Spare Parts Puppet Theatre has proven that when you use your imagination, everything feels more magical. Longtime Artistic Director and CEO Philip Mitchell spoke with Samuel J. Cox.

Founded by Artistic Director Peter Wilson, with writer Cathryn Robinson and designer Beverley Campbell-Jackson in 1981, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre has become Australia’s flagship puppetry company, reaching more than 60,000 people annually.

Elevated to the position in recent years as several companies lost funding and other industry stalwarts moved in new directions, Spare Parts has stood out for its commitment to strong training programs; whether its in-house initiative (the only one of its kind in Australia) or its new puppetry and visual theatre unit at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Having served in the role for 14 years since State Living Treasure and master puppeteer Noriko Nishimoto ended her tenure in 2001, Philip Mitchell carries on Spare Parts’ 35-year history with pride. Previously an Associate Director and performer with Terrapin Puppet Theatre in Tasmania, Mitchell trained as a young puppeteer in the Czech Republic (shortly after the revolution), studying at Prague’s School for Alternative Theatre and Puppetry.

“Being acknowledged as Australia’s flagship company for the art form is both flattering and an enormous responsibility. Our goal is no longer just creating excellent work, but also training the next generation of Australian puppeteers. Only a very small group of artists in Australia actually practice puppetry, and here in WA we have some of the most experienced puppeteers training others, including many performers from the Eastern states, and sending them out into the world.” Alums of the training program have gone on to work with the renowned Philippe Genty Company in France, and include Tim Watts, the highly successful and much lauded theatre-maker who is part of The Last Great Hunt.

A Western Australian company based in Fremantle, Spare Parts hosted the 20th UNIMA (Union Internationals de la Marlonette) World Puppetry Festival in April 2008. The largest event of its kind, it was only the third time the festival had been hosted outside Europe and drew international attention to the art form in Australia. “There’s a huge difference between the work coming out of Australia and that from the rest of the world,” Mitchell says. “Australia’s output has a distinct feel to it. We’re like magpies, particularly here in WA, in that we take a bit from here and there and irreverently combine them. For example, mixing Banraku [an ancient form of puppetry originating from Japan] with traditional Sicilian marionettes.”

The youthfulness of puppetry in Australia means the few companies that do exist are not tied to the hundred-year-old traditions that exist in other countries. This means the company can experiment – “bastardize things and make new, exciting forms of puppetry,” says Mitchell. “The freedom we have in Australian means we can partner digital projection with shadow puppetry, or play with the intersection of dance and puppetry.” Dancers often make skilled puppeteers because of their strong sense of timing and subtle movements. “We’ve even got a collaboration with WASO [the West Australian Symphony Orchestra] in the pipeline. Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of Animals is currently in development and we will soon have a puppetry work with a full orchestra on stage.”

Presenting a “layered program” in 2016, the company uses the “idea of puppetry as allegorical storytelling” to create family theatre able to be enjoyed by adults and children in the same space. “Using language immediately makes a work either for adults, or for children. The less language we use, the more space we have for visual storytelling and the deeper we can go into adult ideas about what it means to be human,” says Mitchell.

Beyond Associate Director Michael Barlow, who has been with the company for 25 years as a full-time writer/deviser, performer and director, and Mitchell himself, who directs and sometimes performs, the company’s full-time staff does not include puppeteers, designers or makers. Instead, the company contracts its artists from a pool of about 50 Company Associates, including well-respected theatre-makers like Humphrey Bower, St John Cowcher and Ian Sinclair.

“Our Company Associates might be composers, designers, makers, writers or devisers. We attempt to keep them actively employed through a range of different programs. We have a School of Puppetry where artists facilitate puppetry and puppet-making workshops for adults, and many of our puppet-makers are currently busy creating 21 puppets that will be used all around Australia as part of Camp Quality’s shows [the charity seeks to create a better life for children living with cancer]. Additionally, The Little Prince will embark on a three-month national tour, and Hachiko [based on a true story from Japan about a dog that waited at a train station for its master to return] will go on a 13-week regional tour of WA. This means our performers are kept employed and we can spread the love of puppetry.”

Rather than writing a story in the traditional way, Spare Parts devises work instead. Stand-in or mock-up puppets are used to develop an idea or concept, but “when the final puppet is made you can’t tell it what to do. The makers do their best to create something that fulfills the function of the dramaturg, but as they determine how a puppet will move and look, their work can inspire scenes or moments that the story evolves from. We often re-work the story around what the puppet has ended up being. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that introduces surprises you hadn’t expected,” says Mitchell.

From foam to wood to plastic, the materials used in making the company’s puppets depends upon the aesthetic or style each designer brings to the table. Company associate Jiri Zmitko “tends to work in wood, so his puppets are crafted from beautiful carved wood. Cecile Williams works in fabrics and textiles which means a lot of her puppets are very tactile. For our 2014 production of Tim Winton’s book The Deep, she created dolphins out of a clear shade cloth so that when they were lit they’d glow and shimmer. Leon Hendroff, who came to us at the age of eight to do a School of Puppetry workshop, is a graphic designer, now in his late twenties, who is a self-taught specialist in marionettes and works in the animated figure.”

Along with puppets from previous plays, their work is exhibited in the company’s foyer. There are some “very impressive Aquasapiens that were commissioned for a large-scale, outdoor performance work by the Perth International Arts Festival in 2005, which were painted by Shaun Tan – before he became famous!” Mitchell laughs. Also there, the demon Mephistopheles from the company’s first ever production, Christopher Marlowe’s Faust for the 1981 Festival of Perth, now the Perth International Arts Festival.

“There was a period, around the time Avatar was released, when I wondered how puppetry could compete with the amazing effects and animation seen in film. However I’ve since realized that we don’t have to compete, and that’s what’s beautiful about puppetry!” says Mitchell. “People become emotionally engaged in our work and they get suspended in a magic world, as only live theatre can do. We often have young people ask “is that real?!”, because the magic of theatre and puppetry is that there’s a blurring of what’s real and what’s not. That’s why I don’t feel puppetry is threatened by modern technology or cinematography, and why we here are very confident that puppetry will endure into the future. The real-life experience of suspending your disbelief for the hour you are in the theatre is unparalleled.”

“I think audiences now are searching for things that are much more visually intriguing, and that’s why there’s been a resurgence in physical theatre, circus and puppetry. This is reflected in the success of War Horse and The Lion King.” However, in a day and age when arts funding is competitive and difficult to procure, Mitchell protects the company by programming “our artistic product in tandem with business decisions. However, what I enjoy most about my role is nurturing artists and bringing in new designers. At the moment, I’m exploring immersive and interactive shows which is a really new, scary territory! We’re considering how you might emotionally immerse an audience with visual images and also have them as participants, rather than just spectators, in the storytelling. It’s an area I’ve never explored, and I’m excited to work with new designers and devisors on Shaun Tan’s surreal fantasy Rules of Summer. My job is to endlessly journey and explore an art form that has no boundaries.”

 Interview by Samuel J. Cox

The Spare Parts Puppet Theatre is located in Pioneer Park, opposite the Fremantle railway station. The company’s next show, ‘I See Red’, will run 19 & 20 May. Other upcoming productions are ‘Splat!’ (July) and ‘Nobody Owns the Moon’ (Sep/Oct).