“Ronnie Burkett is one of the geniuses of the world… seeing his troupe every few years has just become a necessity of civilized theatergoing.” – The Village Voice (New York, NY)
Puppetry is an under-celebrated art form. As children, many of us enjoyed gluing faces on popsicle sticks and acting out creative, comic scenarios. Then we grew up, and we seemed to lose track of our ability to play.
Ronnie Burkett, however, Canada’s most celebrated puppeteer, never abandoned his sense of wonderment. For the past 30 years, Burkett has been giving life to marionettes, exploring various themes such as loneliness, beauty and happiness. His most recent creation, Billy Twinkle, is about a middle-aged cruise ship puppeteer who gets fired and is force to rekindle inner passions. Burkett has received critical and public acclaim in Australia and the UK, and his final stop with this production with be in Montréal.
I chatted with Burkett about life as a puppeteer, the challenges of creating marionettes and some of his favorite Montréal haunts.
Daniel: How does one get into a career based around marionettes?
Ronnie: I was obsessed with puppets from age 7 onwards. So I sort of grew up in a puppet ghetto. This lead to doing shows in schools and productions on TV, the eventually touring around community halls, shopping malls, etc. And the next step was full length plays.
You ‘play’ each character in your productions. What are some of the challenges of a puppeteer?
If you think about it, none of it exists before I create it. [Puppetry] is perhaps the greatest theatrical art form. You create your actors; you think up any imaginary world. So the length of time it takes is a challenge; it takes a year to create a production, lots of time to develop multifaceted characters
It is also vocally and physically demanding.
What’s the process in crafting a ‘Ronnie Burkett’ puppet?
We work in a ‘factory’ mode. First I start alone on paper, and then transfer my ideas to color sketches. It becomes a multi-week process of creating heads and faces, and then bodies and legs. It’s six to seven months of body parts alone. Usually Thirty puppets represent fifteen characters. So it’s a lot of work.
You’ve made puppetry interesting to ‘grown ups.’ Howdya do that?
I don’t really know. Living in the west I was involved in the first Fringe Fest. It was breeding grounds for several odd companies; theater companies with different mindsets. It sort of exploded from that.
Eventually I switched from simply puppet building to becoming a play writer.
Billy Twinkle. I’ve heard that this play is semi-autobiographical. How true is this?
Not as much as people would like to think. There is a point in the show when a 15-year-old boy picks up an older businessman. That never actually happened to me. But it’s fun to hear the audience murmur to themselves.
But Billy and I are both puppeteers, and I am more present on the stage in this production than other shows in the past.
I’ve never actually worked on a Cruise ship. The idea of the Cruise ship is quite allegorical.
You’ve done consistently done shows in Montréal before. Why do you keep returning here?
Because I’m a little gypsy wagon who goes where he’s invited!
Ha! Very funny Mr. Burkett.
No, I love Montréal. In the very early days, I was invited to Players Theater at McGill University. Then Usine C has invited us many times to come back. We were their very first English-based production. It’s been a really wonderful embrace from the Quebecois community.
I worked for many years in Montreal; I would stay for months at a time, working on children’s TV programs. It’s beautiful.
Do you have any favorite Montréal haunts?
During previous productions, after the show we would go to Old Montreal, where we would drink martinis.
Billy Twinkle, Requiem for a Golden Boy
By Ronnie Burkett
April 22 – May 1, 2010
Place des Arts (click for reservations)
Tickets between $23.92 and $33.67