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Rod Burnett - 1954 - 2017

The puppetry world was shocked and saddened to hear of the news of the sudden death of Rod Burnett. Rod was a well liked and deeply respected member of our community. Tributes to Rod have been paid by his colleagues and friends around the world - a selection of these tributes can be found below.

Martin Bridle writes:
Rod was a big man in all respects. His charm was used to great effect both socially and on stage. His sudden death during the early hours of May 1 has been a shock to the hundreds of puppeteers that he met and influenced across the world, especially in Spain, and of course to his large family. And for me too, as I was closely involved with his artistic world, before either of us had thought our lives would take the direction of theatre, and also because our careers have followed weirdly parallel paths.
He joined Weymouth Grammar school after his family relocated from the Bath area and we became friends due to our shared ability in art. Together we were the best in the school and we vied for top place even then with friendly rivalry and mutual respect. Those big hands also somehow danced around the fretboard of the mandolin, and my first public outing as a musician was with Rod. We wrote and performed a Folk Opera (yes, really!) an environmentally-aware piece entitled Norman Nobody which was far too alternative for the straight-laced teaching establishment at that time. It was anarchic and funny - two consistent themes which then persisted!
We both spent a year on a scheme called Community Service Volunteers before ending up at Falmouth Art College. Rod was a natural creator of visual delights, and while he ended his course in Falmouth, I went to Exeter. We both attained first class degrees, eventually making us both the most over-qualified Punch players in the world. But Punch only entered the picture later when Rod got a job as lecturer at Exeter, and decided to put a show together purely for fun, inspired by artist Vernon Rose. I helped on the presentation and on basic routining, and tracked down the first swazzle. Around the same time Rod played music and operated sound effects for an experimental piece of mine called The Cabinet of Intrigue. Su Eaton, later to become my wife, manipulated a moveable figure that Rod had made. In retrospect we realised it was puppet theatre, but at the time the words puppet and theatre were anathema to us. We considered ourselves Fine Artists, and thought we had invented a new medium! A visit to the White Barn where Jan Bussell and Anne Hogarth had their collection of puppets from all over the world made us realise what we had stumbled into, and I guess we both decided we had to either take puppet theatre seriously or not at all. We took it seriously.
We separated geographically, and both entered a phase of performing Punch on the beach in the the summer while developing other shows for the rest of the year. It became the way we earned our livings.
Rod’s theatre work with Storybook Theatre was the most creative endeavour of his life. He developed a sparse style which appeared to be a world away from Punch and Judy, although buried deep beneath it was a knowledge gleaned from busking which was really the secret of how he held the audiences with what was a sophisticated aesthetic. At his best, the combination of his resonant voice, beautiful puppet figures, pared-down storytelling and drawn-out timing created theatrical magic. And anyone who was lucky enough to see Rod performing with Tanya Landman 20 or so years ago would have witnessed a perfect combination of performers.
To make a living and support a family with puppet shows without grant aid is hard, especially if one wishes to maintain artistic integrity, as the amount of touring and performing required is gruelling. Rod performed in excess of 250 shows a year for years in schools, theatres and international festivals. He did so professionally and consistently and along the way countless children and adults have been mesmerised and entertained. In all his shows, including Punch, his presence as the charismatic performer was key. Which is why the puppets and props which although being sculpturally interesting, are now just lifeless objects. No-one else could take them and duplicate the same atmosphere created by the one and only Rod Burnett.

Clive Chandler writes:
This week I was shocked to hear of the sudden and unexpected death of Rod Burnett. He died at home in his sleep in the early hours of Monday 1 May. He was a husband and father and our thoughts must be for Tanya, his partner of 28 years, and his children. Rod was someone who I counted as a friend and worked alongside on many occasions. He will be well known to most people who have been involved in puppetry over the past 3 decades or so. Being a little younger than him, from my point of view he has always been there with his range of wonderful shows. I looked up to him when I was starting out and have continued to do so over the years. I am very familiar with his work as Story Box Theatre in general and his role as a leading Punch and Judy performer in particular. Just talking about him as a performer only tells part of the story. Rod brought the skills of a fine artist and sculptor to his work, making and shaping all the elements of his productions. On top of that his work was always really well thought through. He always understood why he was doing what he was doing. He was not one for grants or funding. He made a living by making and selling work that people wanted to see. He had a strong reputation both at home and abroad. The reaction from around the world to his death via social media has been striking. He was admired for the quality of his work and also just as a really good human being. He inspired respect and affection in equal measure. Rod was not old. He was in his early sixties. He was not at the end of his career. He was as active and creative as ever. His passing leaves a huge hole where the delight of his work has been up until now and would have continued to be. Rod had lots of charm. find it really hard to contemplate the fact that he will never charm an audience again. He leaves a legacy of inspiration. Many of us would not be doing what we do now were it not for what we have learnt from watching him. In this country we do not tend to talk of ‘masters’ in the way that many of our international friends do, but Rod was a real master.

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