|HANDSPAN VISUAL THEATRE|
|Premiere||5 April 2000|
|Venue||George Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
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|Puppetry direction||Heather Monk|
|Lighting designer||Nick Merrylees|
|Executive producer||Fleur Parry|
|Performers||Tom E. Lewis|
|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|
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