The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada) Saturday, Jan. 3, 2004
An artist of pulling strings
The acclaimed Canadian puppet-master Ronnie Burkett has a new show exploring the notion of beauty
Ronnie Burkett was seven years old when he discovered his future. His mother had told him to amuse himself with the World Book Encyclopedia, newly arrived in their Medicine Hat, Alta., home. At random, he pulled out the P volume. It fell open to the section on puppets. "And that was it. . . . My joke is I'm sure she wished it would have opened to podiatrist or proctologist."
Puppets were it, then -- for the next seven years, he devoured everything he could find on the subject -- and they are still it now, more than 30 years later. In the intervening decades, Burkett has mounted a series of astonishing one-man puppet plays that have earned him popular and critical acclaim all over the world and a long list of prestigious awards (among them, two Dora Mavor Moore awards, seven Sterlings, six Dr. Betty Mitchells and two Chalmers). New York's Village Voice calls him "one of the world's geniuses."
His latest show, Provenance, an exploration of beauty, opens this week in Toronto at CanStage's Berkeley Street Theatre -- for an eight-week stop on a several-months-long tour of Canada, Europe and Australia.
Puppetry for adults, of course, occupies a small alcove of the theatrical universe, but within it, Burkett is indisputably a giant. He writes the scripts, builds and dresses the puppets ("I can talk for hours about knee joints," he says), acts all the parts, then directs the entire proceedings.
In short, if he were not working with puppets, he would gain ready membership in any room of theatre's frat house -- playwriting, acting, wardrobe, carpentry or direction. How many performers can make that boast?
Provenance is a word often applied to works of art, describing the history of their ownership. Burkett thinks it ought to apply to humans as well. "We all have a history of ownership," he said in an interview this week, "in terms of parents, partners or institutions and how we disguise or bury or keep running from our provenance."
But the play's central objective, he said, was to explore the meaning of beauty -- how it's defined and why we celebrate it, and the consequences of doing so.
"I thought, what if the central character were a piece of art, a two-dimensional character and we add layers, our own needs and frames of reference on top of that? Because we all objectify. Anyone who says we don't is a liar."
Burkett says he started the process by assuming, "there was beauty on one end of the spectrum and the grotesque on the other. Beauty and the grotesque get noticed, but there's a sea of plainness in the middle that we don't look at. We are not encouraged to find beauty in the plain."
But a word of caution about Provenance: It runs two hours without intermission. Burkett thinks audiences can handle it, but jokes that he owns the catheter concession.
The son of a probation officer and homemaker, Burkett's early obsession with puppets never really ended. "I don't know what that fascination was. It certainly wasn't like heavenly choirs sang above me and said this is the chosen profession," he says, recalling that moment when the encyclopedia pages opened.
"But I think for someone who is pretty much a loner, at least in my head, it's a perfect job -- I can make these things and have this fantastic world and be all of these characters. Of course, it's also the perfect job for a megalomaniac, but I prefer the word loner."
Unable as a child to actually build puppets, Burkett resolved to learn everything he could about them.
The research paid off. At 14, he flew to Michigan for a puppet festival. "I was sort of hanging off to the side and these old guys were reminiscing . . .
'Yes, we did Snow White in 1937 . . ."
"Uh, no," I said. "Actually, you did it in 1935 for 632 performances.
"And they all look at me . . . 'Why don't you come and sit over here.' "
Later, after being thrown out of Utah's Brigham Young University's musical-theatre program -- something to do with telling the dean to fornicate himself -- he went to New York and worked with Bill Baird, the legendary American puppet-master responsible, among many other things, for the goat-herd number in The Sound of Music.
Returning to Edmonton, he launched Theatre of Marionettes in 1986, but paid his bills by working as a puppet-master for television. "I made a pact with myself that when I started to earn more from the theatre than I did from television, I would quit TV and I did."
Burkett's early shows were risqué, more titillating than challenging. "I was the king of genres. I'd do a gothic murder mystery set to music or a melodrama . . . I was on that track and I came to a crossroads in my early 30s where I thought, if I continue with this, it's time to think about getting work done on my face and going to Las Vegas and being really commercial, the Siegfried and Roy of puppetry. Thank goodness that didn't happen."
Instead, Burkett turned to more serious themes. "After Tinka's New Dress, which dealt with issues of censorship and freedom of expression, people said to me, 'You've changed your style. . . .' No, I've found my style. That's what the last 10 years have been -- not worrying so much about technique, but about why and how and what devices I use to speak to audiences, one of which is text." But his plays, he insists, still have "great moments of camp and 12-year-old filth. I hope I never lose that."
On the road, Burkett typically spends his pre-show hours stretching and exercising, his off-days doodling with new material. He has two plays in development.
One, Billy Twinkle (to be performed largely without puppets), is about six puppeteers, "versions of what I could have become." The other, Ten Days On Earth, is about a mentally challenged adult trying to move into his own apartment: "It's about normality and what's normal."
A few years ago, Burkett, 44, "went through a mid-life crisis," and moved to Toronto, where he lives with jazz artist John Alcorn.
Recently, other artists have been asking Burkett to write material for them. "I'd love to do that and I plan to do that, but whenever I think about something, I start seeing the puppetry possibilities and then I don't want to give it up. I just think, please, let there be enough time."