Burton Theatre of Puppets
The Burton Theatre of Puppets was established by Edna and Jim Burton in Scotland in 1950. The pair made their own puppets, wrote their own scripts, and did all the performances. They came to New Zealand in 1955 and are widely regarded as legendary pioneers of puppetry here. They are also internationally recognised for their expertise. A career highlight was representing New Zealand at the first International Puppet Festival of the Asia-Pacific area in 1979 in Tokyo, Japan.
The Burtons love of puppetry began in Scotland 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.
After the Burtons came to New Zealand, they took their puppet shows to children all over the country. Between 1962 and 1981, they visited most schools in New Zealand and performed for organisations such as the Crippled Children’s Society. ‘Billy’ the bus was also a well-known part of the entourage.
Each year, the Burtons produced a new play and made new puppets. They commonly told folk tales from countries like Hungry, Russia, Turkey, China, and Japan.
The puppets in Te Papa’s collection were made in 1974 for a show called The Samurai. The show was based on two Japanese folk tales and featured well-known Japanese characters.
The samurai character is called Long Evil One, which, in Japanese folklore, is the name given to snake-like dragons said to live at the mouths of rivers or in the sea. It is considered bad luck to call a Long Evil One a dragon or snake.
The Samurai also has a character called Kappa, who teaches healing and wrestling to humans. In Japanese folklore, however, a kappa (water sprite) is a mischievous frog-like creature often associated with malicious acts, such as drowning people and animals, and kidnapping children.
Doing it yourself
A key part of the Burtons show for school children involved teaching them how to make puppets out of junk. After the Burtons had demonstrated puppet-making, they gave a performance using the newly created puppets so that the children could see them in action. Edna also wrote a book called Just Junk! How to make puppets out of everyday items.
Reaching the masses
The Burtons did some puppet performances on TV for a children’s show written by Peter Harcourt called Sir Foosebury Ghoul and His Horse, Nightmare. It aired as Happy Haunting in 1964. In 1969, they performed with the New Zealand Opera Company. The Burtons made and manipulated puppets for the puppet opera Master Peter’s Puppet Show (El Retablo de Maese Pedro), written by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla in 1923.
Inspiring young imaginations
Shows by the Burton Theatre of Puppets were seen by thousands of New Zealand children between 1962 and 1981. The company visited about 150 schools each year, averaging 350 performances. In 1997, Edna said ‘We were always conscious that the greatest gift the puppets could bring to children was stimulation for their imagination.’