Burkett Exposes the Strings Attached to a Master Puppeteer's Art

The CCTC Lunchbox Chat with Ronnie Burkett, Thursday, October 6, 2011

On Thursday, October 6, the CCTC sat down with Ronnie Burkett for what proved to be a dynamic and engaging Lunchbox Chat. Kim McCaw publicly interviewed the internationally renowned puppeteer and theatre maker, with attendees from the University of Alberta Drama Department and the Edmonton community gathering both to listen to and ask their own questions of the Alberta-born creator.

The conversation spanned a range of topics, including the role of puppetry in the theatre, the role of marionettes in the puppet theatre, arts funding in Canada, life as an independent artist, and of course, Burkett’s unique brand of theatre creation.

This year is the 25th anniversary of Burkett’s Theatre of Marionettes, which debuted right here in Edmonton at the 1986 Fringe Festival with his first full-length show, Fool’s Gold. Of these early days, Burkett reflected: “When I was a kid, self-created work wasn’t something theatre knew.” He remarked fondly that the Fringe served as a space where “all the freaks” could do their shows.

As the “freaks” that practice performer-driven creation are slowly but surely becoming a norm on the Canadian stage, their process has become a focal point of many contemporary theatrical discussions. With a veteran creator working in an unusual form as guest, this Lunchbox Chat was no exception. On his writing process, Burkett disclosed that he begins the creation of each piece by shaping three key elements: “A title, an opening image, and a closing image.” As other elements are negotiated, these three pieces remain the pillars of his process. 

Burkett also revealed his approaches to some of the unique creation challenges that present themselves to a puppeteer. For example, when building marionettes, he does not merely construct props but rather he creates the actors he will later direct and the characters he will eventually play. He noted that when building a puppet, he tries to identify the character’s voice in his own, and if he cannot, he will go back to the construction stage, rework the Plasticine, and search again for the sound until at last the puppet’s body and voice harmonize. 

It is this very experience of bringing the puppet creations to life, giving them character, that kept Burkett working in this niche. He described how a brief stint in acting school led him to realize that as an actor, he would be destined to play only male characters within a few years of his own age. As a puppeteer, however, he could play any age, gender, or even species that he wanted: “Why would I want to be just an actor? That’s so limiting!”

Burkett was in town for the world premiere of his new show, Penny Plain, which closed last weekend after a successful run at the Citadel Theatre. It plays next in Calgary.