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Puppets ignite the heart of self-operator

12 November 2021

Barbara Hostalek is won over by the vulnerability and wit of a motley crew of puppets and their young operators.

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Wonder, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre and WAAPA ·
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, 6 November 2021, 2:00pm · 

It’s a sunny afternoon in Walyalup/Fremantle, perfect weather to experience promenade theatre that weaves in and out of Spare Parts Puppet Theatre (SPPT).

This is Wonder, created as part of an annual collaboration between SPPT and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts’ (WAAPA) Performance Making third year students. What’s special about this year’s work is that it celebrates SSPT’s 40th anniversary by diving into the company’s archive of puppets. The result is a series of vignettes, devised and performed by the students under the direction of SPPT’s Associate Director Michael Barlow.

My group of 30 fellow promenaders was diverse in age and background. Together we walked from vignette to vignette, giggling, gasping and squealing with glee, punctuated by “oohs” and “aahs”, as we appreciated this highly visual form of story-telling.

This was my first visit to Spare Parts Puppet Theatre. It will not be my last.

The foyer of Spare Parts Puppet Theatre is transformed into an underwater world. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography

Wonder takes it audience on a journey through various nooks and crannies inside and outside SPPT’s home in Fremantle, transforming the theatre entrance, a staircase, a patch of grass, window frames at height and even a simple brick wall into sets that are sometimes intricate, other times sparse and spare. I enjoyed the adventure, sense of exploring, the sense of wonder that the title promises.

Given the performance took place on the land of an ancient culture and people, I would have liked to have seen a specific creation story committed to Noongar Peoples’ ways of being, doing and knowing, for all the community to celebrate.

For me, this absence is actually highlighted within the work, by one of its most innovative scenes, in which the audience stands outside the theatre and peers across a street into a scientific lab. Distance and window panes form a barrier between the action and the viewer. As an audience, our presence is mirrored back at us by the semi-reflective glass, our emotional responses captured and played at the same time. Whether a design choice or coincidence, this functions as a reminder of the value of being accountable for our actions and responsibilities. Hard to do when there is limited time, but all the better if we want to enable both new and old narratives to share time and space.

A clever scene from ‘Wonder’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography

It’s mind boggling to see how much diversity exists in the puppet world of Wonder: there are hand puppets, huge gnarly masks reminiscent of Ancient Greek tragedy, enormous-headed puppets that tower menacingly above the audience, mice puppets, rat puppets who claim to clean theatres, Czechoslovakian puppets carved out of wood, transparent plastic puppets, puppets who don’t think they are puppets, dancing full-bodied puppets, talking and silent puppets. These puppets and their humans led me to reflect on a broad range of issues; boundaries, freedom, toxicity and safety, life and death, vaccinations, love and more.

Sometimes the performers appeared effortless in their actions, sometimes invisible, sometimes so melded with their puppet it was hard to work out who to watch. Although my eyes were mainly drawn towards the puppets, I was also fascinated by the mechanisms of the puppeteer. It gave me a deep appreciation for how physically demanding their performances are.

A source of humour throughout the work is the puppets’ commentary on the distinct difference between puppets and humans (“self-operators”). Despite this, Wonder reminds us that just as puppets need people, people need puppets… their vulnerability, wit, strength, humour and empathy. I will not forget the fox’s tail of fiery fervour, the bubbling ocean, or sweet potato nose, and I must agree with the puppet who said “it was all real for me”.

This collaboration between SPPT and WAAPA made for a memorable celebration, a contribution to the sharing of stories on Noongar Boodjar.

Here’s hoping further adventures can be unleashed.

The season of Wonder has finished but check out the WAAPA website and Spare Parts Puppet Theatre website for more shows.

Pictured top: Window frames make a stage in ‘Wonder’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography

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Author —
Barbara Hostalek

Barbara Hostalek is an independent First Nations playwright proud to be living with Noongar Boodjar. She began writing plays at Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s Writers group in 2015. Her work has been produced by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company (Cracked), Black Swan Theatre Company (Unsung Heroes monologue series: Own Way) and Mudskipper Productions (Banned). Park fun play? Hands down, the sandpit.

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