Puppeteer Ronnie Burkett a bit bitter old showgirl, fairy boy and outspoken housewife
Internationally acclaimed marionette artist Ronnie Burkett describes himself as a “very public hermit.” What has been called “end of the world romance” by the UCLA Center for the Art of Performance, and “beautiful and shocking mastery” by the Globe and Mail, his approach to marionette theatre is elaborate and provocative.
Discovering early on that no one was going to give him the roles he truly desired, Ronnie Burkett chose to create them for himself. Faded showgirls, rural housewives and fairy boys without wings populate his many plays. Growing up in Medicine Hat, Alberta, with a strong sense of camp, influenced by the raucous comedy of the British Carry On films, Burkett was able to develop a unique blend of the outrageous and the truly poignant, a theatrical mixture that can appear somewhat “queer.”
“I suppose to the outside eye it is incredibly queer,” says Burkett. “My mother, God bless her soul, used to say, ‘Oh your friend Bill is so queer,’ as in different. I guess I am an odd duck.”
He spends countless hours in his studio creating drawings of the puppets, building the bodies, joining limbs to a meticulously crafted cast of characters, designing costumes, and beginning to imagine the voices and personalities that will emerge when it all appears onstage.
Beginning in Calgary in the 1980s, he formed his own company and mingled professionally with the acclaimed “rabbits” of the One Yellow Rabbit performance fame. Two decades later, at 43, he moved to Toronto where, he says, he became the “go-to guy on puppet history for young puppeteers.
“I’m a puppet history junkie. I have about 140 books on puppetry. I post albums of dead puppeteers, where they came from—where I came from. I taught last year at a puppet conference with gay boys, dykey girls and trans kids. The landscape of the puppet community is all about now, all these new perspectives.”
And for Burkett, it’s always from a queer vantage point; he is comfortable among younger artists with socially relevant voices. After a string of popular musical marionette pieces, Burkett felt his career path had been laid out. Then he read about artists during the Nazi regime and everything changed.
“I was an angry young man, says Burkett. “What I mean is that I really thought I was going to be an airhead fag who liked musicals and going out dancing. I was dragged kicking and screaming into my politics.” A kind of queer angst began to emerge. The beginning of the AIDS pandemic, coinciding with Burkett’s awareness of Czech artists who were forced underground during the Nazi occupation, was a profound turning point. A mid-20th-century generation of puppeteers, more than 100 of whom were sent to the concentration camps, had created socially relevant marionette plays during very turbulent and dangerous times. Burkett’s decision to become political was an astute career move, allowing him to create complex scripts that addressed diverse social issues: Street of Blood (1998) dealt with celebrity worship, religion and AIDS. Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy (2009), and 10 Days on Earth (2006) took on aging, fundamentalism and inflatable pink genitals.
With his show titled The Daisy Theatre (at this month’s Luminato), Burkett invited several Canadian playwrights to create original scripts: Daniel MacIvor, Damien Atkins, Brad Fraser, Anusree Roy, Joan MacLeod, Amy Lee Lavoie, Karen Hines, David Yee, Chris Craddock and Morris Panych were given free reign. Burkett cast the shows from a selection of puppets he’s been creating over the past several months. Performances will also include improvisational interludes where Burkett comes onstage with beloved past characters. He will then improvise scenes around current political and social events. A new element where he invites an audience member onstage to take on various roles, from pulling strings to voicing social concerns, will add a whole new layer to his political landscape. One or two plays per night, selected from these 10 writers, will also be performed by a repertory company of new characters.
For the improv segments, Burkett is bringing three beloved characters out of retirement. He says that these characters “actually represent the three equal parts of me at this age: Esme, the campy theatrical bitter old showgirl, Schnitzel, the completely innocent little pure fairy boy and Edna Rural,” the outspoken housewife living in a farmhouse near Turnip Corners.
Burkett speaks openly of his sense of being Canadian as a complex amalgamation of the character traits he’s created for his marionettes. “I’ve said for years that Canadians will give you the shirt off your back then criticize you for not having a shirt,” says Burkett. “Sometimes I get a bit judgy, a bit up your ass. My characters allow me to reveal more of Ronnie Burkett than just me on stage telling you about my life. I love my craft. I’m a vampire; I need that group of strangers in the dark every night to feed. Every night I think I bring a lot of authenticity to them that other forms of performance wouldn’t allow.”
The Daisy Theatre is a metaphor about growing in the dark, surviving under difficult circumstances, like the Czech puppeteers. “The main hinge,” says Burkett “is improvising with characters based on what is happening currently.”
Queries from friends and colleagues over the past few years about the possible resurgence of these flowery characters inspired Burkett to pitch the idea to Luminato artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt. “When I saw Penny Plain at Factory Theatre I was totally fascinated,” says Weisbrodt. “I had never seen this kind of mixture of queer, slightly subversive, nasty, funny, romantic, raunchy, kind of theatre, all performed by one person—and all puppets. It was a great revelation. I immediately thought it would be amazing to do something with him for Luminato.
“Art is a vehicle for expressing content that you might not be able to talk about on a social or political level. That’s why art is so important. His puppets make it possible for him to bring his message across. Conversations happening in the arts are always way ahead of political discussions.”
The Daisy Theatre is a co-commission with UCLA Live, a performing arts program in Bel Air, California. Weisbrodt helped to initiate the co-sponsorship that led to a Los Angeles premiere of another of Burkett’s pieces, Penny Plain, slated for January of 2014. “It is always very important to me that what we produce and commission at Luminato is not a dead end,” says Weisbrodt. “I want to get the work we produce outside of Toronto and out into the world.”
Original scripts by various artists coupled with improvisational interludes will bring a body of work full circle, revealing even more about a queer Canadian artist who continues to be brutally honest about himself, the world around him, and his many finely strung characters.
The Daisy Theatre. $25-$35. 9:30pm-10:45pm. Fri, June 14-23. Berkeley Street Theatre (Downstairs). 26 Berkeley St. 416-368-3110. luminatofestival.com