The Wooden Child

Premiere 9 November, 1990, Castlemaine State Festival
Venue Castlemaine Library Hall

The Wooden Child Handspan Theatre man at a carpenter's bench, wooden puppet peeping out of open drawer

The Wooden Child: Rod Primrose as the Carpenter
Photograph © Ponch Hawkes, 1990

This is a haunting meditation - in wood and air, people, puppets, sculpture and light - on being a father and also on failing to be a father.
The Australian, 8 January, 1991

Handspan Theatre The Wooden Child black and white with red accent, photo of wooden puppet with line-drawing of human hand in protective gesture

The Wooden Child poster, 1990

THE WOODEN CHILD explored the subject of boys’ relationships with their fathers and men’s emotional responses to childbirth. It was subject matter close to the lives of Handspan artists several of whom were themselves beginning to have children and experience the complicated reality and conflicting emotions of parenthood at the time this work was produced.

The work was first conceived in discussions during production of Running Up A Dress by Suzanne Spunner. produced by Home Cooking Company in 1986. Carmelina Di Guglielmo and Meredith Rogers performed the play about housewifely roles and realities, and on the sidelines, their husbands, Ken Evans and Ken Harper became inspired to plan a new work about 'men's business'. Putting in a Diff, conceptually in it first plan, to be staged around Ken Evans' 1960s red holden ute.

In the following years, the play evolved, written by Ken Harper during his wife's pregnancy and based on workshops with male colleagues at Handspan, Ken Evans, Rod Primrose and Peter J.Wilson, with woodcraftsman, Barry Mills.

The Wooden Child arose from my curiosity about the myth and images in our culture that portray men and children... What is it that we do and think as a culture that turns our male children into men and what is the cost and benefit to us all

Ken Harper, program note 1990

There is an implicit sadness in the play about aspects of being male. There is a certain sense of solitude handed down from father to son - a fear of intimacy. And a sadness about the things children learn from their fathers - obsessions with the outer world for example, war and business. The play looks at the constructive rather than the destructive side of the quality.

Ken Harper: Metro interview, The Age, Melbourne 1990

The Play

The Wooden Child Handspan Theatre carpenter's workshop with benches, tools and floor covered with wood-shavings

Set designed by Ken Evans
Photograph © Ken Evans, 1990

THE WOODEN CHILD was staged in black theatre on a full stage, and set in a carpenter’s workshop.

Its plot wove three father-son narratives together. Carlo Collodi's story of Pinocchio paralleled a story of an adult making toys for his unborn child while reflecting on his own childhood relationship with his father. The carved wooden puppet became the young boy watching his father go off to business and to war - always distant. The carpenter's nurturing love

The carpenter, played by Rod Primrose carved wooden characters and toys with a nuturing love that illustrated his potential to be both a creator and a destroyer as they became animated by him and around him.

Handspan Theatre The Wooden Child carpenter planes wood while wooden puppet, a modified artist's mannequin, floats in set window

Rod Primrose and puppet in performance
Photograph © Ponch Hawkes, 1990
Click photos to enlarge

The Wooden Child Handspan Theatre horse head puppet

The Horse Puppet, made by Rob Matson
,Photograph © Rob Matson, 1990

The Wooden Child Handspan Theatre carved steam locomotive replica of the Mallard

The Steam Locomotive, modelled on the Mallard 1 made by Rob Matson
Photograph © Rob Matson, 1990

Critical accolades

Predominantly critics were impressed:

The play is masculine but delicately so: it holds up the male psyche for recognition rather than aggressive celebration. It is absorbing and richly rewarding and requires concentration and intelligence from its audience. A challenging, warm and satisfying piece.

Fiona Scott-Norman, The Sunday Herald, Melbourne 1990

Its theme is the making of a male child into a man. The images of the play are mostly those of growth, development and caring: a small child measuring himself against the awesome and imposing figure of his father, a child's hobby horse which sprouts wings and Pegasus-like acquires the power of flight, and two wonderful prancing horses, one of which breathes smoke and fire and turns into a spitfire piloted by the one-time airman grandfather. The storyline is not always clear but at its best this is a gentle and affecting piece of visual theatre.

