Talking to Ronnie Burkett is a bit like chatting with God: you get to find out how he creates life.
Burkett is a marionette artist, and when the Straight catches up to him, he’s in his Toronto workshop preparing for the new version of his smash hit The Daisy Theatre, which will play the Cultch’s Historic Theatre later this month. Last year’s run of an earlier version sold out.
The Daisy, as Burkett calls it, draws on a cast of 30 marionette characters. Some have narrative arcs: in last year’s show, a little fairy named Schnitzel tried to fly. Others perform stand-alone acts as strippers, singers, storytellers, and vaudevillians. Burkett is clearly visible as he pulls their strings, does their voices, plays with the audience, and coaxes lucky viewers on-stage.
Because he features different characters every night, Burkett can change things up depending on his whims and the mood of the crowd. As he puts it, “In a story show, it’s like, ‘Okay, everybody’s in the car. Go! And there are these cues and I’m going to do this and then everybody dies and then I’m going to go home.’ But The Daisy really is about ‘Okay, they’re not lovin’ that vibe tonight, so I’m gonna grab the cow.’ ”
Because no two performances are the same, the Cultch is offering a special rate to folks who want to catch more than one.
Burkett shares origin stories of some of his costars, both old and new. Starting with fresh arrivals, Burkett says, “We’ve got a marionette ventriloquist who’s got a marionette dummy.” The ventriloquist is Meyer Lemon and the dummy, the only puppet in the show with a moving mouth, is Little Woody Linden.
Burkett remembers working on Woody. “I was going to animate his eyes, by putting them on springs,” he says, “but, in the meantime, I just taped them in with some painter’s tape inside the head. I was looking at him with his eyes staring up and I thought, ‘There’s the act!’ Meyer is on his last legs; he doesn’t really talk to the audience, the dummy does all the talking. In my mind, in that moment, seeing Woody’s eyes, I thought, ‘What if they’re locked there because the finger that Meyer uses to trigger Woody’s eyes doesn’t twitch anymore and the only reason that Woody is talking is that Meyer’s middle finger twitches constantly? I’ve seen old people in the food court at the mall with the twitchy middle finger—and that’s the trigger for the mouth. And once in a while, Meyer’s thumb will twitch and Woody’s leg will spring up. So that gave me the physical routine, and it got me thinking about the dummy’s dilemma of ‘What happens to me when he falls silent?’ And you can read into that whatever you want.”
Burkett has been working with another puppet, a character named Edna Rural, for a long time. Edna first appeared in The Daisy’s original incarnation 20 years ago, when Burkett was trying to figure out how to improvise. She went on to appear in Street of Blood and has continued to work The Daisy.
A plump, older Prairie woman, Edna lives in a hamlet called Turnip Corners and describes herself as “a silly old biddy in a Sears housedress”. Those who know her might be surprised to learn that she was conceived in fury.
“I was listening to a CBC Radio phone-in show in the studio one day while we were making puppets and this little farm lady phoned in. It was all about AIDS and this was right at that period where people were saying there should be a holding camp near Red Deer and all people with AIDS should be sent there.
“I said to the woman who was making the costumes, ‘Oh my God, one of these days, I’m going to make a puppet of one of those Edna Rurals and have my way with them,’ and it was like bing!” He was onto another idea. “I remember stealing shoes and legs off one old puppet and hands off another one, and sculpting a head and we baked it in the oven overnight. We threw that puppet together so fast!
“I’d never rehearsed her before we went out. I didn’t even have a voice for her. So I walked her out on-stage, this character I was going to trash, and she looked at the audience and said, ‘Lord love a duck!’ That was my mother’s saying. And I realized in that moment that this was a very complicated Albertan Canadian character, who would, you know, give you the shirt off her back and then criticize you for not having a shirt.” This time out, Burkett is going to add more sexuality to Edna’s material and see where that goes.
There will be a new stripper this year, Miss Flirty Sanchez—if you don’t get the innuendo, look up Dirty Sanchez on Urban Dictionary, and remind yourself that The Daisy Theatre isn’t a puppet show for kids—and Schnitzel will show off a new talent. “He’s going to walk a tightrope,” Burkett explains. “That will be the most technical part of the show.”
Talking to Burkett, you get the impression that his productivity never stops churning. “I’m exhausted right now,” he admits, “because we’re racing to finish new puppets. It’s gotten to that stage where I sleep for three hours, get up, keep going, nap for 20 minutes, keep going. I came up with this stuff and the truck leaves next Tuesday, so suddenly it’s crunch time. But it’s actually… Don’t tell anybody, but it’s actually still really fun.”
Ronnie Burkett presents The Daisy Theatre at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre from Tuesday (September 23) until October 12.