Four Little Girls

Premiere 18 March 1988
Venue Arts Theatre, Adelaide Festival of Arts, Adelaide SA

Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls Four life-size dolls against a black background

Four Little Girls Four paper figures unfold in the opening sequence, Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne 1988.
Photograph: © David Simmonds, 1988
A production that no serious theatre-goer should miss, clearly one of Handspan’s best productions, to be set beside Secrets and Cho Cho San
Leonard Radic The Age, Melbourne, 19 May 1988

FOUR LITTLE GIRLS was a major work for Handspan Theatre and earned the company critical accolades throughout Australia, in South America and in South-East Asia.

The production stayed in the company’s repertoire for over a decade: it premiered at the 1988 Adelaide Festival of Arts; and won the UNESCO Prize for the Promotion of the Arts in 1994 in Bogota, Columbia, singled out for:

Technical perfection and high poetic and imaginative quality.

UNESCO Prize for the Promotion of the Arts, 1994

It featured in the King of Thailand’s Jubilee celebrations in Bangkok in 1996; and played its final performances at the 11th Festival International de Teatro in Caracas, Venezuela in June 1997.

The Play

Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls Puppeteer walks on two pairs of stilts costumed as giant horse

Puppeteer Avril McQueen on stilts
Photograph: © David Simmonds, 1988

The text, Playscript 32 was one of two plays written by Pablo Picasso in 1948. Set in a French provincial garden with an atmosphere of magic timelessness the script has no narrative plot. It is instead a series of images and observations that explore the secret games, rituals and dreams of young children, as well as their fears about life, love, sexuality and death.

Handspan’s production, devised and directed by Ariette Taylor, was based on her own adaptation of Picasso’s published work developed through a series of workshops begun in 1980 in Adelaide, South Australia.

Well-known for her choreographic works with child performers, Ariette worked with girls under 10 exploring the ideas embedded in Picasso’s stream-of-consciousness text towards creating an initial movement-based dramatisation of the work:

I didn’t know if young girls could say the words of Picasso’s text so the workshops were mainly improvisations around being frightened and ideas of life and death.

Ariette Taylor: Interview with Helen Rickards, Melbourne 2004

Years in the making

Workshops evolved over several years and with new children and late 1985, Handspan's Executive Director, Helen Rickards saw its latest showcase, Nine Little Girls in Adelaide and excited by its possibilities for a new contemporary visual theatre production for adult audiences, initiated the partnership between Handspan and Ariette.The unique collaboration, that ensued produced by Helen's successor, Trina Parker, designed by Ken Evans with lighting by Philip Lethlean, for premiere seasons in Australia's Bicentennary Celebrations (1988) proved to be an inspired partnership that lasted a decade.

Ariette had always envisioned the work to be staged in a world rich with Picasso-eque imagery using puppetry to bring the little girls' world alive.

I knew what I wanted to see, a moving set, the paper girls, the animals, the coffins and the devils, but didn't know how to get it!

Ariette Taylor: Correspondence, February, 2016

Before she met Handspan, Ariette Taylor had tried to engage producers in Adelaide and Perth, and in Melbourne, on meeting the company, she found the collaborators she'd been seeking:

10.30 am 17 April, 1986:
I walked up the broad stairs of Handspan's studio in Gertrude St Fitzroy. As I recall, I had never seen a Handspan show and I didn't know anyone from the company. I was dead nervous. It was eerily quiet ... I called out at the door, and waited... 'Come in!'
Ken Evans and Andrew Hansen, both startlingly cool, artist-like and handsome, sat, legs-on-table, looking at me. It was a late summer's day, sun streaming in the windows, the company had just finished packing up The Haunted ...
Stuttering badly, I proposed Four Little Girls ... Ken knew the work - he had seen it performed by adult women at some time - and liked it! ...
For him, it was 'the next great show walking in'. I flew down the stairs ...'At last!'

Diary entry: Ariette Taylor, 1986

Animating the artist

FOUR LITTLE GIRLS was the first of Handspan’s productions that animated the images of a visual artist. It was not only a play written by Pablo Picasso, painter and renowned surrealist, but its design and imagery drew heavily on the artist’s work. Later Handspan productions, Viva la Vida - Frida Kahlo (1993) and Daze of Our Lives (1995), similarly drew on visual artists for their source material, the former celebrating Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo and the latter Melbourne cartoonist, Mary Leunig.

