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

man and woman with miniature clothesline  in from 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

line drawing 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

In August/September 1985, Michele and Peter were enrolled in Phillipe Genty’s Masterclass program at the Institut de la Marionette in Charleville-Mézières, France and created the first parts of SMALLS at the Handspan studio as their stimulus project for the 9-week Masterclass residency in puppetry manipulation. The workshop program concluded at the 7th International Puppet Festival also hosted by the Institut, where segments of the work first premiered to audiences of puppetry peers and the general public. It was noted in the international puppetry journal ANIMATIONS 1985 Festival wrap up as beautifully observed manipulation.

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

After its opening in France, SMALLS was further developed by Handspan to include five acts accompanied by a live musician and performed by three puppeteers. The production opened in Australia in March 1986 at Anthill Theatre in South Melbourne, and was a success from the outset.

At the Adelaide Fringe Festival, the colourful critic, Peter Goers claimed:

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

Performer: Peter J.Wilson
Photograph: © Helen Madden1986

Positive Equals
Photograph: © Stephen Hall 1986

baby puppet cradling baby doll

Positive Equals
Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes1986

puppet reaching towards its face in the mirror

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

Heads, Hands, Who's Who (Detail)
Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes 1986

SMALLS was performed in black theatre lighting which isolated its all-white images and visible operators to make animated pictures in an open space. Its original vignettes were:

  • Smalls 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 represented imprisonment and suffering in a choreographed sequence animating a simple yet striking costume of four bamboo poles strapped to the performer's limbs.

  • Positive Equals celebrated optimism and tenderness as a puppet baby was gently bought to life and taken on the first steps of discovery.

  • Metamorphosis transformed an abstract puppet in an evolutionary journey from amoeba to man.

  • Heads Hands Who’s Who merged the puppet and the puppeteer in a nightmarish loss of identity

Critics were, almost unanimously, impressed:

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

At the 1986 Adelaide Fringe festival, SMALLS was awarded a Five Star rating.

Each segment grew out of Handspan's recent work for adult audiences and built on concepts and puppetry techniques discovered and explored by Peter and Michele with Genty in Europe. Positive Equals, used the Handspan, white, featureless Baby, designed by Ken Evans for Cho Cho San, which became an iconic image in company work from this time, appearing frequently in subsequent productions and events throughout the following decade. Extensions/Restrictions referenced Peter's recent puppetry direction of the spinfex sequences in The Haunted. His Head's Hands, Who's Who the most complex of the pieces, anticipated his later work, created at Skylark Theatre in Canberra, Wake Baby.

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.

SMALLS' optimal performance locations were well-equipped theatres but its flexibility made it tourable to school and community locations as well. In various act combinations, the work remained in Handspan's repertoire for 8 years, touring in Australia and in Asia, the first Handspan work to visit the continent.

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, and opened pathways for new members and new ideas to take shape. It seasons and tours broadened Handspan's audiences and bridged the company's mainstream and young people's theatre marketplace. It was advantaged by Handspan's reputation and resonance with the company's recent successful productions Secrets and Cho Cho San, and itself confirmed the company's unique place in Australian puppetry, that built new opportunities for its continuing future.

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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

performer snapshot - 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

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'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

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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