Puppeteer Ronnie Burkett's world has strings attached

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Subjects from strippers to booze mean Ronnie Burkett’s acclaimed marionette production isn’t exactly The Muppet Show

      Jim Henson has a lot to answer for. That’s according to master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett, whose Cultch-presented show at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy (at the Waterfront Theatre from January 20 to February 8), deals with subjects that would have Kermit the Frog feeling a little more green than usual: unemployment, suicide, booze, and even stripping.

      “The Muppets revolutionized puppetry and were and are amazing”¦but whenever they tried to do adult stuff, it really was a bit lame,” says Burkett, on the line from his Toronto studio. “I think that’s why the public perceives puppetry as for kids only.”

      As far as Burkett’s concerned, puppetry has never been just child’s play. “Originally, if you’re going back hundreds of years, the real bad boys, the real renegades, were puppeteers,” he insists. “I mean, Punch-and-Judy men were always run out of town for mimicking politicians and the church. And you know there’s a whole tradition of that in many cultures, where wandering puppet showmen were the voice of the people.”

      He blames television for usurping the art form and repackaging it for the under-12 crowd. “There was a great North American puppet renaissance in the ’30s and ’40s, but then television happened and the cheapest way to keep kids entertained on TV was to hire a puppeteer. It’s synonymous with babysitting, in a weird way.”

      Using Burkett’s creations to keep the kids occupied, however, would likely result in tears and, possibly, nightmares. The 51-year-old, Medicine Hat–raised performer has achieved international renown for works that explore decidedly adult themes. His 1994 breakthrough hit, Tinka’s New Dress, dealt with underground art during the Nazi regime; its 1998 follow-up, Street of Blood, addressed the tainted-blood scandal; and the last time he visited Vancouver, in 2006, he performed 10 Days on Earth, the tale of a developmentally challenged man who doesn’t realize his elderly mother has died.

      In his newest show, which has already garnered high praise from critics in Edmonton, Ottawa, and London, England, Burkett takes on the role of a middle-aged variety-show puppeteer who is fired from his cruise-ship job, where he has been entertaining passengers with his “Stars in Miniature” marionette nightclub act—a bawdy collection of characters that includes burlesque stripper Rusty Knockers, balloon-in-pants jokester old man Bunny, and drunken society dame Biddy Bantam Brewster. As Billy perches on the edge of the ship, ready to leap into the cold sea, his dead mentor, Sid Diamond, appears as a hand puppet (with a pair of bunny ears), forcing him to reexamine his life.

      Straight arts editor Janet Smith discusses PuSH Festival 2009.

      Eight years in the making, the piece went through numerous iterations before finally coming together. Initially, he tried writing it as a performance without his trademark handcrafted puppets, but “I came back home to the thought that I always have, which is that I’m not a puppeteer by accident. When I got off the tangent of the show without puppets and went back to realizing what I really did in the world, then I realized I could create this guy and his variety show that he does on cruise ships, but also have his life shown in flashback as a marionette show.”

      Even then, the perfectionist Burkett, who compares his hand-carved creations to violins (“I’m pretty bullish in my studio that we have to make a Stradivarius every time”), ended up tossing a completed script into the garbage. “It just felt too monologue-y, and it was trying a bit too hard,” he admits. The concept finally jelled when the character of Sid Diamond came onboard: “This funny, crabby old miserable hand puppet with bunny ears on just struck me as really funny, and just lightened the whole thing up.”¦It became kind of It’s a Wonderful Life meets A Christmas Carol.”

      Despite some surface similarities to Billy Twinkle—middle-aged, devoted to puppets—Burkett insists the piece is not autobiographical. “One thing I’ve never really pursued or taken much interest in was this whole subculture [of puppetry] that does variety work,” he says. To create Billy’s nightclub show, Burkett sought out veterans of the variety heyday, when puppeteers even graced the stage at the Rainbow Room in New York, with a full orchestra behind them.

      “As it turns out now, those guys are usually found on cruise ships or, in the worst case, in shopping malls,” Burkett observes. “It was really good at this point in my life to have to seek them out and learn some of those tricks, like how to make a marionette stripper, for example, because nobody does that.”¦The man who actually taught me this is 80 years old, in California. I phoned him and asked if I could come hang out with him and he could teach me, and like all of those great guys, he said, ”˜Get your ass down here.’ ” (For the record, the secret to that little number is “four strings, three snaps, and a safety pin”.)

      Another difference between Burkett and Billy is that the performer is not dealing with a midlife crisis, although he came close to packing it all in when Stephen Harper started axing arts-funding programs last fall, he confesses. “I thought, ”˜I don’t know if the company will survive through the next year, and I don’t know if I want to stay in this country anymore.’”¦This all came down as soon as Billy Twinkle opened. Here’s the irony: I’ve been saying for two years I’m not this character, and the minute the show opens, suddenly I’m standing on the edge of the ship going, ”˜Oh my God, I don’t think I can do this anymore.’ ”

      Thankfully, he’s since regrouped. “My current frame of thought—and you can quote me on this if you want—is: Stephen Harper’s not going to put me out of business. My goal is to put him out of business,” he declares. “I just kind of got my bravery back.”

      He’s also energized by the realms that are opening up in the medium, aided by groups like the PuSh festival, whose mandate is to present work that defies categorization. “I don’t think puppetry will ever be pure again,” he enthuses. “I think it’s going to be something else. I think it’s going to be informed by dance and visual arts.”¦There’s stuff popping up all over the place, and there’s some great young and new puppeteers out there.” Remarking that his former hometown of Calgary now hosts the biennial International Festival of Animated Objects, he adds, “I’m quite encouraged that not everything looks like a Muppet all of a sudden. For 20 years it all kind of looked flappy-mouthed out there.”