(12 Jan 1954 – 1 May 2017)
The exceptional puppetry of Rod Burnett was known variously in different parts of the world, which today feels a little emptier without this extraordinary man. In the UK, thousands of schoolchildren eagerly awaited regular visits from his company Storybox Theatre, with its versions of well-loved tales featuring exquisitely carved puppets and ingenious staging. Elsewhere in Europe and further afield; in South America, Canada or the Middle East, Rod was better known and beloved as one of a small group of elite Punch & Judy performers and as an inspirational teacher.
Rod Burnett was a gentleman in every sense of the word. He walked tall and spoke loudly; he couldn’t help his height and his deep resonant vocal delivery was a street performer’s gift. He was courteous and generous with his numerous talents and opinions. Many points of view were borne of dual roles as a parent and artist; if Rod seemed eternally frustrated with education, arts funding or world events, it was because he cared passionately and thought profoundly about those things.
He thought deeply too about his work as a fine artist; primarily as a sculptor and puppet-maker and secondly as a performer and puppeteer. Rod was not averse to working up a strong theory about his craft or its audiences, expounding it for some time before abandoning or modifying it. It was precisely this approach that made his work and shows so extraordinary. He would study his young audiences, their attention spans and engagement with his performances and then tweak his material accordingly. He brought exceptional control and focus to his puppetry with a precise vocal delivery to match.
Rod trained in sculpture at Falmouth College of Arts, Cornwall, where he gained a fascination with kinetic art before graduating in 1977. The landlord of one of his student digs was Punch & Judy professor Vernon Rose who introduced him to a world that would have a lasting effect on his life. He taught at Exeter College of Art in 1979 where he met Jan Bussell of Hogarth’s Puppets; another chance encounter that would cement a fascination with puppetry. Rod quickly discovered that here was the one thing in which he could utilise all of his skills and interests; sculpture, painting, folk music and storytelling. In the early 1980s he formed Storybox Theatre in Bristol and his future partner Tanya Landman would soon join the company. Together they created fifteen shows; each meticulously crafted and performed with a professionalism and clarity that would serve them well for over three decades. Rod was active in the puppetry community; he engaged in its support organisations and was a valued member of Puppet Place’s Creative Group and the Punch & Judy Fellowship.
The thoughts and condolences of the puppetry world go out to Rod’s family, especially his wife, Tanya and his five children; Sarah, Katy, Emily, Isaac and Jack. Our tribe has lost a gentle giant and a great friend but the memory of Rod Burnett’s deep, booming voice and beautiful puppetry will reverberate for many years to come.
Bristol, 3 May 2017
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What Is Puppetry?
We define puppetry as follows: Bringing Life to the Inanimate.
Puppetry is an artform that strides across boundaries and gets under your skin. It is a powerful tool for self-expression and reconciliation and a vibrant performing artform. Its origins are ancient, often enshrined in religious ritual, yet its tendrils reach into the latest robotics and AI research.
We recognise these myriad forms in our work and artist support. This means we include stop-frame animation, filmed puppetry, object manipulation as well as bunraku-style, string and rod marionette, shadow puppetry, ventriloquism, glove puppetry, automata and robotics within the puppetry family.