|Co-production|| HANDSPAN THEATRE with GREG TEMPLE
and MILDURA ARTS CENTRE
|Project dates||August 1978 and 23 July – 12 August 1979|
|Venue||Murray River, Mildura, Victoria|
RIVERCRAFTS was the brainchild of Gwen Stainton, Community Arts Officer from the Mildura Arts Centre, and Greg Temple, an American puppeteer living in Adelaide, South Australia. Gwen had long been keen to use Mildura's iconic location on the river in arts projects as she explained:
The three-week long project was conducted from a houseboat on the Murray River which accommodated the team, Greg, Ken and Helen, and young local artist, Linda Stainton, and was their workshop base, moving up and downstream from Mildura to Wentworth and Renmark. Daily workshops were held with primary school students on the riverbanks of small towns en route.
The project proved to be a stimulating and successful partnership between all involved. Greg introduced Handspan, as well as the students, to his simple and effective foam carving techniques for puppet construction, and Ken and Helen added new dimensions to his workshops creating dramatic improvised performances and visually integrated processional imagery with participants. The river, its flora and fauna, local characters and issues appeared in stories and innovative processional tableaux from enthusiastic students and teachers, expressing their world with extraordinary objects.
Part of the Arts Victoria '78 (Crafts) Festival, the first RIVERCRAFTS project took the theme River Life and invited students to represent their local environment and issues in images and stories.
RIVERCRAFTS '78 travelled the Murray from Mildura to Renmark in one direction and Wentworth in the other stopping for workshop days with communities in between on both banks of the river, Gol Gol, Dareton and Wentworth in New South Wales; and Karadoc, Red Cliffs and Merbein in Victoria.
The event culminated in a public festival: a procession through the streets followed by a showcase of students' puppet plays on the Mildura Rowing Club Lawns. In a grand finale, a flotilla of rafts made by each school and peopled by their puppets, was launched. The rafts were borne upstream by the flagship houseboat, as a large balloon, dangling model cut-outs of the Rivercrafts team, led an 'all school' balloon release.
Riverboats travel slowly and in winter, the daylight hours short and chilly so the venture had some discomforts - often involving sandbars and mud in the river - but it was a rare experience with exciting outcomes. All involved were keen to repeat and enhance the project in the following year
The second year of the project was again collaboratively led by Greg, Linda, Ken and Helen joined by John Rogers. It added a rainbow theme to the project – schools devised their imagery and storylines created around a theme of ''Multi-nations" - each group restricted to one colour of the spectrum in their imagery.
Each group again created both short puppet performances, and collectively each school built large processional images to represent their local icons for inclusion in the final day street parade. The parade, devised by Ken and Helen (Rivercraft Parade Plan 1979.), stretched a town block in a rainbow ribbon. It was led by Greg’s early experiment with air-filled images: a giant multi-coloured gnome. As in 1978, the Mildura Lawn riverbank became a performers’ circle where all exchanged showcase presentations of their work after the procession.
In 1979, participating schools and communities were closer to Mildura along the Riverbank and included Mildura Technical School, Christie Centre Special School, Dareton Primary, Buronga Primary, Gol Gol Public, Sunnycliffs Primary, Colignan Primary and Koorlong Primary Schools. The crew had another pair of hands on board to lead the daily riverbank puppetry and performance workshops.
Muddy feet and cold river water nothwithstanding, in the two years, six weeks of winter outdoor workshops and presentations beside the river were never rained out!
Participation in RIVERCRAFTS was a significant influence in Handspan’s artistic development confirming the fledgling collective’s belief in the power and impact of animated visual imagery on the streets; its accessibility as a tool in drama and play-making with students and communities; and the creative excitement of one-off community performance.