CMA Stories

Get to Know Tom Burnett, Director of stART Studio

Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?

My interests and experiences are fairly eclectic by nature, so I would describe myself as a person who pursues living creatively by following my impulse for balance and growth in all areas my life. More specifically, the tools I use in this pursuit encompass playing and creating music, both solo and with other musicians, collaborating on theatrical projects as a director and as a performer, doing yoga (the hot kind), swimming (the wet kind), maintaining friendships and creative collaborators, being entertained and entertaining, and being a teaching artist.

Tell us a little bit about your background – where are you from and how did you get to where you are now, living in New York City?

Born in Philadelphia, my family moved often between the ages of 0-11, from Philadelphia, to Harrisburg, to Pittsburgh, and from 6th grade through high school we lived in London, England. An amazing time as I look back on it now. I came back to Philadelphia for college at Temple University in Theater and Communications, studying Acting, Directing and Music and then moved to NYC, my father’s and grandfather’s hometown, on my 22nd birthday, September 15th 1979 (ok, now you can do the math).

Since then I have been surfing the waves that is a creative life in NYC. Along the way (mid 80s) I discovered I really enjoyed working with children, sharing creative activities, and using the skills I had as a way to not only survive, but to balance the somewhat inconsistent lifestyle of being an artist in this, or any city, in any century. I’ve supported myself through my art and teaching, having worked with all age groups from toddlers to teens, and having presented work in theaters, festivals, and venues from rock clubs to rock quarries. I landed at CMA in 1998 settling in with the under 5 crowd and have built it into a thriving program over the years while continuing my creative work.

What’s your best childhood memory?

When I was 8 we had the biggest backyard in the neighborhood and all the kids would come there to play baseball. I was the first one to hit a ball over the fence which measured at a whooping 149 feet. I can still see it dropping just beyond the bushes. When I was 4, I had a big box of hats, all kinds. Wouldn’t go anywhere without one.

What’s the most fun performance you have been involved in?

In the 90s I was part of a band called COOCOOHANDLER, not only high energy music, but heavy on presentational content with an absurd, dadaist, sensibility we dubbed Post-Freudian-Jazz-Punk Cabaret. Among our many performances, one at Webster Hall sticks out as a particularly raucous event headlining the opening party of the very first NYC Fringe Theatre Festival. In 2000 this morphed into a show with a puppet group called the Elementals. The resulting show was Uncle Jimmy’s Dirty Basement which we presented over 150 times, earning a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times review saying “the songs ‘Cheese Hockey’ and ‘Robot Love’ could join Spinal Tap’s ‘Big Bottom’ as among the most bombastically silly tunes ever written. The band,COOCOOHANDLER, which includes a rubbernecked bassist who looks like Ziggy Stardust’s nerdy brother and a smoothie keyboardist straight out of Las Vegas, [that’s me] makes the P-Funk All-Stars look conservative.” Fun times!

What artists or performers inspire you? Where else do you get inspiration?

Too many to mention in one sitting but I’ll start with a stream of consciousness of early influences. Ready…go. Bowie, Dylan, Zappa, Monk, Lou Reed, Hendrix, Keith Jarret, Peter Brooke, Dali, Magritte, Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Seuss, Captain Kangeroo…especially when he dropped all those ping pong balls from the ceiling. BB King.

What’s your favorite part about living in New York City?

The constant energy and the ability to jump in or ignore it.

Not having or needing a drivers license. Cars are my least favorite form of transportation (I last drove one in 1984).

Where are some of your favorite places to go?

Central Park, Coney Island, anywhere on a bike.

What is your favorite part about teaching stART?

Those moments when a little light comes on in a small child when they’ve become excited about something for the first time or make a breakthrough and discover something they hadn’t done before. Happens every day.

Ok, and we have to ask – what’s your favorite color?

My favorite color is the one I’m looking at right now.

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