Premiere 15 March 1982
Venue Alexander Theatre, Monash University, Clayton

Handspan and Mushroom Troupe Bombora puppeteers on stage at Alexander Theatre with a fur-covered numbat creature and a seagull

Bombora: On stage, Digga, (Katy Bowman) and Stan, (Frank Italiano)
Photograph: © Cathy Konig, 1982

Bombora: to board riders, the huge, far-out unattainable wave; for the Aborigines the word describes the water beyond the farthest breaker. Handspan and Mushroom combine both these meanings.
Jill Morris: The Age, 9 March, 1982

BOMBORA was a co-production between Handspan Theatre and The Mushroom Troupe, both independent touring troupes performing for young people and community audiences based in inner metropolitan Melbourne.

An in-theatre show for young, primary age audiences, BOMBORA followed Jandy Malone and the Nine O'Clock Tiger, Handspan’s first work devised for in-theatre performance rather than versatile ‘go-anywhere’ touring. Alison Richards, Artistic Director of Mushroom proposed the partnership between the companies after seeing JANDY… at Carringbush Library in 1981, and following the success of Mushroom Troupe's own in-theatre plays, Ace (1981) and Flying Heroes, (1982).

BOMBORA was written and directed by Alison Richards and composed by Faye Bendrups from Mushroom; and produced by Helen Rickards, designed by Ken Evans with puppets made by Michele Spooner from Handspan. Both companies shared creation and costs of producing the work. Co-presenter, Phil A'vard at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University, contributed to the show’s pre-production costs and facilitated its touring circuit in outer metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria, where it played for primary school audiences and family audiences in the school holidays.

The Play

Combining puppets and actors, BOMBORA used the motif of summer holidays at the beach to create a myth about the dreamtime wave known as the Bombora.

Handspan Theatre and Mushroom Troupe Bombora: Maxie,a young girl holding up a conch shell

Maxie, (Michelle O'Grady) finds the conch.
Photograph: © Cathy Konig, 1982
Click photo to enlarge

In the play, this oldest wave in the world sleeps nine kilometres down in the sea until it is awakened by the person who possesses its blue heart. Maxie possesses the heart, but must first learn to truly see with her eyes and hear with her ears before she can unlock the secrets of the sea.

The production's narrative was told in dialogue between puppet characters, with visible manipulators, and ten-year old Maxie, played by actor, Michelle O'Grady.

An imaginary journey in a real world, BOMBORA aimed to mix odd creatures with the fantasy possibilities of the mythical wave. Alison Richards described its format as:

a modern Australian legend!

Wendy Harmer: The Melbourne Times 10 March, 1982

The story follows Maxie who turns away from her Mum, (portrayed by a pair of puppet thongs), and her Uncle Ron, (a beer-belly), when she meets new friends on the beach.

These companions, puppet characters, Stan, the rude Seagull and Digga the Dumyup, described as 'a cross between a Tasmanian Devil, a possum and all sorts of things - Australia's last undiscovered animal' help Maxie overcome her fear of the bush and the dark. They lead her quest to meet Cowfish under the sea and there, to conquer her fears of an unknown environment. Only then could she be taken into the heart of the wave: an animated parachute-silk construction that billowed, tsunami-like, over the stage to lap at the edge of the audience as the show came to an end.

Reactions and reflections

BOMORA was Handspan's first attempt to collaborate on a new play written specifically to be staged with puppetry and visual effects rather than an ensemble created work modified according to the performance possibilities and limitations of its images.

The company began work with Mushroom once the script for the play was in its final draft and although Handspan designed and built the production the company did not really engage in further collaborative development of the text or its concept.
BOMBORA's text required its key puppet characters to sustain anthropmorphised movement and dialogue rather than to colour in the text with action. The key puppets, operated by squatting manipulators moving in a Takeshi shuffle1 proved cumbersome and inflexible. The play's design, on an open stage with a blue cyclorama backdrop, effectively conjured the sparse blue landscape of an Australian beach, but its openness also limited its visible puppeteers' capacity for adventurous and magical illusion.

Both companies were inexperienced in the dynamics of collaboration, and neither were entirely satisfied by the outcomes of the experiment. The separation between Handspan's workshop in Fitzroy where the production was built, and Mushroom's rehearsal room across town in the western suburbs, was a key inhibitor to the joint development endeavour.

Reflecting on the project in 2016, Alison Richards recalled that she had expected more from the partnership. However, in her position as both writer and director she, with her long-term colleague Faye Benrups, composer and musician, were held in some awe by Handspan participants, who did not communicate their own knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of puppetry well in the partnership. When all came together for the first time to bump-in and rehearse in situ at the Alexander Theatre, missed opportunities for artistic negotiation to achieve everyone's original dreams became apparent.

Reviewer, Katherine Goode, in Adelaide understood the play's intent but found it didn't quite work:

The play shows the difficulties of collaboration. It frequently seems to be heading in two separate directions. One part is firmly grounded in Ocker humour, with jokes about dunnies and insect repellent. The other part reaches out towards the supernatural.

Katherine Goode: Review: The Advertiser, Adelaide, 1 September, 1982

Published reviews of independent theatre for young audiences were rare and the only other on record was stridently, if laughably critical. The play's language horrified Melbourne's football critic, Bob Crimeen who was chosen by The Sun as a suitable reviewer:

Some of its dialogue is offensive. No parent packing little five-year olds off to see a childrens entertainment would want to be exposed to the Australian word for an outback toilet!

Review: Bob Crimeen: Showbiz, The Sun, Melbourne, 16 March, 1982

Audiences generally giggled at the 'dunny' reference, and no letters of complaint were ever received by Handspan or Mushroom.

Although BOMBORA may have been a collaborative experiment that left its creators somewhat disappointed, it was nevertheless an interesting production which played successful seasons in metropolitan Melbourne, regional Victoria and in South Australia throughout 1982. In subsequent years, Handspan co-produced new works with several Melbourne companies building on this first experience with Mushroom.


1 Puppets were operated by squatting puppeteers controlling their adapted bunraku puppets from behind and using their knees to shuffle them along as they moved. The manupilation method had been introduced to Australian puppeteers by Master Puppeteer, Takeshi on a cultural exchange project from his company, Puk Puppet Theatre, in Japan, to the Tasmanian Puppet Theatre, in the late 1970s. Both Frank Italiano and Katy Bowman, puppeteers in BOMBORA, had been trained in the method at the Tasmanian company where they worked until its closure in 1980.

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Creative team
Writer Alison Richards
Director Alison Richards
Set Designer Ken Evans
Producer Helen Rickards
Puppet Maker Michele Spooner
Music and Sound Effects Fay Bendrups and Ash Wednesday
Maxie Michelle O’Grady
Digga the Dunyup & others Katy Bowman
Stan Seagull and others Frank Italiano
Mum, cowfish & others Jenni Fogarty
Production team
Construction and painting Philip Lethlean and Sue Rogers
Stage Manager Russell Field
Photographer Cathy Konig
Publicity Pat Woollacott

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production & The Performances

15 -20 March Alexander Theatre, Monash University, Clayton VIC
22 – 26 March Ringwood Cultural Centre, Ringwood VIC
29 March – 2 April Frankston State College Theatre, Frankston VIC
5 – 8 April Traralgon Civic Theatre, Traralgon VIC
14 – 18 April Agora Theatre, La Trobe University, Bundoora VIC
19 – 23 April Caulfield Arts Centre, Caulfield VIC
May holidays Blakiston Theatre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Geelong VIC
1 – 10 September Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide SA
Total performances unknown
Total audience unknown

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production & The People