Saying big things small

By Monica Prendergast, November 2015

Ronnie Burkett returns to town this month with his puppets and improvisational-style theatre.

There are a number of countries in the world, following an original initiative by Japan, which designate certain people to be “Living National Treasures.” These treasures are artists or crafts persons who have achieved high levels of excellence and significantly contributed to national and international culture. If we had such a program in Canada one of the first theatre artists I would nominate is Theatre of Marionettes founder Ronnie Burkett.

I have seen a number of Burkett’s productions and each time my appreciation of his artistry as actor, playwright and designer increases. I find his shows to be beautiful, funny, sad, occasionally shocking and always amazing. But this is not just my opinion. Burkett is one of the most lauded theatre artists in the country. He won the 2009 Siminovitch Prize, our most prestigious national theatre arts award, for his puppet design work. His performances in New York earned him an OBIE award. He has a long list of stellar reviews and other awards that have been earned since he founded Theatre of Marionettes in 1986. 

Burkett has not performed in Victoria for many years, although he regularly visits Vancouver (where I often head to catch his latest shows). Luckily, Intrepid Theatre is bringing Burkett and his latest one-man show The Daisy Theatre  to the Metro Theatre from November 19-22 for four performances. 

I saw Daisy Theatre in Vancouver last year, as Burkett has been touring his cabaret-style puppet revue across the country and overseas for the past two years, to great acclaim. This past year alone the show has been seen in Los Angeles, New York, and New Zealand. 

I spoke with Burkett, who lives in Toronto, by phone recently. We discussed many topics including his evolution as a playwright (his plays are published by Playwrights Canada Press), his changing relationship with audiences and his thoughts on where his practice is taking him.

Burkett writes and performs all his plays as solo pieces, albeit with dozens of roles played by his exquisitely hand carved and jointed wooden marionettes. Asked if he thinks of himself as a playwright, he replied that he had grown to think of himself as a writer when “I realized I wanted to discuss things rather than to perform fairy tales. It’s the writing I love the most. It is such a solitary existence, writing. I don’t have to be on, so it is a very singular activity that I love.” 

We talked about how the themes of his plays emerged. Burkett’s plays are often very funny but can also be quite dark. In thinking about the ones I have seen, these are plays filled with childhood innocence lost in a rabid world, characters faced with or dealing with mortality and death, loneliness and a longing for human connection. Definitely not the stereotypical Punch and Judy fare we might think of as puppet theatre!

Burkett told me that he has always felt puppetry to be “subversive and dangerous as an art form, seemingly silly but with a knife underneath it. I consider puppetry to be a superior performing art form because it allows you to say big things small.” I asked about the darkness that can pervade his plays. Penny Plain, for example, preceded The Daisy Theatre and is an apocalyptic story of a little blind woman and her dog facing the breakdown of society, violent anarchy, and the end of the world. With puppets. He replied: “I understood earlier than many people I know that all of this is leading to death. The AIDS crisis decimated my social community and for my generation was equivalent to World War II. Death is part of the deal we are dealt. I have to laugh constantly, but I have always felt the sadness of the world.”

The Daisy Theatre is a much lighter production than these earlier plays, and has allowed Burkett to take new artistic risks. Primarily, it has changed his relationship with his audiences. With growing success, Burkett found himself performing in larger theatres and began to feel the lack of intimacy that smaller venues can provide. He decided to return to his roots, starting out in Calgary in the 1980s and experimenting with puppetry, learning its rich history and exploring the form. 

He explained, “Daisy Theatre was supposed to be a one-off but I learned that its improvisational style is what audiences right now want to see, that it gives us a chance to learn about each other. There is nothing more in the moment than not having a script, and it reminds me of my early days. Audiences want to feel they are part of something, so this show is teaching me how to engage with audiences in authentic ways.”

The Daisy Theatre is inspired by European puppetry practice, particularly the kinds of dissident revue shows seen in the former Czechoslovakia during the World War II and Cold War eras. Volunteers are invited on stage to assist Burkett’s cabaret performers enact their moment in the limelight. It might be Esmé Messengill, aging cabaret star, or Schnitzel, the childlike puppet who wishes he had wings, or Edna Rural, the Alberta housewife who sits in her armchair and tells us about the death of her husband. Night to night Burkett chooses which puppets will appear and how the audience can support these diverse characters sing their song, dance their dance, or tell their story. 

The show is a tour de force, as always with Burkett, very funny and often risqué. It can also be deeply touching, as we play our essential role in Burkett’s process: “My definition of puppetry, building on how one of my mentors defined it, is the shape of an idea in motion, witnessed.” 

The witnessing role is the part an audience plays in any live performance, and this responsibility feels pervasive when faced with the deep empathy that Burkett’s creations often draw out of unsuspecting audiences. How can I be crying over a puppet? This is a question I have come to accept and take as given when I go to a Theatre of Marionettes show. And as light as The Daisy Theatre is compared to other Burkett productions, there are moments of real emotional depth amidst the laughter. 

The discoveries Burkett has been making whilst touring Daisy Theatre include finding out that audiences in very different cultural locations have almost universal responses to his characters. As he points out, “There is an Edna Rural everywhere, and Schnitzel is a kind of Everyman. We really are all the same, in spite of our current government’s divisive policies telling us how different we are. We are all here sitting around a campfire telling a story. And I am feeling the audience thinking and listening.”

Burkett finishes our conversation by telling me a little bit about his next project, Forget Me Not. It will be a small-scale play with fewer than 100 audience members per night. The show will take place with the audience onstage with Burkett, participating as puppeteers alongside him to explore issues of race. Burkett reflects on this risky undertaking that, “I am a 58-year-old gay white man talking about race. I need to listen.” 

I for one will be there to listen and learn with the Living National Treasure that is Ronnie Burkett.

Monica has learned much from her recent work with William Head on Stage’s HERE: A Captive Odyssey. She urges readers to book their ticket soon for Burkett’s show at the Metro (November 19-22 ). If it sells out they can catch it at The Cultch in Vancouver from December 1-20.