Here’s the scene: It’s winter, 1982, in Calgary, Alberta. The Prairies are a kind of rough-and-tumble place under the best of circumstances, and February is definitely not the best of circumstances. The Stranglers, a not-so-seminal punk group whose heyday–if you can call it that–was about five years before, has been reduced to playing the University of Calgary, and the audience, a grungy, drunken and combustible mixture of frat boys, punk-wannabes, bikers and Canadian cowboys, are impatiently waiting for the band to serenade them with classics like “Peasant in the Big Shitty” and “Down in the Sewer.”
This is hardly an ideal situation for any warm-up act, but tonight’s opener is different. In lieu of hiring some second-tier band, the gig’s promoter had the bright idea of starting things off with this crazy local guy who does an adults-only, wildly flamboyant and rather obscene puppet show.
Yes. A puppet show.
One can only hope that this promoter has moved on to a more appropriate career.
In any case, on this blustery night in Calgary, Ronnie Burkett, puppeteer extraordinaire, opens for The Stranglers.
And it’s not a pretty scene. Burkett’s on stage, wearing a weird little strap-on puppet theatre on which to display his one-of-a-kind hand puppets that he’s built himself. He’s looking over a mosh pit. He gamely starts his show. The crowd watches in stupefied amazement for about 30 seconds. Then, all at once, they start screaming and throwing beer cans and lit matches at him, his puppets and his puppet-theatre outfit. Now, Burkett’s a master at improvisation, but this is ridiculous. He struggles on, but after another 30 seconds or so, it’s the puppeteer who’s pissed. He begins yelling back at the audience. A fight between a bunch of bikers and cowboys breaks out in the pit.
The mayhem escalates–people are howling, throwing anything they can get their hands on, getting the be-Jesus beaten out of them, falling into the vomit, blood and beer that’s all over the floor–until Burkett, still screaming “Fuck you!” and still wearing his puppet-theatre outfit, is not-so-politely escorted off the stage.
Fast-forward 18 years and things are looking, Well, a little different for the 43-year-old Burkett. He doesn’t do “dirty little puppet shows” (his terminology) anymore. Oh, his work is still most definitely grown-up fare, but the latest pieces (specifically his “Angels in Dresses” trilogy, consisting of 1994’s Tinka’s New Dress, 1998’s Street of Blood, currently running in New York as a co-production of the Henson International Puppet Festival and New York Theatre Workshop, and Happy, an offering that premiered in Toronto last spring) deal with issues like religion, death, depression, sex and violence. Not exactly Muppet material. His shows have garnered him a bushel of Canadian honors, including two Dora Mavor Moore Awards and a couple of Chalmers awards (at $25,000, the country’s most prestigious playwriting prize), not to mention an Evening Herald award in Dublin and, here in the U.S., an Obie. To theatre-watchers in Canada (and the lucky few in the U.S. and Europe who have been exposed to his work), Burkett is an artist to be celebrated and cherished. (Village Voice critic Michael Feingold has written that “seeing his troupe every few years has just become a necessity of civilized theatregoing.”) Indeed, when Canadians talk about their major theatre artists, inevitably two names come up: Robert Lepage and Ronnie Burkett.
Needless to say, the guy doesn’t open for punk bands anymore. These days, Burkett’s more likely to be headlining at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, London’s Barbican Centre, Montreal’s Festival de Théâtre des Amériques or the Images Festival in Amsterdam. If the audience attending Happy at this summer’s DuMaurier World Stage Festival was any indication, he attracts a demographic mix (rich and poor, young and old, cool and unhip, gay and straight, theatre-junkies and neophytes) of serious, attentive, one might even say worshipful viewers who think of him as an artist who has arrived.
And what are they watching? Well, in the case of Happy, they were treated to a two-and-a-half-hour, one-man meditation on death and loss, performed exclusively byÉmarionettes. In Tinka’s New Dress, Burkett created a fable dealing with trust and betrayal based on the illegal underground shows performed by Czech puppeteers during the Nazi occupation. Tinka’s locales included an underground drag queen cabaret and a concentration camp. And the actors wereÉ marionettes. And then there’s Street of Blood, a roller-coaster ride–Burkett calls it a “Prairie gothic”–that mixes AIDS-contaminated blood supplies, vampires and the second coming of Christ. And, yeah, this one’s done withÉwell, you know.
