If 2020 had gone to plan, Nick Paine and David Morton would be landing back in Brisbane about now. In March last year, the future of Dead Puppet Society – the couple’s visual design and production company – was looking bright.

“We had an enormous amount of work with some incredibly high-profile partners,” Morton says. “It would’ve been skipping between New York, Montreal and London, all for these incredibly exciting projects. And on March 23 or something, all in the space of a day, everything was gone, cancelled.”

It’s a familiar story among arts and theatre companies laid low by the pandemic. But it seemed particularly challenging for Dead Puppet Society, which is best known for striking puppet-led productions such as The Wider Earth, Laser Beak Man and Storm Boy. Paine and Morton always had a presence in Brisbane but were otherwise internationalists, moving from Australia to the UK to the United States to South Africa and back again. Who knew when that business would return.

“We were going to hibernate the company,” Morton says. “We spoke seriously about what it would look like to just make sure our team were on the wage subsidy and hit pause.”

But Paine and Morton didn’t hibernate the company. Instead, they diversified, focusing on activations for events and public spaces, and launching a collections arm of the business that would allow fans to buy laser-cut precious metal curiosities for home display. The engine room for the reworked Dead Puppet Society would be a new open studio on Annerley Road – their first dedicated studio space in Brisbane.

Housed in a two-storey former shoe factory next door to the beautiful old Princess Theatre, the site’s landlords are Tivoli owners Steve Wilson and brothers Dave and Steve Sleswick, who announced in April that they’d purchased the 133-year-old theatre with the intention of returning it to its live-performance roots.

“The idea of an open workshop is something we’ve talked about for a very long time,” Paine says. “But it was when the Princess came up, which was around November last year, that we [knew we] wanted to be part of that precinct.”

It’s a neatly laid out space of concrete floors, turquoise walls and timber-beam ceilings. Occupying the centre of the floor are three enormous benches designed for Paine and Morton by frequent Dead Puppet collaborator Aaron Barton. In the back corner of the room is a $20,000 Thunder Laser cutting machine, which efficiently punches out the timber frames for Dead Puppet’s distinctive articulated creations (precious-metal work for collections is outsourced to Laws Laser in Geebung). Opposite, a roller door opens onto a narrow laneway between the workshop and the theatre, and acts as a dock for loading projects in or out of the space. Overlooking the laneway is an enormous mural by local artist Muchos, produced as part of the Brisbane Street Art Festival.

Perhaps most important is the gallery space out front of the workshop. Passers-by can stop in and inspect items from the collection or peer through the sliding glass doors at whatever Paine, Morton and the DPS team might be creating on any given day.

“The 15-to-20-year dream for us was … a public-facing gallery with a workshop visible behind it and a theatre attached,” Morton says. “And when we started speaking to Dave and Steve and Steve, we realised that’s what this was.

“The set-up was inspired by this shop called Village Tannery in New York’s West Village. You open the door and there’s this small showroom space, which has the different materials they’re using and their designs, and then the back wall is glass windows, and you can see the workshop and all the sewing machines and stuff.”

The long-term idea is to premiere works at the 500-seat Princess next door, so theatregoers can see the studio as they arrive or queue for shows. But the gallery will be open during the week for those who simply want to drop in.

“Exposing that artistic process to everyday passers-by is a really important part of building the culture of a city,” Paine says.

When Broadsheet visits, the Dead Puppet team is busy preparing laser-cut puppets for Echoes in the Dust, which will be performed next month just outside of Quilpie as part of the Queensland Music Trails, and Bundaberg’s Milbi Festival, which kicks off in late October. They're just two of numerous upcoming projects – the biggest of which is Ishmael, a co-production with QPAC that updates Moby Dick for the space age, with DPS puppetry and an original rock score. At the same time, the company’s working on 11 activations across Australia with a variety of arts organisations.

“We were planning to stop, and now we’ve just been through the busiest nine months of our lives,” Morton says, laughing.

It’s a familiar story for a bunch of industries in Brisbane, which at times feels like it’s bucking the pandemic to become an Australian boomtown. While the city’s arts scene has been rocked by Covid, the flipside is that a lot of Queensland artists have returned home from overseas to ride out the pandemic.

“Brisbane is doing what Hobart perhaps did, where we don’t have to be like the other major cities. We can lean really hard into the small-producer stuff,” Morton says.

“Right now, it feels like an even more exciting place to be, because a lot of those makers are still here,” Paine says. “So it will be interesting to see what happens post Covid, if everyone just goes overseas again. But ultimately, this space has made us put down roots and feel embedded here.”

Dead Puppet Society
6 Annerley Road, Woolloongabba