Lift 'Em Up Socks

Readers are advised that this article concerns and contains images of an Aboriginal Australian who has died.
Premiere 5 April 2000
Venue George Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre

Aboriginal actor with joyful expression holding up rod puppet Aboriginal boy

Lift 'Em Up Socks Tom E. Lewis in performance
Photograph © Jeff Busby, 2000

An ambitious attempt to bridge two cultures with considerable artistry and imagination.
Helen Thomson:The Age, Melbourne, 11 April, 2000

LIFT ‘EM UP SOCKS, Handspan’s last production, was inspired by a collection of 1950s marionettes made by Australian puppeteer Bill Nicol which were lent to actor Tom E. Lewis for restoration. Most of the marionettes were European folk-tale characters but included were three Australian personalities made for the Jim Vickers Puppet Pantomime in 1958. One, a small Aboriginal boy, piqued Lewis’ curiosity and led him to approach Handspan and to the development of the play.

Directed by the company’s Artistic Director, David Bell and designed by Mary Sutherland with Puppetry direction by Heather Monk, LIFT ‘EM UP SOCKS was collaboratively created, and performed by Tom Lewis himself with puppeteer, Rod Primrose.

Lift 'Em Up Socks handspan Theatre Rod Primrose puppeteer leaning down to operate Aboriginal boy rod puppet within a stone pattern on the floor

Puppeteer Rod Primrose
Click photos to enlarge

Lift Em Up Socks Handspan Theatre Aboriginal actor standing on chair upstage speaking to a white actor kneeling on red floorcloth beside a white stone pattern

Rod Primrose and Tom E. Lewis
Photographs © Jeff Busby, 2000

The play that emerged was a semi-autobiographical work, tracing Lewis’ life from growing up in Arnhem land to his sudden fame as a movie star, (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, 1978); from the turbulence of alcohol abuse and estrangement from his family and community, to a new journey of self-discovery and reclamation of his life and traditions. Using the events in Lewis’ life as inspiration the work explored themes of personal, cultural and racial unity.

The production was an important work for Lewis, a high-profile indigenous artist and an Olympic torch bearer in Melbourne during the show's first season, he was keen to showcase the social malaise in many indigenous communities through the paradigm of his own life and to explain his culture, its stories and their relationship to his personal background.

I am an Aboriginal man and my richness comes through my culture that I love so much ... This for me is like a modern day corroboree, when I can put all my ideas and jigsaw it together

Tom E. Lewis interview, Sarah Hudson, Melbourne Times, 12 April 2000

It is about the journey within ourselves and how we treat the rivers of our lives. I am not trying to preach to people. Sometimes you have to fall into your well and it gets darker and darker and it has to be up to you as a person to find a way to your light.

Tom E. Lewis interview. Publication unknown, Northern Territory, July 2001

The Aboriginal boy string puppet replicated by Rod Primrose as a rod puppet for the play, signified Lewis’ spirit and memory of his childhood. The play's title recalls the instructions Lewis and his mission school mates received before the inspector's visit: lift 'em up socks, boys.

Lewis performed the work with Rod Primrose who, covered in white make up and wearing a white costume, represented the multiplicity of white people, generally figures of authority, in the stories of Tom’s life.

The 'lost boy' represented by the puppet figure must discover, as did Lewis, his geneology, and this cannot be found from books but from an oral tradition and from the land itself.

Helen Thomson review, The Age, Melbourne, 11 April 2000

Rod and Tom manipulated the small Aboriginal boy puppet in turn. In Tom's hands, he re-enacted childhood memories. In Rod's, he provoked Tom to a protective nurturing or sometimes, to aggressive anger.

Primrose said of himself and the puppet that represents aspects of Lewis' personality and spirit that 'all three of us are the one character'

Tom E. Lewis interview, Joanne Brookfield, Beat Magazine, Melbourne 5 April 2000

Lewis' rage is startling ...it comes with no warning and transforms this man into a terrifying force. We sense this is not just good acting, but past frustrations coming to the surface.