Those shows are indeed “puppet theatre”–that is, they are performed by a guy manipulating a bunch of wooden, inanimate objects with strings. But sitting through a Burkett piece, you inevitably have a couple of complicated and conflicted reactions.
First, you’re amazed at his sheer bravura and virtuosity: Surrounded by as many as 40 puppets, Burkett smoothly and gracefully moves from scene to scene, set to set, marionette to marionette, assuming all of their voices, single-handedly manipulating them through soliloquies–yes, soliloquies--and scenes with as many as three or four characters in them. There’s real acting going on. Then, when you least expect it, the characters suddenly break out in song–music courtesy of Burkett’s longtime collaborator Cathy Nosaty: One character sings ˆ la Eartha Kitt, another like Joel Grey, a third like Tony Bennett, and so on. Watching Burkett adroitly wear all of these hats is a head-spinning experience.
A virtuoso performance, certainly–but there’s more. At one point or another–in Happy it happens about 45 minutes into the show–one actually forgets that one is watching a single performer doing a show. Audiences find themselves getting tied up (no pun intended) in the characters’ foibles and predicaments. These are beautiful, complicated characters, such as (to use Happy as an example) Carla, the mournful, recently widowed young poetess; Ricky, the gay, vindictive hairdresser who lives in a basement apartment with his agoraphobic boyfriend; Lucille, the sewer-mouthed, chain-smoking septuagenarian firebrand. And then there’s the title character, Happy, the widowed World War II veteran who spouts cute colloquial adages (“He was starin’ like a preacher at a peep show!”) while maintaining a healthy attitude towards both his own bodily functions and the big questions about life. Chekhovian in their scope, these are fully realized people–not just pieces of wood attached to strings. As Canadian critic Robert Cushman wrote, “The joy of Burkett’s best work is that one takes the characters as real, more so than many whom we see portrayed in conventional plays by flesh-and-blood actors.” Or to quote Feingold again: “I deny the existence of a puppeteer: This is a great ensemble of actors.”
However, after finishing a gig, rather than heading down to the local watering hole for post-show libations, the members of this particular ensemble are delicately stored by their creator in cushioned roadcases; their Paperclay heads (a non-toxic combination of talc and volcanic ash) are carefully wrapped up; and their small wooden bodies are gingerly–and lovingly–laid out so as not to get tangled with the 13-to-15 strings attached to various joints. That’s where they stay, until the next show.
“I suppose my work’s different,” says the boyish- looking Burkett as he lounges on a couch in the publicity office of the DuMaurier festival during the Toronto run of Happy. “Most of the great puppetry that’s happening right now–by the great goddess [Julie] Taymor and Basil Twist–isn’t exactly breaking new ground. It’s beautiful work, but they focus on staging visuals, which, at least in the world of contemporary puppetry, is a pretty normal way of approaching things. My focus is on the script, and that’s a little different.”
True enough, but the wonderfully disarming thing about a Burkett performance is the puppeteer’s demeanor. Maybe it’s the nature of the art form: No matter what, puppets will forever be associated with childhood, and there’s a “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” quality to even the darkest of Burkett’s material. He seems to relish this attribute, and his presence on stage–unlike many traditional string-pullers, he makes no effort to be invisible to audiences–is friendly, open and outgoing, qualities that he continues to exude offstage. Very Canadian. Very Albertan. When a publicist tells him how much she adores the character Lucille, particularly her craggly, raspy voice, Burkett cracks up. “Ah, that’s just my normal voice in the morning after a night of too much booze and cigarettes,” he laughs.
Though Burkett may be just hitting his professional stride (at least on an international level), his career has, in fact, been three-and-a-half decades in the making. Which is all the more astounding when you consider that the puppeteer is only in his early forties.
“I became obsessed pretty early on,” he says with characteristic understatement.
Burkett’s first exposure to puppets came at the age of seven via the World Book Encyclopedia. “I must have been annoying my mother or something,” he says, “and she sent me off with the encyclopedia. I pulled out the ÔP’ volume and it fell open to Ôpuppets.’ There was a diagram of a marionette and–I swear to God, I know this sounds ridiculous–I decided then and there that that’s what I wanted to do.”
