05/07/2017 - 12:58

Artist in residence with Philip Mitchell

05/07/2017 - 12:58

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A career in puppetry was the furthest thing from Philip Mitchell’s mind two decades ago, when he had his sights set on making it in the music business.

Philip Mitchell says his latest project, The Arrival, comments on real-world issues. Photo: Attila Csaszar

A career in puppetry was the furthest thing from Philip Mitchell’s mind two decades ago, when he had his sights set on making it in the music business.

A violin and piano player, he started out studying for a bachelor of music degree at the University of New England in NSW, before switching to an arts degree and graduating with a passion for drama.

Determined to pursue a career in acting, Mr Mitchell completed a diploma of performance in Tasmania two years later and, after a brief stint touring Shakespeare to schools, found himself out of a job.

He was given a tip off about some work available at the Terrapin Puppet Theatre in Hobart, and although less than enthusiastic about the opportunity, auditioned anyway and got the job.

“People often think of puppetry as Kermit the Frog, marionettes, or hand puppets,” Mr Mitchell told Business News.

“But it’s not only about the puppet on stage, it’s about how you bring the whole space to life.

“Puppetry wasn’t on my radar, but as soon as I discovered the power of what its storytelling could do through allegories, I got bitten by the bug.”

During a trip to Prague just after the collapse of communist rule in Czechoslovakia in the 1990s, Mr Mitchell was exposed to puppetry’s subversive side, where a dragon played by an actor manipulated a village of marionettes.

“It was obviously an allegory of the political situations,” he said.

“I thought it was beautiful; a fable for children that also appealed to adults as a political work.”

In 2002, Mr Mitchell moved to Perth to take up his current role as artistic director at Fremantle-based Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, where the idea of using puppetry as a force to comment on real-world issues still influences much of his work.

His latest project, The Arrival, based on the picture book of the same name by award-winning Perth illustrator Shaun Tan, uses puppets and digital animation to explore the story of a migrant.

“A man leaves his home being terrorised by dragons in the sky,” Mr Mitchell said.

“He has to leave his family behind and move to a country where there are flying boats, people dressed in weird clothes and symbols he doesn’t understand.

“This work is really important with what’s going on in the world right now.”

The show opened last weekend and runs until July 15, before touring nationally. 

It’s not the first time SPPT has performed The Arrival.

In 2005, the organisation teamed up with Mr Tan for the Perth International Arts Festival to create a work called Aquasapiens to see what it was like to work alongside a book illustrator.

“Shaun Tan is a visual artist and we were looking for that visual art inspiration,” Mr Mitchell said.

“We asked what he had going in the pipeline and he told us about The Arrival.

“He sent me a draft and I thought it was perfect for puppetry because it had all these fantastical creatures.”

A year later, SPPT began to create The Arrival, before the book was even published, and in 2009 toured it across the country before venturing to France to the town of Charleville-Mezieres for the World Puppet Festival.

“Puppetry is the visual arts in performance and that’s exactly what a picture book is; it’s storytelling through visual images,” Mr Mitchell said.

“That’s where we find the greatest inspiration, finding that visual storytelling that doesn’t necessarily rely on words to tell a story.

“What’s so beautiful about The Arrival is it has this beautiful combination of puppets, performance, as well as digital animation, and because it’s non-verbal it appeals to a child and an adult at the same time.

“And while it’s a simple premise, I feel that it resonates with lots of people who arrive in new places – whether at a new school or a new country.”

Mr Mitchell said while the underlining story remained the same, the 2017 version offered a new cast as well as enhanced quality of digital projection and animation.

“Our national tour will employ artists for three months, so getting these big contracts for them keeps them alive,” he said.

“It’s pretty tricky being an artist in this day and age and I just admire all our artists that navigate that world of paying the rent as well as following their passions.”

SPPT is now working on adapting Mr Tan’s other picture book, Rules of Summer.

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