Leonard Radic, The Age, Melbourne 13 November 1990

The stories are told with a minimum of language, focusing on the complex and suggestive symbolic images Handspan has made its own, which reach beyond narrative into an instant and deep psych recognition. This show has a quality of enthralling gentleness, an innocence which makes it an unusually moving experience. I remember in particular two scenes: one in which the puppet-child watches his father go to war and build a mock-father out of the bloodied shrapnel pieces he brings back as the only tokens of love he can give him; the other is when the carpenter puts together the beautiful toy he has made for his baby.

With a sense of enormous delicacy and a sincerity marked by doubt and pain, The Wooden Child suggests an alternative beyond the absent father so embedded in our culture as a mark of maleness: the possibility of a father giving his children an articulate love instead of inarticulate pain.

Alison Croggan, The Bulletin, 4 December, 1990

This is a dense and intriguing work: sometimes too dense. is Harper vision father as nurturer? Or is it father as sole nurturer? Does he even intend to imply the second question? Perhaps not, but he does. Ind the end The Wooden Child is disturbing, highly provocative, perhaps too obscure - but always visually astonishing.

Pamela Payne, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 January, 1991

The production moved some audience members to send notes of affirmation about their emotional response to the work. Two are reproduced in this document: Fan Letters to The Wooden Child (pdf)

One Melbourne writer only, didn't agree:

The characters, whether human or puppet were merely representative of character and emotionally sterile. While many of the images in the play were initially stunning, repetition rendered them ineffectual. After the initial emotional response, the images became static and retained only their symbolic meaning which became tired.

Peter Donahue, publication unknown, Melbourne 1990

Project sponsorship

THE WOODEN CHILD production team included workshop assistant Kevin Berton, supported by the Schizophrenia Fellowship of Victoria's Work Rehabiliation Program. and a video of his successful experience working in Handspan's Gertrude St Studio to build the work was produced to support Vichealth's campaign message for 1990 - Schizophrenia - a treatable illness:

A Wooden Child Segments from An Anchor into Life: 1990 documentary produced by Eugene Schlusser for Seven S productions and distributed by the Schizophrenia Foundation.
Extracts compiled by Andrew Bleby 2016

1 "The real Mallard one broke the rail speed record in 1938 at 126mph. It was streamlined, futuristic, and it was the coolest looking thing on god’s earth! So when the Kens wanted a model steam train to cross the set downstage during the show it was a complete no-brainer: It had to be the ‘Mallard’! In the show, it was pulling a flat wagon that had a carved wooden mannequin on it (you don’t see that in the photo)": Rob Matson Email: 25 September, 2020

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The People & The Performances

The Wooden Child Company, from left, front: Rod Primrose, Douglas Horton, Unknown, Rob Matson, Winston Appleyard. Middle: Horse, Unknown, Rodney Sharp and Ken Evans. Back: Paul Newcombe, Michele Spooner, Unknown
Photograph: © Ponch Hawkes, 1990

Creative team
Writer Ken Harper
Director Douglas Horton
Designer Ken Evans
Music Andree Greenwell
Lighting designer Philip Lethlean
Puppetry direction Peter J.Wilson
The Carpenter Rod Primrose
The Father Rodney Sharp
Puppeteer Winston Appleyard
Puppeteer Michele Spooner
Voiceovers Cliff Ellen, Richard Fitzgerald, Nigel Frayne, Ken Harper, Ian Pidd, Rod Primrose, Rodney Sharp, Julie Forsyth
Production team
Puppet & prop makers Rob Matson with Paul Newcombe, Philip Millar, Mary Sutherland, Horse
Set construction Barry Mills
Scenic painting Horse
Costumes Wiggy Brennan
Workshop assistant Kevin Berton
Production & Stage Manager Jo Sapir
Sound operator Andree Greenwell
Sound engineer Nigel Frayne
Graphics John Dickson
Photographer Ponch Hawkes

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production & The Performances

9 - 11 November 1990 Castlemaine Library Hall, Castlemaine State Festival, Victoria
14 Nov – 9 December 1990 Universal Theatre, Fitzroy, Victoria
4 Jan -19 January 1991 The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Festival of Sydney, NSW
Total performances 25 (1990 est); 19 (1991)
Total audience 2950 (1990 est); 1,100 (1991)

The Wooden Child Handspan Theatre actor sitting, wooden puppet on lap looking at camera

Rod Primrose and puppet on rehearsal break
Company snap, 1990

Scroll back to Click Tabs: The Production & The People