Handspan has chosen a painterly, rather than a literary approach to the play, where imagery replaces wordiness, and this works beautifully.The impression one gains is of fantastical dreamscapes, of moving Picasso canvasses, of imaginations, of fears. The production targets one’s senses.

The Melbourne Report July 1988

Ken Evans’ images were based on Ariette's adaptation of the original text and stage directions of the play but owed more to Picasso and his contemporaries' paintings than to his written word. The child actors interacted with highly stylised puppets created and manipulated by the company ensemble of black-clad puppeteers largely hidden from view by tightly directed lighting and judicious smoke screens.

I gave the piece its shape, but Handspan's extraordinary skill in black theatre and their creative problem solving was the greatest revelation to me.

Ariette Taylor: Correspondence, February, 2016

The puppet and object images worked on several levels. At times, they abstracted the four little girls themselves, representing them as cut out paper dolls and body outlines that could interact with the girl actors and move around and amongst the set pieces and scenes. They also represented Picasso’s imagined ideas of the children – brides, horses, birds and goats, boats, the sun and flowers; and the more sinister - satyrs, ghosts, coffins and demons. The puppeteers themselves occasionally appeared on stage, manipulators of the girls’ fantasy, sometimes benign, sometimes threatening. The images of the piece alluded to the work of Chagall and Cocteau as much as Picasso, at times they were compared to Boyd1 and Klee2

Four Little Girls is rivetingly beautiful and refreshingly different, being more an experience of visual art than of conventional proscenium theatre.

Samela Harris The Advertiser, Adelaide 21 March 1988

Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls Four puppet heads in a simple boat

Four Little Girls
Photograph © David Simmonds, 1988
Click photos to enlarge

Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls Demons and satyrs play a card game on a coffin

Gambling for souls: Puppeteers (Fr L): Rod Primrose, Peter J.Wilson, Andrew Hansen & Lizz Talbot
Photograph © Ken Evans, 1988

Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls cardboard cutouts of model picasso-esque painted set

Set model: Designer, Ken Evans, 1986
Photograph © Ken Evans,1986

‘Puppet’ is an inadequate description of the inanimate objects designed by Ken Evans. They are shapes and figures derived from Picasso images – abstract, cubist, suffering, compassionate, frightening.

David Britton: Images worth a 1000 words, The West Australian, 7 April 1988

Handspan's production of FOUR LITTLE GIRLS was the first (and possibly remains the only) performed by small girls as Picasso must have intended4. His little girls are anonymous; symbols of the child. He calls them First Little Girl, Second Little Girl, Third Little Girl and Fourth Little Girl. Ariette’s adaptation coalesced the play into four acts: ‘About Life’, ‘About Death’, ‘About Growing Up’ and ‘About Childhood Gone’. The girls spoke Picasso’s words including his stage directions, in fragmented and often apparently disconnected scenes. They ran, hid, jumped, and played in a world of fantastic and often frightening images. Dialogue was punctuated by the girls’ childish giggles and though its poetry was rarely in a child’s language, it was delivered with the playful enjoyment of the young for whom the words, images and situations are all a game.

It is not so much a story, but an extended moment. It is the moment when the four girls approach and stand on the edge of growing up.

Paul McGillick, Financial Review, 9 May, 1988

The music is the foundation of the drama and the recurring opening theme stresses the darkness of childhood and growing up.

Gordon Sheldon, Canberra Chronicle, 26 April 1988

The play's action was driven by Peter Crosbie's powerful, throbbing soundscape, and in adapting the original text, Ariette took phrases from the script, including its stage directions, and incorporated them into poetic dialogue that was spoken by the girls. Their refrain expressed the play’s intent: 'I don’t want to grow up ...But you have to ...' Crosbie worked outside the rehearsal room with Ariette to write the score for the play from her concepts and instructions. Ariette recalled that when he finally saw the work in rehearsal, he was horrified and begged her to abandon the project to protect his, and her, reputations! But, Ariette and Handspan remained confident, and by opening night, Crosbie was as proud of the work as everyone else.

Loud insistent music, beating to the edge of pain, makes one long for the horror to stop. And the fact that it stops on the very lip of anger, makes the drama more exciting and proves the excellent timing and theatrical ability.

