We can’t tell you where you can see Ronnie Burkett’s next creation, but we will tell you that it’s something you won’t want to miss.
As in previous years, the Cultch is presenting the Ontario-based puppeteer’s next local appearance. That’s no big surprise; earlier productions such as Tinka’s New Dress and The Daisy Theatre have generated long runs of packed houses. But on the august facility’s website, Burkett’s new venture into interactive theatre, Forget Me Not, is advertised as taking place at a “secret location”.
With so much history and so much success behind this pairing of artist and venue, why change now?
“I wanted to take away the impulse to sit and watch, which is what a theatre space encourages you to do,” Burkett says in a telephone interview from Sydney, Australia—where, he reports, the air is clear and the temperature moderate. “It’s what we’re trained to do when we walk into a theatre.
“The premise of this piece is that the audience are people who have found an illegal camp, a secret camp of this old crone who writes love letters,” he continues, adding that the action takes place in a dystopian near future, where writing is outlawed and people communicate by government-sanctioned emojis. “So part of that adventure is just finding the space, and not putting the audience in danger, but taking some of their preconceived comfort away around what it is to enter a performance space.”
The idea, one imagines, is to remove a layer of psychic skin from the audience, so that they will be more open to the ideas and emotions Burkett and his cast of 100 puppets will project.
“Oh, absolutely,” he concurs. “And it’s very interesting that you say I’m taking a layer of skin from them, because what I’ve actually done is that I’ve taken away all my comfort zones, too. I have none of my old familiar touchstones of what it is to go on-stage and do a show, which is very presentational. You will sit there, you will watch… Here, I’m in the middle of 100 people, so not only am I doing the whole show and corralling all these ceremonies, I have to be really aware of all these other bodies in the room. And it’s very interesting for me not to have my old tricks to rely on. This is a whole other way of performing.
“You can’t overperform this crap when you’re that close to people,” he adds, with one of his trademark cackles. “You have to have a layer of sincerity with them, because you’re right there. They see you sweat.”
The audience may do some sweating of its own. Although Burkett respects most personal boundaries—he’s not out to shame the shy or mock the awkward—part of his intent is to actively engage viewers in the process of making theatre.
“This is not a passive immersive thing,” he stresses. “This is the audience working to create and populate the scenes. There’s really no scenery. There’s an instance where small marionettes are on a journey, and the audience has to put their hands out as the puppets walk, and they have to become a mountain, and they have to become a valley. So it’s really interesting to see civilians getting up and becoming a mountain so a puppet can walk up them.”
And there will be puppet touch, he cautions. Cheeks will be stroked, perhaps even kissed. But all of this rich strangeness is in the service of something serious: Burkett is alarmed by the loss of social literacy he sees among the cellphone-obsessed, and he envisions Forget Me Not as a ceremony that will unlock our ability to feel and express real emotion.
“This play is about loss. It’s about the loss of freedom. It’s about the loss of written language, our personal language,” he says. “And what’s interesting to me, right now, is creating community with strangers, because I think that’s what theatre has always been. We’re still able to do that, if we put our damn phones down. And we’re still able to play—if we give ourselves permission.”
The Cultch presents Forget Me Not at a secret location from Tuesday (February 4) to March 1.