A wonderful group of puppets, made and used by the Burton Theatre of Puppets, are about to go on display in the Inspiration Station Discovery Centre at Te Papa. From the 5th October a new generation of children are set to be inspired by puppets used in a show called ‘The Samurai’.
The Burton Theatre of Puppets consisted of Edna and Jim Burton who made all their own puppets, wrote their own scripts and did all the performances. They are regarded as legendary pioneers of puppetry inNew Zealand and were also internationally recognised for their expertise. A highlight in their career was representing New Zealand at the first International Puppet Festival of the Asia-Pacific area in Tokyo in 1979. They also did some performances for TV, in the theatre and, in 1969, they performed with the New Zealand Opera Company.
The Burtons love of puppetry began with two marionettes. Jim carved them and Edna made the costumes, an arrangement that continued for the rest of their life as puppeteers. In 1950 these two marionettes featured in a show at a local youth club in Glasgow, Scotland.
Entertaining Kiwi kids
The Burtons came to New Zealand in 1955 and performed their puppet shows for groups of children such as the ‘Cripple Children’s Society’ and in schools all over the country between 1962 and 1981. ‘Billy’ the bus was also a well-known part of the entourage.
Each year the Burtons produced a new play and made new puppets, commonly telling folk tales from countries like Hungary, Russia, Turkey, China and Japan. The ones going on display in Inspiration Station were made in 1974 for a show called The Samurai.
The show was based on two Japanese folk tales and has well-known Japanese characters such as the ‘Long Evil One’ who is a snake-like dragon that lives at the mouths of rivers or in the sea, and ‘Kappa’ (water sprite) a mischievous frog-like creature who, in this show, teaches healing and wrestling to humans.
A key part of the Burtons show for school children was to teach them how to make puppets out of junk. Demonstrations always ended with a performance so that the children could see the puppets in action. Edna also wrote a book called Just Junk! How to make puppets out of everyday items.
Do you remember the Burtons or their shows?
Shows by the Burton Theatre of Puppets were seen by thousands of New Zealand children between 1962 and 1981. In a published interview with Rose Beauchamp in 1997 Edna Burton said ‘We were always conscious that the greatest gift the puppets could bring to children was stimulation for their imagination’.
It would be wonderful to hear from anyone that remembers the ‘Burton Theatre of Puppets’, ‘Billy’ the bus, or any of the shows. If you have a story to tell email Lynettet@tepapa.govt.nz
By Lynette Townsend, Curator History