This was also the same year that the film version of The Sound of Music came out. Burkett went to see it countless times, expressly because of Bil Baird’s “Lonely Goatherd” puppetry sequence. Subsequently, Burkett became a sponge for anything puppet-oriented. He became a voracious collector of books about puppetry (he now owns about 300) and read every pertinent article he could find. He analyzed the art’s history and studied the techniques of building hand puppets, marionettes and other figures. This went on for about seven years. At the ripe old age of 14, it was time to hit the road.
“First, I did gigs all over town,” he says. “Then all around Alberta. They were hand-puppet shows, and I worked every conceivable venue–restaurants, churches, conferences full of drunk businessmen, you name it. My nice, middle-class parents–well, they were supportive. My poor father had to drive me to all my gigs, after all. But remember, this is the early ’60s–pre-Muppet-boom–so when I was telling them, ÔI want to be a puppeteer,’ they had no idea what that meant.
“They never said yes,” he adds. “But they never said no, either. After all, it was pretty lucrative. I was pulling in some good money.”
At 12, Burkett discovered master puppeteer Martin Stevens, the famous American puppeteer from the ’30s and ’40s, who offered a correspondence course on puppetry. Burkett aced the course, and eventually made numerous hajjs to Stevens’s studio, where the master taught him everything from stick puppets to Balinese shadow puppetry. He also gave Burkett important advice that influenced his career: Get voice lessons, learn how to move, learn how to act. “He thought that puppeteers had to be actors first. That was a pretty radical idea, because in the larger puppet community, they don’t tell you that you can be an actor and a playwright.”
After high school, Burkett headed off to, of all places, Utah’s Brigham Young University. (“I got a scholarship,” he shrugs.) He aimed to be a musical-theatre major and was, as he puts it, “miserably unhappy.” He lasted exactly one semester before the Mormons asked him to leave. With no real future, Burkett displayed a remarkable kind of hubris that can only come of being a cocky Canadian teenager on a student visa in the U.S.: He wrote to Bil Baird–considered by anyone in the know to be the American master of marionette art–a letter that claimed he was “the next generation.” He auditioned for Baird on his 19th birthday and got a job.
Though Baird was in the twilight of his career–he was already 72 at that point–his theatre on Barrow Street in Manhattan was still going fairly strong, and Burkett got an intense introduction to the world of “art” puppetry. “I saw theatre with puppets,” Burkett says now, “in a way that I never imagined before. It was Ôfamily programming’ of course, but it was also serious work being created by the best designers and composers–I’m thinking of Sheldon Harnick and the like. It changed me.”
Baird wasn’t the only part of that education. The mid-to-late ’70s was a heady time to be a gay man in his early twenties in New York City. “It was an eye-opening experience for a kid from the Prairies,” Burkett remarks. “But I’ve always been an out gay artist, so it wasn’t like New York somehow changed me that way. What was really important was that I found a community of puppeteers in New York. I learned to smoke and drink with puppeteers. They were my gang.”
However, within a year, Baird’s theatre had shut down, and Burkett was working in the freelance world of television. It was lucrative–after the Henson revolution, puppets, or at least Muppet variations, were hot on TV–and he was developing a reputation (in ’77 he won a regional Emmy for his work on the PBS children’s special Cinderabbit). Still, Burkett was vaguely dissatisfied.
“I remember I was walking along in the Village one day, and I bumped into this older guy–a puppeteer–who asked me ÔWhat do you want to do?’ I said that what I really wanted to do was marionettes. And he said, ÔGet out of this city. You’ll never do it here.’
“You see,” Burkett continues, “there was a very specific idea about what puppetry–at least in the commercial world–was all about. Marionettes were considered passé and old-fashioned. So, that old guy gave me the best advice I could have gotten at the time. Had I stayed in New York, I would never have done my own work.” Burkett packed up and headed back home to Alberta.
“I left the most exciting city in the world,” he says with a laugh, “and moved back to the most boring one: Calgary.”
In Canada, Burkett’s exposure to the then-budding fringe theatre movement propelled him in a new direction. In the mid-’80s, the fringe–today one of the highlights of the Canadian theatre establishment–was in its infancy, and the festival in Edmonton, Alberta, was one of the first.