Tim Richards, Stage Left, Melbourne, 27 April 2001

The work combined actors and puppets with video and projections. Drawings, writing and graffiti merged with water and rock formations to create a fusion of contemporary Aboriginal experience and Dreamtime storytelling. Videos included extracts from Tom E. Lewis' scenes in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. Music composed by George Dreyfus for the film was included in the play's soundtrack.

Natural objects are strewn about the stage. Only when Tom bends down to pick up a pebble or use a pandanus leaf as a brolga wing, do we realise the set is a giant ‘map’ of his life. Ochre, clay, water, fire, feathers, wood. Stories, glass, light and a small marionette figure come to life as a ‘dot painting’ on stage.

Promotional flyer, Brisbane Powerhouse, 2001

Lift ‘Em Up Socks is quite an exceptional piece that resembles a painting as much as theatre. Its imaginative approach evokes thoughts and images that linger in the mind. A remarkable experience and recommended.

Tim Richards, Stage Left, Melbourne, 27 April 2001

Lift Em Up Socks Handspan Theatre Puppeteer operating boy puppet conversing with Aboriginal man in dinghy. black and white

Tom E. Lewis meets his boyhood self, with puppeteer Rod Primrose, Melbourne, 2000

Lift Em Up Socks Handspan Theatre Aboriginal man sitting on floor conversing with puppet boy, black and white

Tom E. Lewis and puppeteer Rod Primrose, Melbourne, 2000

Lift 'Em Up Socks Handspan Theatre Aboriginal man and puppet boy operated by visible puppeteer in dinghy

Tom E. Lewis and puppeteer Rod Primrose, Melbourne, 2000
Photographs © Jeff Busby, 2000

LIFT 'EM UP SOCKS was an innovative work that merged the company's puppetry-based performance style with 21st century digital imagery with effective and meaningful fluidity. It addressed contemporary issues, played across all age groups and was widely tourable. It was a new Australian work with flagship potential.

A fabulous production that is able to display the harshness of contemporary Aboriginal colonised experience with beauty and humour. The sophisticated racial dialogue, which develops between Primrose's silent white figure and Lewis' various fractured Aboriginal identities, speaks volumes for a possible reconciliation between Anglo and Aboriginal Australia... a 'must see' not only for its message but also for its brilliance of theatrical form and style.

Jim McDonald review, publication details unknown.

The show, directed by David Bell, is deliberately impressionistic and its abstract visuals are important, linking words with images in suggestive, imaginative ways. Like much of Handspan’s work, it requires an active imagination on the part of the audience, for its narrative is not straightforward. In some ways it’s like learning to read a ‘dot’ painting, to understand a new symbolism that converts time, for example, into static visual symbols.

Helen Thomson review, The Age, Melbourne, 11 April 2000

Stage management reports from Northern Territory performances in the heartland of Lewis' community, and at the Powerhouse in Brisbane note that the production universally received.

Great Audience Response - audiences were obviously captivated - some standing ovations.

Angela Pamic, Stage management reports, 2001

LIFT ‘EM UP SOCKS premiered at the Arts Centre, Melbourne in 2000 and showcased later that year at the CINARS1 Canada showcase in Quebec. In 2001, the production toured the Northern Territory, played a return season in Melbourne and appeared at the Die Macht Des Staunens Festival in Vienna, Austria.

However, as director David Bell recalled, development and rehearsal of the work were fraught with ongoing personal troubles. Lewis' brother died and so did Bell’s father. There were floods in Arnhem Land which stranded Lewis miles from Melbourne during initial rehearsals.

These experiences of trying to keep afloat through adversity and finding a balance in life are the essence of the play.

David Bell interview, Suzanne Brown, The Age, Melbourne, 4 April 2000

No doubt the creation of LIFT ‘EM UP SOCKS was a complex and often disturbing venture for its creative team. Topically, the issue of white man’s destruction wrought on Australia’s indigenous peoples was, and is, one of conflicting opinion and attitude. Handspan had experienced mixed responses to THE HAUNTED, its 1988 cross-cultural work with an indigenous community, an equally complicated venture.

