A PROFILE BY PENNY FRANCIS
Rod Burnett thinks of himself first as a fine-artist, a sculptor, puppetmaker and designer, and second as a performer with puppets – a true all-round puppeteer. I can’t argue with any of that, but one can also think of him as an independent, a thinker, a tall, fine-looking man with a big voice ideally suited to big halls and outdoor venues – a success story.
His thinking is about his craft and his art and he has theories about both, testing them and either adopting or discarding them. For instance, there was a time when he believed his young audiences needed his shows to slow them down, to allow them to take deep breaths, and in contrast to many other puppet shows, to hold them in suspense. The theory was a good one; the trouble came when the momentum of the show was sometimes lost in the pauses, and attention wandered. He abandoned the theory, although he is still not the kind of performer to whip up his child audiences to an artificial pitch of excitement. Recently he has been thinking about his approach to a new show, based on what he believes kids get out of a show.
From what he has noticed and seen over the last eight or ten years he has realised that a good show makes a difference to a child, and the difference is to do with the child’s engagement. If the audience is hanging on the words and the action it has ‘triggered imagination to fill in the gaps: empathy with the characters grows, and lack of empathy is a problem nowadays.’ This important element is too often missing in a kid’s development, he has observed. He is not speaking only of children, either.
Another theory is that children under four should not be taken to the theatre (I suggested that sometimes a show can be carefully tailored for the two and three year-olds but he was still dubious.)
‘Until they’re four they have no idea what they’re watching: they can’t separate fantasy from reality. The mechanism is simply not there’ he insists, speaking with hands-on experience of five offspring to back up his theory.
Tanya Landman, now a well-known writer and illustrator of children’s books, is his other half, and their house in north Devon is home to a family of five children, three grown-up girls from his first marriage and two boys aged 8 and 10 – Tanya is their mother. She has been shortlisted for some prestigious awards for children’s literature such as the Carnegie.
The company is based in Bristol and its headquarters is still there. It is a well-established business now with an enviable reputation, and has been for some years. It runs with no subsidy, since in 2002 he became increasingly hemmed-in by the demands of the regional Arts Council and vowed he would no longer be dictated to by them or anyone for his artistic choices.
Since the company was already well known in many countries as one of the pillars of British puppetry, they managed well, and now things are going better than ever. They plan for 200 performances (to be reduced to 150) in a six-month period, mostly in schools, then, having saved enough they take six months off the road to build and rehearse the next show and plan the next tour. In addition Rod Burnett is one of the cream not only of the British Punch and Judy professors but also of the international elite of puppeteers who perform with a national comic hero. Salvatore Gatto with the Italian Pulcinella is another: he and Rod are persona grata at every edition of the Titirimundi festival of Segovia. Punch is in demand abroad as much as he is here. Rod is a folk singer too, and has directed some productions by other groups such as Clydebuilt of Scotland.
Everyone knows that the life of a touring one-person puppeteer – driving, getting-in, setting-up, playing one or two shows as effects and sound manager, as narrator and puppet operator, then getting-out and maybe driving to the next town on the tour – all of it wreaks havoc on the body, especially the spine. Rod’s back, unusually long, began to feel the strain and at one time it seemed as if the trouble would get the better of his career – a career incidentally that he loves. An operation didn’t help and it took a long time to find a cure, but he has found it: he is now strengthened and pain-free and has been ever since he took up running. He says running has realigned his bones and strengthened his back muscles while giving him recreation in its truest sense. He does it for over an hour every other day.
The rest of Rod Burnett’s backstory (no pun intended) is that he trained in sculpture at the Falmouth School of Art, Cornwall, graduating in 1977. In those days the art student was on a loose and long lead and he was able to do more or less what he wanted to do; he could follow his instincts and test his theories. He created ‘happenings’, worked on kinetic machines (‘what if I take away the machine and become the machine?’), founded a band and learned how to play Punch and sing folk from his landlord who happened to be the well-known P and J man Vernon Rose.
He was invited to teach at Exeter College of Art in 1979. Here he met another couple of mad artists (one something of a genius at illustration like Tanya – but Tanya was away in the future). These were Su Eaton and Martin Bridle, also of the puppet persuasion, as talented as Rod and later on equally successful. They put together a show for adults called Cabinet of Intrigue, although according to Rod ‘we didn’t know what the hell we were doing’. I’d guess it was ahead of its time. (Another friend from this period is also a famous sculptor and puppeteer, Stephen Mottram. Interesting to note how well all four have done and that they are still friends.)
One day an Exeter student invited Rod to ‘come and meet my uncle’. The die was finally cast. The uncle turned out to live in an enchanted cottage with a White Barn and his name was Jan Bussell, just about the best-known puppeteer internationally of his day, though he was almost retired by then. The travellers’ tales of the Hogarth Puppets (Jan and Ann Hogarth’s company) and the scores of figures hanging in the Barn caused the insidious virus to take permanent hold, and Rod became a dedicated puppeteer. He left teaching in 1983 and started out from a Bristol base. He’d already had a few years’ experience by then as a professional Professor of the Punch variety in his spare time.
The Storybox repertory for children is drawn from well-known folk and fairy tales, the latest to start touring being The Three Little Pigs, and the one before that The Constant Tin Soldier. I remember a version of The Fisherman and his Wife some years ago played by both Rod and Tanya, outstanding for its fine scenography, ingenious staging and the bold carving of the puppets. Their last production for adults – presented under the alternative company name ‘Tantalus’ - was played at the 2006 Charleville festival and was called A Space Odyssey.
Tanya, besides producing four books in 2008, administrates Storybox and Tantalus, and provides artwork for posters and leaflets. Rod is of course more likely to perform solo. ‘Puppetry is my medium’ he says. ‘It’s my personal journey, and one of my reasons for being. I love it’.