Michael Barlow and Natalie Bell, with Kylie Bywaters and Isaac Drummond (rear) and some characters from Spare Parts Theatre. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Passing on the magic of puppetry

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s broad community appeal is clear as it heads towards its 40th year in the business, with former artists and audience members regularly returning to its shows.

Executive producer Natalie Bell told Business News the company catered for three distinct audiences – children aged five to 12, parents around 35 to 45, and grandparents in the 55 to 65 bracket.

“We have a very strong returning audience, we’re getting these intergenerational stories coming through our door every day, because (older generations) felt it was a special place for them many years ago,” she said.

Associate director Michael Barlow said the intergenerational impact was also being felt in their artists’ program.

“We had a girl come through work experience when she was 16,” he said.

“She had seen a show when she was five, and she could still sing the song from that show.

“There is this lovely experience of people looping back around the company.”

Mr Barlow has been with the company since 1992, after joining as a trainee puppeteer.

He is the writer and director of The Night Zoo, which is showing at the Fremantle theatre until October 6.

“I used to have a Jack Russell Terrier, and when I’d get home at the end of the day, we would go into the yard and he would run around,” Mr Barlow told Business News.

“Somewhere along the line we started spontaneously playing a kind of chasey game … and I wound up enjoying playing with this little animal in a way that felt very equal.”

Those experiences were the inspiration for The Night Zoo, which draws on Mr Barlow’s memories of youthful joy to tell the story of a young girl who dreams of having a pet, incorporating music, dance and an array of life-size puppets.

He said each show provided a fresh combination of art forms and themes.

Spare Parts runs a puppetry unit through the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and it was through this collaboration that Mr Barlow found Kylie Bywaters and Isaac Diamond, who perform in The Night Zoo.

“There’s a nice continuation bringing young artists into the company and providing them with employment and experience, which are really the key things,” Mr Barlow said.

“When you come out of an arts degree oftentimes you’re faced with a pretty stark reality of supporting yourself, and jobs in the arts are not that common.”

He said the organisation had strong ticket sales, helped in part by a low cost that had remained stable over the years.

Ms Bell said audiences, particularly young families, were sensitive to ticket price rises, which provided a major challenge to Spare Parts as its operational costs continued to increase.

Spare Parts achieved $1.5 million in total revenue in the year to December 2017, rating it as number 20 on the BNiQ Search Engine.

It received $943,623 in state government funding, and had operating revenue of $569,573.

16th↑Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts$2.1m
17th↑Barking Gecko Theatre$2.0m
18th↑Spare Parts Puppet Theatre$1.7m
19th↑Perth Symphony Orchestra$1.5m
20th-Awesome Arts Australia$1.5m
65 arts & cultural organisations ranked by total revenue most recent financial year

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