Ronnie Burkett discovered puppets at the age of 7, by 14 he was touring his own shows and today, he is an internationally renowned puppeteer and provocateur. His work markedly increased adult audiences, validating the art form as legitimate theatre, long before the advent of such “prop” puppet blockbusters as Lion King and War Horse. He’s played in most major Canadian theatres, breaking a few box office records along the way, and has won almost every award in the biz, including an Emmy, the Siminovitch Prize, an Obie Award, and multiple Stirling, Chalmers, Betty Mitchell and Dora Mavor Moore Awards.
What was it about puppets that sparked his imagination and set him on this fantastic journey of creative discovery? Let’s find out …
Centaur Stage: How did you discover puppets and why were you so fascinated by them?
Ronnie Burkett: My parents had bought a set of The World Book Encyclopedia, and one day I randomly picked the “P” volume, which fell open to “Puppets”. There was a photo of a man and woman surrounded by the most amazing puppets, and I instantly knew this was the life for me. Was there a choir of angels heralding my chosen life? No, of course not. But I think the loner child in me realized that here was an art form that satisfied every aspect of myself: the desire to make things, to perform, to tell stories. And I think that first childish impulse has continued to be true over time. Puppetry allows me to shrink the confusing, maddening, frightening, glorious world, and examine it in a smaller scale; a scale that makes sense to me.
That same year, the film version of The Sound of Music was released. And the Bil Baird Marionettes performed The Lonely Goatherd sequence. Bil and Cora Baird were the couple surrounded by puppets in the encyclopedia. Thus began years of pestering Bil Baird by letter, and on my 19th birthday, he hired me to work at his theatre in New York City.
Look, I was one of those children who was not interested in being a child. I knew I did not have the skills to produce work that was beyond childish trash. So, instead, I hit the library and began absorbing anything I could find about puppetry…history, styles, global influences, and technique … EVERY technique. And I wrote a lot of fan letters to puppeteers, boldly asking them to adopt me, send me a plane ticket to live with them, or, at the very least, asking how they built their puppets. The foolish few who wrote back were stuck with me for the rest of their lives.
When I was twelve, I took The Stevens Correspondence Course in Puppetry, written by Martin Stevens. It sounds dorky, but over twenty weeks, a new session arrived every week, covering design, writing, construction of puppets and stages, publicity, vocal technique and performance. It’s still the core of everything I do, even though I’ve added to it, played with other variations, and worked with many other people in each discipline. And Martin Stevens became my mentor and the most influential man in my life, other than my father.
And so, by my early teens, I was finally building puppets and stages and producing shows of my own. And before I could get a driver’s license, my dad had to take time off work, load up the car, and chauffeur me to my gigs around Alberta.
CS: Can you describe the basic process of creating a puppet?
RB: Martin Stevens taught me the theory of the counterbalanced marionette, first devised by W.A. Dwiggins in the 1930’s. Essentially, it is about designing each marionette individually on paper, and building in the joints and weight to allow the puppet its own distinct posture. So, that’s what I continue to do. For each character in The Daisy Theatre, there is a full-size template drawing, front and profile, wherein I determine each joint, the line of balance, and the construction details.
I’ve played with many materials over the years, but in the past decade, my marionettes have made a return to fairly old-school techniques: carved wood for limbs and feet, bodies of wood or papier maché, and heads from a papier maché pulp we make in the studio. For many of the shows, I’ve sculpted heads in Plasticine, made molds, and cast them. For The Daisy Theatre, each head is a direct sculpt in the papier maché pulp. So, while there are currently five versions of Schnitzel, each in a different costume, every head is one-of-a-kind.
But seriously, to tell you how I make a marionette would take hours. It truly is like crafting every single instrument in the orchestra.
CS: What prompted this show?
RB: Since Tinka’s New Dress in 1994, my work with Theatre of Marionettes began to take on very serious subject matter in each progressive show—the Holocaust, depression, the end of civilization—and I realized I needed to just have some ridiculous fun again. While my career had kept me focused on elevating puppetry and making it valid in legitimate theatres, I was returning to a thought that puppetry was better when it’s a bit dangerous, very satirical, unpredictable. And smaller; I wanted to work smaller to have more intimacy between the audience and the characters. And so … The Daisy Theatre! No script, no sense to the cast other than I want to make a bunch of puppets that delight me, crazy good songs, and a laboratory of sorts where I can play. A place to meet the audience in a very real way, through laughter and provocation and authentic emotional engagement.
I didn’t intend The Daisy Theatre to last more than its premiere run at Luminato (I remember saying to my agent, “don’t book this one, I’m just goofing around", but here we are, five years and many, many tours and performances later. And regardless of other things I will do, I know I will continue with The Daisy Theatre until the end of my career. And honey, that end ain’t coming soon, lemme tell ya.
CS: You perform nationally and internationally, most recently at the Sydney Festival in Australia. You must be a voracious news hound to keep the show current for wherever you’re performing.
RB: I am, indeed. When I discovered puppetry as a child, I realized it was my calling card to the world. And I couldn’t wait to get into that world. It wasn’t terrifying to me, in fact, I loathed being a child and a teenager because it prevented me from free passage into that glorious world I saw in books. And my parents—my divine, simple, middle-class parents—encouraged me to be hungry for the world; to go out and taste it for them.
I am forever fascinated by my species and how, regional or cultural differences aside, we are so similar in our basic desires. How, historically and now, we continue to be both monsters and creatures of infinite good. So, I observe us, and I observe the news in light of that, my ever-questioning look at humanity. And because I work in the most superior form of the performing arts, I still get to shrink the big world and make it small enough for a discussion of who we are.
CS: Puppets are marvellous personas through whom you can raise awareness and provoke discussion about hot-topic issues, and you have a lot to say. If the world of puppets hadn’t seduced you, what do you think you would be doing to keep from exploding with all that’s churning inside you?
RB: What a horrible thought. Seriously. I have no idea. Name me another craft where I could be a writer, a designer, a craftsman, a performer, and an actor. I have a place to play with age and gender, a forum to have a point of view, a place to fall in love with a roomful of strangers every night. Nope, it’s puppetry. Thank heaven that seven-year-old boy opened the encyclopedia to “Puppets”. It’s still the best idea I’ve ever heard.
CS: You are venturing back into hand puppets with a project involving 100 that you are designing and making and, according to Facebook, involves audience participation. Can you share more about that?
RB: It’s titled Forget Me Not, and it is a full text piece, no improvisation of the script at all. But each performance involves the audience onstage with me, and we improvise the staging. Every audience member will be given a hand puppet to become the mob, the ruling class, the enemy. And we’ve spent two years working on these hand puppets, each an individual sculpture, slashed with paint and gold leaf, dressed in antique laces and fabric sent to me by an army of women who have collected these fabrics for decades. There are marionettes of all sizes in the show itself, but I thought, “wouldn’t it be glorious to go to the theatre, and be handed something unique and extraordinary that clearly was crafted with time and love and skill? I would want to be in that audience.” So that’s why my studio is making 100 hand puppets. Forget Me Not will have its world premiere in Toronto, June 2019.
The Daisy Theatre runs from February 20 to March 25, 2018 with 6 shows a week. Don’t miss it!