Premiere September 1985
Venue Institut Internationale de la Marionette, 7th International Puppet Festival, Charleville-Mézières, France

SMALLS, Handspan Theatre a man and woman with miniature clothesline in front of larger version with hanging articles making the word smalls

Smalls Opening sequence: Performers Peter J.Wilson & Michele Spooner
Photograph: © Helen Madden 1986

Here the art of puppetry is at its best, using artifice to see more deeply into the real.
Helen Thomson, The Australian, June,1986

SMALLS Handspan Theatre flyer line drawing of handprints pegged to clothesline
Flyer, 1986

SMALLS was a series of five vignettes originally developed and performed by Michele Spooner and Peter J.Wilson. The work was devised to explore object animation and manipulation and the relationship between puppeteer and puppet. Each act was an independent cameo: a surreal and emotional, animated scene presented in images. Scenes used puppetry, mask and black theatre techniques and tightly choreographed movement to create poignant observations on the human spirit.

SMALLS followed the image-focused performance style of Handspan's work with Nigel Triffitt's, Secrets (1982), but was presented in short unrelated sequences rather than a full-length cohesive play. It was the first major company production to focus on puppetry technique and execution itself rather than using puppets and objects to deliver a dramatised concept.

There is a vestige of animism in everyone, which allowed us to endow puppets with life and to appreciate what their actions could say about life

Michele Spooner interview: Margaretta Pos, The Mercury, Hobart, 14 June, 1986

Pure puppetry

SMALLS was performed in black theatre lighting which isolated its all-white images and visible operators to make animated pictures in an open space. The work was made for adult audiences and featured puppetry techniques discovered and explored by Peter and Michele during an extended masterclass workshop program in Puppetry Manipulation.

Its original vignettes were:

SMALLS Handspan Theatre baby puppet cradling baby doll
Positive Equals
Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes 1986
Click photos to enlarge

  • Smalls: A whimsical sequence which titled the show in visual jokes and puns, as the two performers hung their washing on two clothes lines, one a miniature version of the other.

  • Extensions/Restrictions: A solo choreographed dance movement animating a simple yet striking costume of four bamboo poles strapped to the performer's limbs, representing imprisonment and suffering.

  • Positive Equals: White clad performers gently brought a puppet baby to life encouraging it from a womb-like box to take its first steps of discovery, celebrating optimism, tenderness and nurture.

  • Metamorphosis: An abstract puppet, operated in a curtain of light struggled and transformed in an evolutionary journey from amoeba to man.

  • Heads Hands Who’s Who: The most complex of the pieces merged the puppet and the puppeteer in illusions that portrayed a nightmarish loss of identity.

SMALLS puppeteers dressed in white with baby puppet

Positive Equals Performers: Michele Spooner & Peter J.Wilson
Photograph: © Stephen Hall 1986

SMALLS Handspan Theatre a man in light with cross bamboo sticks

Extensions/Restrictions Performer: Peter J.Wilson
Photograph: © Helen Madden,1986

SMALLS Handspan Theatre puppet reaching towards its face in the mirror

Heads, Hands, Who's Who: Performer: Peter J.Wilson
Photograph: © Stephen Hall 1986

Focused manipulation

In August/September 1985, Michele and Peter enrolled in a 9-week Masterclass program in puppetry manipulation at the Institut International de la Marionette in Charleville-Mézières, France led by Philippe Genty. SMALLS initial segments were conceptualised and developed at the Handspan studio in Fitzroy as a stimulus project for the class. Meanwhile, the rest of the company researched and rehearsed a new Mainstage play, The Haunted for the forthcoming Melbourne Next Wave Festival.

Much of SMALLS imagery grew out of Handspan's previous works. It was stylistically influenced by Secrets. Positive Equals used the white, featureless Baby designed by Ken Evans and made by Michelle Spooner for Cho Cho San. The Baby became an iconic image in other Handspan works from this time, appearing frequently in subsequent events and workshops throughout the following decade and the inspiration for the popular television character, EC (Every Child) from Lift Off (ABC TV: 1992 - 1995). Extensions/Restrictions referenced Peter's recent puppetry direction of the spinIfex sequences in The Haunted.

Peter and Michelle's workshop program experience developed and honed the work concentrating on disciplined manipulation and gestural performance technique. Segments of SMALLS premiered to audiences of puppetry peers at the 7th International Puppet Festival also hosted by the Charleville-Mézières Institut, where it was noted in the international puppetry journal as:

Beautifully observed manipulation.

Review: Festival Wrap Up, Animations Magazine, 1985

SMALLS Handspan Theatre puppet squat against black background
Heads, Hands, Who's Who (Detail)
Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes 1986

Through this masterclass training program, Genty and his philosophies became a major influence in Peter and Michele's work and its directions. Peter sought opportunities outside Handspan to work with puppetry practitioners across Australia to develop new manipulation techniques and his skills in their direction. His Head's Hands, Who's Who piece in SMALLS in particular anticipated his later work, created at Skylark Theatre in Canberra, Wake Baby.

