional response to the work: Fan Letters to The Wooden Child (pdf) Opens in new window.

A Wooden Child
Video segments from a documentary made by the Schizophrenia Foundation which was a supporter of the production, 1990 Compiled by : Andrew Bleby

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The People & The Performances

Creative team
Writer Ken Harper
Director Douglas Horton
Designer Ken Evans
Woodwork consultant Barry Mills
Lighting designer Philip Lethlean
Music Andree Greenwell
Puppetry direction Peter J.Wilson
Costumes Wiggy Brennan
The Carpenter Rod Primrose
The Father Rodney Sharp
Puppeteer Winston Appleyard
Puppeteer Michele Spooner
Voiceovers Cliff Ellen, Richard Fitzgerald, Nigel Frayne, Ken Harper, Ian Pidd, Rod Primrose, Rodney Sharp, Julie Forsyth
Scenic painting Horse
Puppet & prop makers Rob Matson with Paul Newcombe, Philip Millar, Mary Sutherland, Horse
Set construction Barry Mills
Production & Stage Manager Jo Sapir
Sound operator Andree Greenwell
Sound engineer Nigel Frayne
Graphics John Dickson
Photographer Ponch Hawkes

black and white photo of 13 people seated on the floor for a group shot

The Wooden Child company

Fr L: Front: Rod Primrose, Douglas Horton, Unknown, Rob Matson, Winston Appleyard. Middle: Horse, Unknown, Rodney Sharp, Ken Evans. Back: Paul Newcombe, Michele Spooner, Unknown.

Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes, 1990

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production & The Performances

9 - 11 November 1990 Castlemaine Library Hall, Castlemaine State Festival, Victoria
14 Nov – 9 December 1990 Universal Theatre, Fitzroy, Victoria
4 Jan -19 January 1991 The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Festival of Sydney, NSW
Total performances 25 (1990 est); 19 (1991)
Total audience 2950 (1990 est); 1,100 (1991)

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production & The People