Established as an artist collective, Handspan Theatre was initially set up by its founders to produce one show. By the time the company closed its doors, Handspan had created over 75 new Australian works.
The company toured across Australia and the world. Its work was seen on 5 continents by over 750,000 people in theatre performances, and millions more in public events and for TV viewers.
Formed to explore and extend the boundaries of puppetry performance Handspan coined the term visual theatre to explain its theatrical style, communicating ideas in ways more visual than verbal.
With animated design and imagery., productions were original and contemporary, exploring topical concepts and issues. Their style was eclectic: intimate; spectacular; multi-layered; simple; complex; big or small; many coloured or black and white. Every one was different.
Handspan's work was seen in theatres and community venues, in the street and in schools, in one-off events and in touring seasons. Many plays stayed in repertoire for years. Some appeared only briefly.
The Handspan collective embraced over 450 artists during its lifespan, as long-term ensemble members and in short-term engagements for shows and projects. Artists collaborated widely across genres and across cultures to create new and ground-breaking work. The company was a leader in its field. Its artists were skilled and experienced. All were advocates for the innovative capacity and inherent theatrical potential of live, animated visual imagery, created and performed within the span of many hands.
Based for most of its lifetime in Melbourne’s inner city suburb, Fitzroy, Handspan Theatre was an active arts organisation within the city, and across Australia’s arts community and professional arts industry for a long time.
The company was a unique and, at the same time, a classic artistic community of its era. It survived longer than many such self generated groups, sustained by the passion, vision and commitment of its founding and key artists. Like a rock 'n roll band, Handspan created hits and failures; was driven by dynamic personal partnerships and relationships, and suffered from their breakdown; it coalesced at the right time for its artists and their work was right for its time.
The close-knit network of artists that made Handspan were widely connected to, and influenced by, their contemporary national and international artistic world. The company flourished in a time of opportunity for its risk-taking ventures. Innovative and experimental performance that explored topical issues excited and engaged audiences of all ages. Artists could afford to immerse themselves in the work and to take it on the road. Financial subsidy became available to underpin their efforts. Media attention was widespread and penetrating.
After two decades, Handspan's artistic energy began to wane and its collective operation became unsustainable. At the same time as original artists diverged towards independent careers and obligations, Handspan became an institution with a formalised artistic leadership and dependence on Government grants. It was the time to take the band off the stage.
As it was influenced by its predecessors and peers, so Handspan Theatre itself influenced Australia’s performing artists and their industry. Its ricochets still echo in the hybrid performance palette of the 21st century.