Handspan Theatre's community workshop and education program.

red book cover with black text saying Handmade and a black handprint logo

HANDMADE was the term officially coined by Handspan in 1987 for its workshop outreach projects, and was the title for the company’s workshop handbook, Handmade: The Manual. The text was written by Lizz Talbot in consultation with Ken Evans and Andrew Hansen; it was illustrated with diagrams and drawing by Rob Matson and Mary Sutherland; and published by Handspan Theatre in November 1991.

Workshops in puppetry for performance, however, were a key stream of Handspan’s work from the outset.

Puppet-making – where a puppet can be anything, from an animated ‘found object’ to a fully articulated and exquisitely crafted ‘character’ - is an accessible and engaging activity in itself. Handspan workshops however, aimed to make ‘puppets with a purpose’ and workshops, even short ones, were designed to culminate always in some kind of performance showcase.

Early Handspan workshops in schools and community venues were based on the drama-in-education principles of Dorothy Heathcote1 and Peter Slade2. Their theories sought to offer students the opportunity to experiment and innovate and express themselves in performance. Puppetry is a great tool for such ambition – offering opportunities for boldness and reticence in equal part, and simple skills can be as effective as complex techniques.

Workshops were often preceded by a Handspan performance or at least a demonstration of the medium’s magic, but participants were actively discouraged from copying images or ideas. Simple techniques were explained, but puppet-making templates were anathema.

Anything can be a puppet was a motto that HANDMADE projects sought to pass on.

Handspan founders were all experienced in leading in-school workshops – it was part of the work of the Parry-Marshall Puppet Theatre where they had all trained. It was with Parry in fact that Handspan’s philosophy was galvanised. His workshops had become formulaic: there were too many replicas of demonstration puppets – 'Petunia' paper plates or Knights constructed from a cigarette packet! Puppet-making was no more than a craft activity, it missed the drama and the creative excitement. Handspan members had learnt what they didn't want to do. New and different workshop methodologies were developed as ardently and assiduously as new plays.

It was a time when Theatre Sports3 was becoming popular, when some Handspan artists were studying Le Coq4 improvisation, mime and mask; reading Grotowski5 rather than Stanislavski6; dipping into psycho-drama theory; and devouring Victorian Association of Drama-in-Education (VADIE) journals. Workshops were a chance to explore and adapt theories and ideas. The work felt vital, and Handspan projects had vitality.

Handspan was part of Australia's Community Arts movement, that had emerged in the 1970s to encompass participatory arts practice that reflected the issues and stories of its creators. Company members participated in Bread and Puppet7 spectacles at international festivals, and found colleagues at Welfare State8 in UK. Helen Rickards, as Executive Director of the company was appointed to the then Community Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1983.

Community arts precepts were cornerstones of HANDMADE:

Community Arts ... an attitude to what the function of art is: seeing the legitimacy of art practice deriving from its emergence from the community.

Jon Hawkes9: Director, Community Arts Board of the Australia Council, 1983

Projects that were generated over time and involved Handspan artist-in-residencies in schools and communities produced spectacles and activities that expressed community concepts and ideas in puppetry -based visual imagery.

Workshop leadership was demanding. Developing improvised performance and play-making while simultaneously marshalling the troops, and solving the technical difficulties inherent in the making of several different puppets, was challenging. At the same time, it was incredibly rewarding – providing an environment of creative stimulation and invention that fed Handspan artists’ own practice and the company’s professional productions.

HANDMADE: The Manual was published to provide guidelines for Handspan's workshop programs including company theory and practice of puppetry as well as skills and techniques in making and performance. It remains a comprehensive overview of company members' response to:

School and community requests for a puppet workshop with activities tailor made for each occasion, compiled as a resource for members and (with the caution that) regardless of the size of the project, success is guaranteed by a realistic consideration of what can be achieved in the given time.

HANDMADE encompassed:

  • The provision of flexible workshop programs accompanying performances which was a crucial requirement in Handspan’s school touring circuit for its early productions: Hansel and Gretel (1978), The Apple Show (1979) and sometimes The Mouth Show (1978) and The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek (1980). Mostly these activities were however, 'add-ons', and too often a limited experience – too little time and too many participants. In later years, follow-up Teachers Notes and Q & A sessions commonly accompanied school performances.

  • Sometimes early workshop programs involved longer residencies such as Rivercrafts (1978 & 1979); Back-to-Portland Celebrations and Inroads and these were highly successful and much more satisfying. Gulliver at Kealba (1979) was Handpsan's first Artist-in-Schools residency project and many others followed.

  • From 1986 – 1990 Andrew Hansen led HANDMADE’s community collaboration program. His projects The Butterfly Project (1986); Snapshot (1986); and The Tomorrowland Game (1987) were highlights of this work. Michele Spooner’s project with Mainstreet Theatre in Millicent, in regional South Australia (1989) ; and The Townsville Project (1990) led by Maeve Vella were part of the Handspan repertoire.

  • In 1991, Handspan published it's handbook for puppet-making and puppetry workshops HANDMADE - THE MANUAL. and began to offer artist workshops from its Gertrude St Studios led by company members.

HANDMADE productions had a ripple effect, and left an enduring legacy. Many former Handspan artists continue still to work as artists-in-residency and workshop leaders to pass on the skills and techniques of the powerful artform that is puppetry and theatre of image.

man and woman posed in front of puppets and US Capitol building

Helen Rickards & Ken Evans after Bread and Puppet parade, Washington, DC, USA 1980

Photographer: Unknown

(Click photos to enlarge)

craft materials and makers on the bank of a river with houseboat on the water

John Rogers at Rivercrafts 1979 workshop on the banks of the Murray

Photographer: Unknown

aerial view of massed crowd carrying puppets around a large camera

Snapshot parade finale 1986

Photograph: © Jonathan McNaughton, 1987

  1. Dorothy Heathcote
  2. Peter Slade: "An Introduction to Child Drama", Hodder and Staughton, 1974 Peter Slade
  3. Improvisational theatre form established by Keith Johnstone, Alberta, Canada, 1977
  4. L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, Paris, France
  5. Jerzy Grotowski: Towards A Poor Theatre, Simon & Schuster, NY 1970
  6. Konstantin Stanislavki: An Actor Prepares, Theatre Arts Books (1936) Faber translation
  7. Bread and Puppet Theater: founded by Peter Schumann, NY. 1963
  8. Welfare State International: founded by John Fox & Sue Gill, UK, 1968
  9. Andrew Bleby: Re-Defining the Arts: Interview with Jon Hawkes, Lowdown Vol 5 No 2 May 1983