Critics of LIFT ‘EM UP SOCKS while universally intrigued, had reservations.

David Bell while conspired against by illness and flood seems no closer to pulling its competing elements into a coherent statement. More than that Bell seems wary of raising rage or vehemence in his production but concentrates on the damaged inner child that persecution and loss leave behind. It feels safe and old-fashioned when a gutsy through-line is need. …. What lingers in the mind is not all the theatrical intervention but the power of the individual voice. Lewis’s vocal range and presence are captivating enough but his utter absorption in the work is the best thing in this worthy but troubled show.

Lee Christofis review, The Australian, 4 April 2000

It’s very evocative and very elusive. It alludes to all sorts of things in a symbolic kind of way. Some I think is a bit obscure and it rambles a bit at times but generally, a good piece to watch.

Geoffrey Milne review, The Sunday Show 3LO, Melbourne, 9 April 2000

This may be rather challenging for those with expectations of a clear-cut narrative sequence, a beginning a middle and an end. And there are some points where the show slows down and our attention falters distractingly.

Helen Thomson review, The Age, Melbourne, 11 April 2000

By 2001 Handspan (by now renamed Handspan Visual Theatre) was floundering creatively and seeking a new Artistic Director. There was little energy for or interest in refining the work in the face of its inherent complexities and overwhelming production adversities. The play may have ushered in a new creative era for Handspan to lift 'em up socks and continue to operate under a new artistic leadership, but it was not the time2

Artists in other places were however, also merging genres and media in hybrid production styles - some perhaps influenced by Handspan's work - and visual theatre production for mainstage performance has since become a hallmark of much 21st century work across the globe. Increasingly too, indigenous artists are finding platforms and telling their own stories on the Australian stage.

Tom E. Lewis died in Katherine, Northern Territory in May 2018.

In performance, George Fairfax Theatre, Melbourne 2000
Photographs: © Jeff Busby, 2000


1 Conference Internationale Des Arts de la Scène, Montreal
2 See Handspan company history: COMPANY and PEOPLE.

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The People & The Performances

Lift 'Em Up Socks Company, from left, Rod Primrose, Angela Pamic, Heather Monk and Tom E. Lewis at Barunga, Northern Territory, 2 August 2001
Company snapshot

Creative team
Director David Bell
Puppetry direction Heather Monk
Designer Mary Sutherland
Lighting designer Nick Merrylees
Composer Unknown
Costume designer Unknown
Executive producer Fleur Parry
Performers Tom E. Lewis
Rod Primrose
Production team
Stage manager Angela Pamic
Puppet maker Rod Primrose (Aboriginal boy: replica Bill Nichol 1958 (By permission The Actors Agency, Melbourne)).
Set builders Darryl Cordell, David Hope, Nicholas von der Borch
Tour tech/ASM Murray Dempsey

Lift 'Em Up Socks

Rod Primrose with interested community members, Beswick bump-in, Northern Territory, 2001

Company snapshot

5 April - George Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne VIC (6 performances)
25 November - 1 December CINARS Showcase, Moyse Hall, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec
10 – 14 July Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane (1 preview & 6 performances)
21 July - 26 July Northern Territory Tour: Jabiru; Oenpelli/Gunbalayna; Manangrida;(3 performances & 1 workshop)
28 & 29 July Brown's Mart, Darwin Festival Fringe, Northern Territory (3 performances)
2 - 3 August Northern Territory Tour: Barunga Town Hall; Daly River (2 performances)
2 – 7 November David Williamson Theatre, Prahran, Victoria
12 – 14 November Dietheatre Kunstlerhaus, Die Macht Des Staunens Festival, Vienna, Austria (3 performances)
Total performances 25 performances
Total audience 310 (NT tour only)

Scroll back to Click Tab: The Production