“I went there and did my show,” Burkett says, “and it was a revelation. Suddenly I realized that there were all these other freaks like me who were striving to do something different. You have to understand that, up until that point, theatre in this country was centered around that fake-British-accent-Stratford-kind-of-thing. With the fringe movement, suddenly there was artist-created work from all kinds of disciplines. I found a community–theatre people, dancers, musicians, not just puppeteers.”
One thing that Burkett realized while he was hanging out with his new compadres was that the hand-puppet shows were fun, but they sure weren’t art. “Those shows were fast,” he remarks. “Dirty. Bawdy. Naughty. There was no social or political commentary. There wasn’t room for anything like that, ’cause it was just too raunchy.” Burkett longed to have a real discussion with the audience; he wanted to work in serious theatrical venues where he could have a legitimate give-and-take with the spectators. “I wanted an audience that was there to see theatre and art–not just entertainment,” he says.
He founded Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes in 1986 as an attempt to address these ambitions. “I was at an age where I’d had my heart broken a few times. I sort of realized that I was in the world as an adult.
“And then AIDS came around,” he adds. “Suddenly I was seeing people dying, and dealing with real-life issues: Who’s going to walk so-and-so’s dog this week? You watch an 18-year-old dieÉ.I couldn’t keep it out of my work.” Burkett pauses. “I guess I became an AIDS activist by default.”
Burkett’s first few marionette shows were derivative of particular theatrical styles–old-fashioned musicals (Fool’s Edge), Victorian melodrama (Virtue Falls), Punch and Judy puppetry (Punch Club), Gothic thrillers (Awful Manners)–and they usually had a queer, campy sensibility. For instance, Virtue Falls’s Mountie hero was named Dick Swell, and naturally, there was a song for his love interest titled “I Love Dick.” The shows also had an edge. Burkett would often leave room in the scripts for improvisation, and he would riff on whatever was in the headlines that day. Most importantly, these shows were an opportunity for the puppeteer to show off.
“Nowadays, I think about those earlier shows and go, ÔEuw-w-wÉ'” he says with a shudder. “It was definitely the work of a younger man who desperately needed some attention.”
Tinka’s New Dress was the turning point. The 1993 piece was inspired by Burkett’s meandering through Bil Baird’s classic tome The Art of the Puppet, and stumbling upon a paragraph about Czech puppeteers who did underground “Daisy Plays” (so-called since they would sprout up overnight and then just as quickly disappear). “During the occupation, the Czech puppeteers organized daring, illegal performances, sometimes in homes, sometimes in basements,” Baird writes. “The field of puppetry was, in fact, a kind of ideological battleground.”
From this raw material Burkett fashioned a fable about two childhood friends, both puppeteers, who take divergent paths in their lives. Fipsi aligns herself with an anonymous, fascistic government (with the appropriately Orwellian name “The Common Good”), while Carl creates satirical parodies that criticize the state in a drag club called the Penis Fly Trap. The club is located in a district known alternatively as “the ghetto” and “the camp”–an area that deviants, dissenters, queers and others who don’t toe the appropriate party line are shipped off to. As might be expected, things don’t go well for Carl or his seamstress sister, Tinka. Set on a beautiful revolving carousel, with a cast of 37 resplendent marionettes, Tinka is a delicate rumination on questions of creativity, censorship and individuality.
“It probably had to do with this new political awareness I had,” Burkett remembers, “but I was so impressed by that paragraph in Baird’s book–that people in such darkness could find such hope through the work. I suddenly understood that there was a nobility in this craft that I hadn’t been responding to or even recognizing. It was a big departure. I wrote a play–something lyrical and poetical–not just an entertainment. And with Tinka, I started acting again. That was a big risk.”
The risk paid off. Audiences flocked to the show, critics became zealots, and Burkett ended up with no fewer than 10 awards from Canada, Ireland and the U.S., including a Elizabeth Sterling Haynes award for best actor. “That sent ripples through both the theatrical and puppetry communities,” Burkett says. “It was one of the biggest deals that ever happened to me.”
Although Tinka raised the bar, nobody was quite prepared for Burkett’s next outing–even the artist himself. “I remember coming up with the idea for Street of Blood. And I recall sitting on my studio couch with a friend of mine and just crying for two hours and saying over and over, ÔI’ve ruined my career.’ And my friend said, ÔWell, just don’t do it.’ And I replied, ÔI have to do it.'”