Michele created new vignette works with the company for the next decade including Moments and Women Alone which extended the performance and ensemble skills of company members as well as Handspan's repertoire.

Success and longevity

After its opening in France, SMALLS was further developed with other Handspan artists to include five acts accompanied by a live musician and performed by three puppeteers. The show's optimal performance locations were well-equipped theatres but its flexibility made it tourable to school and community locations as well. In various act combinations. SMALLS remained in the company's repertoire for 8 years, touring in Australia and in Asia, the first Handspan work to visit the continent.

At the 1986 Adelaide Fringe Festival, SMALLS was awarded a Five Star rating - the colourful critic, Peter Goers claimed that:

You could go years and not see better puppetry. Smalls is touched by genius and is a magical mystery tour de force

Peter Goers, The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, 6 March, 1986

In Melbourne at Anthill Theatre in Napier St. South Melbourne, the season sold out despite despite uneven reviews:

By the end of the brief program we have been taken from the frivolous and comic to the serious and thoughtful, through a range of emotions encompassing the extremes of love, hate and horror, as well as flippant gaiety

Helen Thomson, The Australian, June,1986

If yours is a thirst for enchantment in dream state, then you may well sip at the well of Handspan

John Larkin, Sunday Press, 1 June,1986

As a whole Smalls is a cleverly executed, if rather obvious, play on the dialectic of actor and instrument which is rescued from its pretentiousness only by its humour except when it enters the realm of twee.

Humphrey Bower, Melbourne Times, 4 June,1986

After its initial seasons in Australia in 1986, SMALLS amalgamated Michele's new vignettes Moments into its program and it became a 2-hour performance with interval. Segments from Women Alone were added in the 1990s for SMALLS tours to China and Japan.

The creation of SMALLS signaled a new era for Handspan. Its development loosened the bonds of the early Handspan membership and the company's united artistic collaboration. At the same time it opened pathways for new members and opportunities for new ideas to take shape. It seasons and tours broadened Handspan's audiences and reached both the company's mainstream and young people's theatre marketplace. It was advantaged by Handspan's reputation and its resonance with the company's recent successful productions Secrets and Cho Cho San, and itself confirmed the company's commitment to pushing the boundaries of the puppetry artform.

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performer snapshot - Smalls company Handspan Theatre 4 men and a woman's head in circle

Smalls Company, 1986 Fr. L: Peter J.Wilson, Unknown, Gavan Dunn, Michele Spooner & Andrew Hansen
Company snapshot: 1986

Puppeteers Michele Spooner, Peter J.Wilson, Andrew Hansen and musician, Gavan Dunn have combined to present a superb, mesmeric fantasy filled with awe - they create pure theatrical 'legerdemain'.

Peter Goers, The Advertiser, Adelaide, SA, 6 March, 1986

Click photo to enlarge

Creative team
Devised, designed & directed Michele Spooner and Peter J.Wilson
Assistant director Frank Italiano
Lighting designer Philip Lethlean
Composer Gavin Dunn
Production team
Sets & puppet construction Michele Spooner
Stage Manager (International touring) Paul Judd

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August Showcase Handspan Theatre Studio
September Institut Internationale de la Marionnette, 7th International Puppet Festival, Charleville-Mézières France.
October – December Melbourne metropolitan Secondary schools touring
Victoria’s 150th Celebrations, closing ceremony
Arts Education Program, Victorian Arts Centre
Community Events in Melbourne and Alice Springs, NT
29 January – 2 February The Rocks Theatre, Sailor’s Home Theatre, Sydney NSW
3 - 16 March The Red Shed, Adelaide Fringe Festival.
27 May - 8 June Anthill Theatre, Napier Street South Melbourne (Extended season)
July Wangaratta
31 October – 2 November The Theatre Royal, Castlemaine Festival VIC
12 -14 November VAPAC (Victorian Association of Performing Arts Centres) tour, Warrnambool, Ararat, Portland
2 - 21 December Athenaeum 11, Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne.
City Square, Melbourne for Fantastic Entertainment in Public Places (FEIPP) Program.
7 - 8 March Main Stage, Melbourne Moomba Festival
Schools, community and festival appearances
23 January Bi-Centennial Children’s Fair, Alexandra Gardens, Melbourne
Sister City Arts Festival, Tianjin, China
Celebrate Australia tour to Fukuoka, Yokohama, Kawagashi & Tokyo, Japan (for Spiral, Japan)
Total Performances 125 (1985 & 1986 only)
Total Audiences 13,304 (1985 & 1986 only)

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