Diane Beer, 'On the Fine Edge of Fear', The News, Adelaide 21st March 1988

FOUR LITTLE GIRLS was staged by child actors playing the four little girls in the animated world of their dreams and imaginings. This was an essential element for both Ariette and Handspan:

It demanded child actors – the loaded sexuality of adults would immediately dis-empower the production. I had to free myself and them from the guilt involved in talking about life and death.

Ariette Taylor: Interview with Helen Rickards, Melbourne 2004

Contrary to Picasso's text, however, the girls were not nude, an adaptation that did not go un-remarked by critics:

Handspan’s FOUR LITTLE GIRLS was heavy with the scent of innocence in its players. It was frightening and delightful, but ultimately sad that the innocence exuded by the title players could not be presented as Picasso had seen it, for fear it would not be reflected by the audience. That’s a criticism not of Handspan which had no choice but to clothe the children, but of our society which preys on innocence rather than simply observing it.

Andrew Tobin, Performing Arts News: Issue 14 May/June 1988

Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls little girl with goat and bride puppets

Four Little Girls Christina Tan (Third Little Girl) with puppeteers Avril McQueen & Rod Primrose (Goat) & Andrew Hansen (Bride)
Photographer: Unknown 1988

Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls close up of the faces of Three Little Girls laughing

Four Little Girls Fr L: Mary-Anne McCormack, (Second Little Girl), Sacha Markin, (First Little Girls) & Christina Tan (Third Little Girl)
Photograph: © David Simmonds, 1988

Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls Black clad puppeteers carry sleeping little girls

Finale, Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne, 1988
Photograph: © David Simmonds, 1988
Click photos to enlarge

A long life

Trina Parker produced FOUR LITTLE GIRLS throughout its development and first seasons and tours of the play. She secured new financial support and significant mainstream touring opportunities for the production which through its artistic success brought Handspan an extended national and international reputation .

At the same time, Trina created a production structure that both developed the company ensemble and nurtured its young guest artists. Eight little girls were cast, a nanny/teacher was hired and the rehearsal and touring commitments carefully scheduled. Production management for FOUR LITTLE GIRLS moved Handspan across a new threshold of professional practice that secured its future beyond its earlier capacity as an artist collective.

The production premiered and toured Australia in 1988 as part of Australia's Bicentenary Cultural Program earning critical accolades from the outset:

Whatever criticism may be leveled at events surrounding the Bicentenary, Canberra can be grateful for at least one momentous occasion when the Authority made it possible for Four Little Girls to be performed here.

Gordon Sheldon, Canberra Chronicle, 26 April 1988

Handspan’s catalogue of works is rich in experimentation and stylistic daring. With the tumultuous and exquisite contradictions on offer in Four Little Girls, they have enhanced their reputation still further.

Doug Anderson The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1988

In 1994 when the work was remounted to tour internationally for the first time, Leonard Radic again found it:

An enchanting piece remarkable for its images and its sheer theatricality ...rich in incident and imagination and powerful in its ability to conjure up the light and dark world of childhood.

The Age, Melbourne, 29 July,1994

The play's final tour in South America, still performed by the original Handspan ensemble again with new 'little girls' was a challenge for the company. Gunfire and cocaine fights on the streets surrounding their hotel was confronting; the serious illness of a company member; and and the looming death of a company compatriot brought sadness; and the sudden on-the-road re-casting required by these circumstances brought anxiety and nervous tension to the production's last season.

However the production remained outstanding:

It is as pertinent, as magical, as challenging now as it was in 1988, and will remain so.

Lizz Talbot, Puppeteer,1997

Four Little Girls Video excerpts from Promotional Showreel, 1993


1 Doug Anderson: Why Picasso’s play is rarely performed, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2nd May 1988
2 Director’s Note; Program Four Little Girls, Arts Theatre, Adelaide Festival of Arts 1988

Four Little Girls - Picasso's Perspective On Life Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust News, April 1988

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Four Little Girls, Adelaide Airport, March 1988 Kelly Sulikowski (Girl 3); Alex Sangster (Girl 4); Emily Wagon (Girl 4); Sacha Markin (Girl 1) Mary-Ann McCormack (Girl 2); Christina Tan (Girl 3); Danita Hansen (Girl 2); Phoebe Belcher (Girl 1)
Photographer unknown