“It” was a gritty romp through post-AIDS politics, Burkett-style. Set in Alberta, Street of Blood follows the story of Edna Rural, a “good woman” whose adventures begin when she pricks her finger, bleeds on her sewing and sees the face of Christ in a quilt square. Meanwhile, Edna must also come to accept her son Eden, a karaoke-singing gay terrorist; bury her husband, who has contracted AIDS through a tainted blood transfusion; and, finally, acknowledge her own status as HIV positive. Into the midst of all this comes Esmé Massengill, a has-been actress/vampire who has come to the Prairies in search of “fresh blood.” The town folks fall down in worship to the bloodthirsty Hollywood goddess, and the subsequent bloodbath is only curtailed by a battle-to-the-death between the forces of evil (Esmé) and good (Christ, played not by a puppet, but by Burkett himself).
Burkett’s rage–partly at the AIDS crisis, partly at the Christian Right and partly at his own Albertan upbringing-is, in traditional Burkett fashion, warmhearted, but it’s caustic and trenchant as well. “Oh, the show’s full of anger,” he admits. “For a while there, I thought that the character of Eden [who bombs gay clubs and then points the finger at the Religious Right in order to motivate the queer community] was too much. I pulled back on his rage, but it was wrong-he had to be that furious.”
Burkett’s own experience at his home in Calgary on the Halloween before the show’s premiere contributed to this notion. “We had our windows soaped,” he says, with a trace of exasperation, “with venomous homophobic shit like ÔDie you fags.'” That night, he says, he exploded. “And I went back and put all of Eden’s rage back into the play.”
If an angry, anti-assimilationist queer terrorist is a risky thing to present in a puppet show (or even in a traditional play, for that matter), then one might think that putting Christ on stage would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Yet all in all, the portrayal is, well, reasonable. “I thought there might be protests about putting Christ on stage,” he says, “but I never heard a word. I think if I’d set out to be a bad boy or just to be provocative, then there may have been trouble. But instead He’s presented in a very compassionate way, I think.”
A puppeteer manning marionettes, after all, is an obvious metaphor–even the most agnostic audience member can’t help but identify with those wooden representations and think that, yes, perhaps there really is Someone Up There pulling the strings. More than any other form of theatrical art, puppetry brings the spectator face-to-face with big theological questions. Burkett, in a sneakily savvy way, exploits this in Street of Blood.
The show was another critical favorite (at least in Canada–the Henson Festival/New York Theatre Workshop production is the show’s first foray into the U.S.), and it seemed that Burkett could do no wrong. Many theatre-watchers were waiting for the puppeteer’s next piece with baited breath.
Perhaps the expectations were too high. Or maybe it’s a case of critics wanting to tear down those they’ve idolized. Or maybe audiences were simply not prepared for Happy–a dark meditation on mortality inspired by the demise of a young Toronto playwright and the subsequent death of his wife, who, in a frenzy of despair and grief, committed suicide six weeks later. Happy opened to decidedly mixed reviews at the DuMaurier Festival last spring. Some of the criticism seemed legitimate–a subplot involving a nightclub set in a monochromatic afterlife that is presided over by a nasty, Satanic figure named Antoine Marionette had some wickedly amusing moments, but it was never really integrated into the rest of the piece (which, at two-and-a-half hours, is a little taxing even for the most ardent fan). Many critics railed at Burkett’s sentimentality.
The puppeteer bristles just a little when I bring up the reviews. “This one was risky–much riskier than just presenting Jesus on stage. This was using puppet theatre to talk about some very serious and complicated issues that have been plaguing me for a while. Happy’s my most personal work-I don’t know, maybe it’s the byproduct of a mid-life crisis.” (Burkett is leaving his Albertan home–and a long-term relationship–and relocating to Toronto.)
“Still,” he continues, “the fact that they’re having that discussion at all is worth it. My ego will take the brunt of it. But that’s okay. Because, lookÉ.” He leans forward with a huge grin on his face. “For a kid from the Prairies, this is all amazing. I never, ever thought that I’d ever be considered Ômainstream.’ I never thought that the press would ever take me seriously. Or that I’d win an Obie.
“It all puts a smile on my face, because all of the critics are taking it very seriously–they’re treating it like art–and, well,” he giggles, “it’s a puppet show.” He leans back. “So, they can say what they want. It’s all worth it.”