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Lift 'Em Up Socks


Readers are advised that this article concerns and contains images of an Aboriginal Australian who has died.
HANDSPAN VISUAL THEATRE
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: Performer, Tom E. Lewis
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 which were lent to actor, Tom E. Lewis for restoration. Made by the Australian puppeteer Bill Nicol1, most of the puppets were European folk-tale characters but included were three Australian personalities made for the Jim-Vickers Puppet Pantomime2 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.


puppeteer leaning down to operate Aboriginal boy rod puppet within a stone pattern on the floor

Puppeteer: Rod Primrose




Aboriginal actor standing on chair upstage speaking to a white actor kneeling on red floorcloth beside a white stone pattern

In performance: Melbourne 2000

Photographs: © Jeff Busby, 2000



Click photos to enlarge

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 - an Olympic torch bearer in Melbourne during the show's first season - he was keen to showcase not only the social malaise in many indigenous communities through the paradigm of his own life but to explain his culture, and 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 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.

Review: Helen Thomson, 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 part 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's in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, and 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 approaches evokes thoughts and images that linger in the mind. A remarkable experience and recommended.

Tim Richards: Stage Left, Melbourne 27 April, 2001

Tom E. Lewis meeting his boyhood self (Puppeteer: Rod Primrose)

Click photos to enlarge
Melbourne, 2000

Photographs: © Jeff Busby, 2000


LIFT 'EM UP SOCKS was an innovative work that merged the company's puppetry-based visual 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.

Review: Jim McDonald, 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.

Review: Helen Thomson, 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 CINARS 3 showcase in Quebec. In 2001, the production toured 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 … He explained:

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

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 and 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.

Review: Lee Christofis The Australia, 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.

Review: review: Geoffrey Milne, 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.

Review: Helen Thomson, The Age, Melbourne, 11 April, 2000


By 2001 Handspan (by now Handspan Visual Theatre) was floundering creatively and seeking a new Artistic Director and there was little energy for or interest in refining the work particularly 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 time4.

Artists in other places were however, also merging genres and media in hybrid production styles - some perhaps influenced by Handspan's work over its decades - and visual theatre production for mainstage performance, has since become a hallmark of much 21st century work across the globe.

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

In performance: George Fairfax Theatre

Click photos to enlarge
Melbourne 2000

Photographs: © Jeff Busby, 2000



  1. Bill Nicol
  2. Jim Vickers Puppet Pantomime
  3. CINARS (Conference Internationale Des Arts de la Scène, Montreal, Canada
  4. See Handspan Company History: THE COMPANY and People

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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
Company: Fr L: Rod Primrose, Angela Pamic, Heather Monk and Tom E. Lewis
Barunga, Northern Territory, 2 August, 2001

Company snapshot


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Mainstage: