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Let’s go on with the show!

4 April 2023

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre has found a temporary home at Claremont Showground and can’t wait to share the joy of Show Day with all who enter, writes Julie Hosking. 

It has been a trying time for Spare Parts since the State Government suddenly deemed its Fremantle theatre space unsafe last year, effectively making the beloved arts institution homeless.

While the search continues for a permanent place to perform, the company has – in true showbiz form – found a way for the show to go on. In this case, a production perfectly befitting its temporary lodgings. Show Day celebrates the mayhem, mirth and magic of the agricultural show, and is the first of two productions the team will stage over the next two school holidays in the Ellie Eaton Theatre at Claremont Showground. 

Michael Barlow is ready for the show. Photo: Manny Dado

Associate director Michael Barlow, who is also the co-creator and director of Show Day, says the support of the Royal Agricultural Society of WA (RASWA) has helped them settle into the venue, with staff dropping into rehearsals to get a taste of the puppet business. 

“Spare Parts and RASWA are different organisations in scale, but we share a purpose in offering meaningful experiences to the public, ours in puppetry, theirs in sharing the agricultural life of WA,” he says. 

“They’ve even helped us set up a new creative learning space in the pavilion next door to the theatre for audiences to enjoy before and after our show.” 

A similar welcome mat was rolled out for the team in Albany, where Show Day was developed. “It was the perfect setting to develop the work with one of WA’s best ag shows and a community that was so willing to share its stories,” Barlow says. 

A Spare Parts stalwart who joined the company as a trainee puppeteer back in 1992, Barlow also returns to the stage as a performer in Show Day and he can’t wait.  Julie Hosking asks him for a little insight into the creative process and why he thinks that shows, agricultural and theatrical, are such a source of joy. 

Julie Hosking: Tell us about the genesis of Show Day. Why did you step into this arena?
Michael Barlow: The inspiration came from being at an ag show and noticing that people of many different interests were coming together to share the thing they loved with their community, from sheep dog trials to cake baking, woodchopping to show jumping. There’s something wonderfully positive about sharing your passion and I wanted to make a performance that celebrated this feeling. Making the work in Albany was also a wonderful opportunity to work with artists and community members from that region.   

Nadia Martich makes her debut with the company in ‘Show Day’. Photo: Nic Duncan

JH: What do you mean when you say Show Day is a celebration of the joy of sharing with our community? 
MB: It’s in the name of the event – the show. We show up, we show ourselves, and we show the things we love. Something special happens when we share ourselves in that way. We don’t do it because it makes us look good; we do it for love, and although it’s nice to win it doesn’t matter if we’ve done our best. What could be better than that? 

JH: What are you hoping audiences will take away from the experience?  
MB: When we performed Show Day in Albany earlier this year, we had one audience member tell us that watching the show left her with a store of joy that lasted through the following days. We all felt proud of the work we’d done that day. I hope audiences leave feeling uplifted and with all their creative nerves alive and sparkling. The show also pays tribute to all the unseen work volunteers put into making a community event like an ag show a success. We hope some members of the audience will be inspired to join in, as helpers or as competitors, in ag shows themselves. 

JH: You’re performing as well as directing Show Day. Did you miss performing?
MB: Performing is my first love so when the chance to put myself in the show came up, I jumped at it. I performed in many of the company’s works for 15 years before stepping into my current role, and even after that I have been able to appear in some seasons. When I was working with Cecile (Williams) and Ellis (Pearson) to devise the show our combined sense of humour helped us to imagine scene after scene of puppetry and I couldn’t wait to see them on the stage. We were already performing a rough version of some scenes as we were devising the show, so it was a natural transition into rehearsals. 

JH: How do you manage the dual roles of performing and directing a puppet show? 
MB: The whole team has worked together so fluidly throughout the project – this was the only way I could hope to manage. We had a creative vision of the style of the work from the development period which helped set our course from the outset but some of the best help came from the cast during rehearsals. I could rely on the whole team for their input, or to temporarily fill in on stage so I could step out and watch. We used video at times but not as much as you might think. The ethos I’d hoped to create from the beginning of the project was of our own community in which an idea could come from any source and in which we would all hold each other up. 

JH: You also teach a puppetry unit at WAAPA. What makes a successful puppeteer? 
MB: A puppeteer should be an actor, a comic, a mover, musical, playful, disciplined, heartfelt and a bit eccentric. Some performers have an instinct for the manipulation part of the job and others can cultivate one. I look for performers who have what I call an animated sensibility, which is perhaps a fancy way to say that they’re playful and can transmit their playfulness into a puppet. It takes practice and focus to become a good puppeteer but the instinct for play is crucial. 

There are always fun and games when the show comes to town. Photo: Nic Duncan

JH: Tell us a little about your journey from trainee puppeteer to associate director? 
MB: I spent several years learning the art form from (Spare Parts founding puppetry master) Noriko Nishimoto. I have many treasured memories of working on her productions and later on some of my own when she was mentoring my development as a director. Amongst too many other things to list, I learned from those experiences that humour is a joyful and meaningful theatrical force that, when combined with heart, lets you say things that can touch and inspire a very broad audience. I’ve thought of her a lot throughout this project and wondered what her opinion of it would be.  

JH: What brings you the biggest joy when touring with Spare Parts? 
MB: I have always loved our audiences. From the moment they see you on stage, they are so willing to enjoy themselves and I want to do everything I can to live up to their generosity. When you nail a moment in a show, when everyone feels the life of a puppet miraculously come into being, when we laugh, that’s a thrill I will never get tired of. 

JH: If you had to nominate a highlight of your time with the company, what would it be? 
MB: Gary Wilson, who was the groundsman for the Albany Ag Show for 20 years, was a huge inspiration for us in making Show Day. He came to watch the performance twice and after the second time he told us that he could tell that we really saw the work he and his fellow volunteers put into the ag show. We had set out to tell a story that celebrated participation and along the way it also became about honouring the unseen work that so many volunteers, especially older people, contribute to our lives. Knowing that Gary felt we had done justice to his story, and to the stories of everyone who shared their experiences with us, was really a wonderful feeling. 

Show Day is at Ellie Eaton Theatre, Claremont Showground, 8-22 April 2023

Pictured top: Spare Parts associate director Michael Barlow performs in ‘Show Day’, which he also co-created and directs. Photo: Nic Duncan

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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