Drawing upon influences in visual arts, choreography, ensemble theatre, film-making, academic and education research Handspan was created to explore alternative forms of puppetry to add to the booth, shadow puppet or marionette shows that were prevalent in Australia at the time.
Major Handspan works would often utilise multimedia and readily filled conventional stages or more unusual site-specific spaces in their presentation. Other works offered a more intimate audience experience and were scaled to suit venues as diverse as shop front windows or a local swimming pool.
Handspan shows and those of many of their '80's contemporaries (refer: Twyla Tharp & David Byrne Songs from the Catherine-wheel; Robert Wilson - Einstein on the Beach & La Claca - Miro) led to the creation of a theatre format label: Visual Theatre - i.e. performance where visual spectacle (accompanied by silence or soundscapes) shared eminence with - and sometimes replaced - voiced text.
The collective format was perhaps a strong element of the company's success as artistic and business roles were often rotated amongst (though not exclusive to) the membership allowing for diverse professional development and load-sharing as part of the company's day-to-day business from the outset. Other well known Melbourne arts collectives at that time were the Theatre-in-Education ensemble Magic Mushroom Mime Troupe and Circus Oz.
The company went on to incorporate around its collective model gathering a board of directors, festival and corporate sponsorship, substantial government funding and many more members over the next 25 years - either as ongoing core members or as contributing participants to the production process at any given time. An annual 'dreaming meeting' would serve as both a group-devised business plan and creative agenda for the next year.
A multi-level office studio space was found and developed (in the old 'Vardar Studios' a former photographic studio at 108 Gertrude St Fitzroy) and Handspan was able to add to their own performance commitments by fostering other artists work as shows in rehearsal, exhibitions, or as a 'build-to-order' collaboration. Handspan moved their studio and offices to larger premises in Richmond then finally to join other major Arts entities in South Melbourne in the eminent Southgate Arts Precinct.
Many Handspan members developed substantial business, creative and technical professional skills and in time added their own careers as significant individuals to the Australian artscape.
Handspan's merits abound beyond Australian shores, earning several awards from touring the world stage. Possibly their most germane accolade was awarded at the 1983 Spoleto Festival, Italy for the astonishing multimedia work Secrets conceived by and devised with Nigel Triffit. The founder of the Spoleto Festivals, composer Giancarlo Menotti, was reported to be so taken with the work he was moved to visit Melbourne and went on to establish a 3rd Spoleto Festival there (now renamed the Melbourne Festival) - the 2nd Spoleto Festival being held in Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
Notable Handspan Theatre productions included:
- Live theatre:
- Madam Butterfly
- 4 Little Girls
- Viva La Vida
Books and articles
- Vella, Maeve; Helen Rickards (1989). Theatre of the Impossible: puppet theatre in Australia. Roseville, N.S.W: Craftsman's House. ISBN 0-947131-21-3.