Creative team
Writer Pablo Picasso (1948) Playscript 32
Adaptation Ariette Taylor
Director Ariette Taylor
Producer Trina Parker
Director's assistant Jim Cathcart
Designer Ken Evans
Lighting designer/operator Philip Lethlean
Composer Peter Crosbie
Sound operator/Tour manager Paul Judd
Costume designer Trish Simmons
Creative development 1986
Adelaide girls Nuala Hafner, Sarah Atkinson, Emma Matishe, Annabelle Warwick
Handspan artists Lizz Talbot, David Hope, Andrew Hansen, Peter J.Wilson, Avril McQueen
First Little Girl, The Smallest Sacha Markin/Phoebe Belcher (1988), Tara Roulston (1994-7) Sally Garrett (1996-7)
Second Little Girl, The Story Teller, Clairvoyant Mary-Anne McCormack/Danita Hansen(1988) Jeuliette Hanafie, Bree-Anna Obst (1994) Jane Harber (1996-7)
Third Little Girl, The Odd One Out, Secretive Christina Tan/Kelly Sulikowski (1988), Chloe Armstrong (1994-7)
Fourth Little Girl, The Eldest, Pre Pubescent Alexandra Sangster/Emily Wagon(1988), Katie Miscevic/Dana Gishen (1994), Chloe Armstrong (1997)
Puppeteers Andrew Hansen, Jonathan Taylor (stand-in 1997)
Avril McQueen
David Hope, Rod Primrose, (Rob Matson)
Lizz Talbot
Peter J.Wilson (Winston Appleyard)
Production team
Puppet realisation Michele Spooner
Construction & painting Philip Lethlean, Cliff Dolliver, Paul Newcombe
Production assistants Kerry McIlroy, Sue Davis, Susan Williams, David Hope
Stage managers Ruth Hardman, Mikkel Mynster
Assistant stage manager Jim Cathcart (1986), Sandy Cook (1988)
Creative development co-ordinator Carmelina Di Guglielmo
Vocal coach & Tutor Annie Wylie
Nanny Anita Triado
Graphics John Dickson

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Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls billboard Melbourne Athenaeum Theatre

Four Little Girls at the Athaneaum Theatre, Melbourne, June 1988
Photograph © Helen Rickards 1988

Handspan Theatre Four Little Girls Bangkok billboard with pictures of 4 little girls in performance

Four Little Girls billboard in Bangkok, Thailand, January 1996
Company snapshot 1996

Showcase previews
18 & 19 July 1986 Handspan Theatre Studio, Fitzroy VIC
March 1988 Arts Theatre, Adelaide Festival, Adelaide SA
The Playhouse, Oz Puppet Festival, Perth, WA
April 1988 The Canberra Theatre Centre, Canberra ACT
May 1988 The York Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney NSW
June 1988 The Randall Theatre, St Martins Youth Arts Centre, Melbourne VIC
19 June - August 1988 Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne VIC
March 1994 Teatro National, Festival Ibero Americano de Teatro, Bogota, Columbia
29 June 1994 Gedung Kesenian, Australia Today, Indonesia ’94, Jakarta, Indonesia
27 July – 6 August 1994 George Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, VIC
January 1996 International Festival of Performing Arts in the Fiftieth Anniversary Celebrations of His Majesty’s Accession to the Throne, Small Hall, Thailand Cultural Centre, Bangkok, Thailand
January 1996 Federation of Asian Cultural Promotion (Excerpts), Victorian College of Arts Drama Studio, Melbourne, VIC
June 1997 Teatro National, 11th Festival International de Teatro, Caracas, Venezuela
Total performances
90 (1988 only)
Total audience
18,640 (1988 only)

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FOUR LITTLE GIRLS was photographed by several photographers from its creative development and rehearsal at in Handspan's Fitzroy studio and the nearby Fitzroy Town Hall through formal and informal photo sessions on its touring stages.


The Gallery images are a selection from the FOUR LITTLE GIRLS photographs held in the Handspan Theatre Collection at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Any photographs held in private collections are identified.

FOUR LITTLE GIRLS Photographers in the Performing Arts Collection include:
David Simmonds
Ken Evans
Shaw Tan
Miki-nobu Komatsu
as well as unknown picture takers or company snapshots.

Individual Gallery photographs include photographer credits with photo captions unless attribution is unknown.

Video footage

Video clips have been compiled from Handspan Theatre's old VHS archive and include extracts of performance footage and promotional newsreels including all credits available.

Click link to view: GALLERY

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