A time bomb 

SPARE PARTS Puppet theatre has been forced to cancel all upcoming shows, and has pointed the finger squarely at the McGowan government. 

The theatre was condemned last Wednesday after a building inspection by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries uncovered “more problems than they could deal with” Spare Parts artistic director Phillip Mitchell said. 

Although there have been building issues for several years, Mr Mitchell said the short notice was a shock for staff and threw them into “crisis management mode”.

In 2017, water damage to the basement of the heritage building prompted the state government to build a $400,000 exo-skeleton, which cultural industries minister David Templeman said at the time would secure the theatre’s “medium to long term” future.

Mr Mitchell said the engineering fix had been “successful up until this point”, but was only expected to have a five to seven year design life. 

He said the government had neglected to act on it in the interim. 

“We have been onto them for years to do something about the venue, knowing that we were sitting on a time bomb with an eventual end,” he said.

“It’s happened a lot sooner and with a lot less warning than we thought. We thought we could plan for it but we’re not able to.” 

The lack of notice has meant Spare Parts will be unable to find an alternative venue for its upcoming summer shows Hare Brain and The Secret Garden, the latter of which was due to start rehearsal on Monday and was to be a world premiere.

Plans for a $9.5 million redevelopment of the theatre were presented to the government prior to this year’s budget being released, Mr Mitchell said. 

The plans didn’t get a look-in, but the McGowan government found $100 million for a new film studio which was initially flagged for Victoria Quay but is now up in the air.

Mr Templeman called the redevelopment plans “aspirational” and said they weren’t effectively costed. 

“Spare Parts is a very important part of our cultural landscape,” Mr Templeman said.

“I am absolutely committed to making sure their story continues.” The safety of patrons, staff and performers was of “primary concern” in making the decision to cancel the upcoming performances, he said. 

Fremantle Labor MLA Simone McGurk called the decision to close the theatre a “last resort”.

“Spare Parts is a Fremantle institution, and I too am disappointed that performances can no longer continue at its much-loved heritage home.” Ms McGurk said.

“But safety must come first.” Fremantle Society president John Dowson said the Labor government’s handling of the situation was “shocking”.

“Pioneer Park has been very poorly managed by the council, and the asset of the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre has not been well looked after by the state government,” Mr Dowson said. 

There didn’t seem to have been any long-term plans made for the building since the “very unattractive, temporary solution” of the exo-skeleton, Mr Dowson said. 

Spare Parts will continue to operate its offices out of the heritage building on Short Street, while finding a temporary home for its theatre. 

“Our intention is to stay in Fremantle,” Mr Mitchell said, estimating it will take at least three to five years for the theatre space to be repaired and deemed safe enough for performances.

While Spare Parts as a company will be able to continue, the closure of the theatre space will mean a huge loss to the many independent artists who utilise the space alongside Spare Parts. “This venue is not just used by Spare Parts,” Mr Mitchell said.

“It is a hub of activity and has a myriad of other users, which is lost on the minister and the McGowan government. We are a very rich, complex, cultural institution.”

As only 40 per cent of the company’s revenue comes from the government, without income from shows Spare Parts will struggle to fund and provide the services for which they are known throughout the arts community. 

The theatre has a partnership with WAAPA, teaching the only tertiary education unit in puppetry in the country from the Fremantle venue. 

Spare Parts also acts as a “springboard” to bring puppet shows to remote WA communities. It supports First Nations artists across the state, hosts artist residencies, and runs training programs in puppetry for people of all ages. 

“We’re bulging at the seams with activity,” Mr Mitchell said. 

The loss of the venue means the company will struggle to provide the “nourishing, joyful” experiences that have made the theatre so iconic within the Western Australian community in the 40 years it has been open, Mr Mitchell said. 

The news of the closure comes just days after Spare Parts won two awards at the Performing Arts WA Awards. 

The community support has been incredible, both locally and nationally, Mr Mitchell said. 

“We’re not going to give up, we’re resilient.

“We must get the community on board to write to Mark McGowan and David Templeman and tell them how important Spare Parts is.”

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