Photograph of Penny Bernand

Article by Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, 30 November 2001.

Penny Bernand

The inspirational Penny Bernand; artist, director and founder of Theatre-Rites died in 2001, leaving behind a wonderful legacy. She continues to inspire every aspect of our work.

Lyn Gardner's obituary in the Guardian, was a perfect tribute to this remarkable woman.

The theatre-maker Penny Bernand, who has died of cancer aged 55, was a practical visionary who smashed all preconceptions about performance for children, and created an extraordinary body of work that fired the imagination and touched the hearts of young people and adults alike.  Central to her philosophy was the importance of ritual in our lives, and the way theatre can provide it.

Not for nothing was the groundbreaking company she founded in 1995 called Theatre-Rites.  During that decade, it was at the forefront of a revolution that took theatre out of buildings and into found spaces; since then, it has transformed the face of children’s theatre in Britain.

The work of Theatre-Rites was as innovative as any of the installation work being done by Deborah Warner or Robert Wilson, or the object animation theatre of Improbable Theatre.  If it was less celebrated, that was only because it took place in children’s theatre – a field still disgracefully undervalued and critically ignored.

The gentle, intensely private and self-effacing Bernand understood something that children instinctively know and most adults forget: that the world is an astonishing, scary and magical place.

Born in Kensington, west London, to a non-theatrical family, who subsequently left the capital, she excelled at both acting and art at Northfield school, Watford.  But after school, she trained as a secretary and went to work for a firm of architects.

She always referred to herself as “a very late starter”, and it was not until the mid-1970s that she went on to the Byam Shaw school of art, then in Fulham.  On leaving, she devoted herself to raising her two children, Clara and Jake, but gradually began designing for the children’s theatre company, Theatre of Thelema, that was subsequently to become Quicksilver Theatre, based in Islington.

In 1982, with her children growing older, she and Mike Dalton founded Pop-Up Theatre, a project that was to develop from Holloway into one of the leading children’s theatre companies of the 1980s.  But by the early 1990s, Bernand was keen to face new challenges, and was eager to develop a new kind of theatre for young people that encompassed performance, installation, animated objects and puppetry, and was grounded in a genuine desire to discover through play.

Via Pop-Up, she met the puppeteer Sue Buckmaster, with whom she co-founded Theatre-Rites.  The company’s first production, Houseworks, for the 1996 London International Festival of Theatre’s Out of LIFT season, immediately passed into theatrical legend.  The location was an empty house in Brixton, in the process of being renovated by a housing association.  Greeted at the door by a puppet called Ernie, parties of under-fives and their carers were taken on a tour of the building that allowed children to touch, feel and respond to their environment.

Behind the door of each room was a magical, mysterious, self-contained world.  One room was dark and full of stars, like a miniature planetarium with a confetti of tiny lights winking on the floor.  In another, there were forests of string, rainbows and birdcalls.  A bathroom was transformed into an ocean in the living room, the furniture was upside down and hanging from the ceiling.

The whole experience embraced Einstein’s suggestion that “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.”  Children and adults couldn’t get enough of Houseworks, although a lack of funding made it difficult for Theatre-Rites to fulfil the many requests to stage the piece elsewhere.

It took two years to stage their next piece, The Lost And Moated Land, inspired by Robert Graves’ poem ‘Through Nightmare’.  Less startling than Houseworks, largely because it took place in a theatre space, it was none the less exceptional because it was created with all the expertise of adults, but sprang from the imaginative world of the three-year-old, who knows that when she puts a hanky over her head, it transforms her instantly into the Snow Queen or a dashing pirate.

Over the following years, Bernand continued to make work, despite the recurrence and spread of the breast cancer that had originally been diagnosed in 1991, and which was to eventually kill her.  The beautifully haunting show Sleep Tight, produced last year, was as much a meditation on death as it was a theatrical bedtime lullaby, and the extraordinary 1999 Cellarworks project was an intimate and unspoken ritualised sharing of love and loss between Bernand, her company and a group of eight- and nine-year-olds at a London primary school.

Bernand knew that she was dying and, generous to the end, her final legacy was to ensure that Theatre-Rites will be able to continue, albeit without her, in its commitment to taking children and adults on magical, adventurous and inspiring journeys into the imagination.

She is survived by Clara and Jake.

Penny Bernand, theatre-maker, born January 27 1946 died November 20 2001.