Puppeteer Ronnie Burkett

 
 Ronnie Burkett
(Image from the cover of the Toronto CanStage 2003-04 season flyer)
 
Ronnie Burkett is perhaps English Canada's most internationally renown puppeteer. In addition to performing his numerous one man marionette shows across Canada he has toured his productions in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany, and Australia.
 
I had the honour of meeting Ronnie at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa when I was 18, back in 1992, while he was touring "Awful Manors". Due to my young age I had never heard of Ronnie Burkett's shows before, and when I found out there was going to be "some puppeteer" in town doing one man shows I had to find out all that I could! Mostly, I wondered how it was possible that one puppeteer could perform an entire cast of puppets, marionettes no less, while still presenting a play that was engaging enough for an NAC audience. This was something I had to see! The puppeteer in me also wanted, and needed, to meet this puppeteer who could apparently work miracles with puppets. So I contacted the NAC to find out if I could meet him and to my surprize the NAC staff were very accommodating. Within a few days I had a meeting scheduled to meet with Ronnie during a day of rehearsals before I had even seen his show!
 
The above image is from a Globe and Mail article, published Nov. 2, 1991, promoting Ronnie Burkett's show "Awful Manors" in Toronto for a three week run at the CanStage Theatre. I especially love this photo of Ronnie as it's exactly how I remember meeting him at the NAC on Nov 28, 1992, in his dressing room surrounded by his puppets from Awful Manors. He was repairing a pair of eye glasses for an oriental character, who I would later learn meets a horrific demise in the play. The entire puppet, strings, controller and all, was thrown down a trap door that was located within a miniature fire place on the puppet stage, which had been raised a foot or two off the floor, in effect making it look like the character had been pushed into the fire. No wonder the glasses were broken!

Here is the entire article, which I had to scan in two parts. Click on the images to make them larger. The author of this article, Liam Lacey, describes Ronnie as "[...] the insouciant, angel-faced 34-year-old Calgary puppeteer who has single-handedly made adult puppetry a viable form of theatre in this country [...]" Indeed at such a young age Ronnie had already accomplished just that. He is just that talented. During my first meeting with him Ronnie and I sat in his dressing room and talked about all things puppetry while he was repairing his puppets. Then he kindly gave me two complimentary tickets to opening night of his show, Dec 1, 1992, and invited me to the get together after the show. I was in puppet heaven! 
 
Above is my NAC ticket stub for Awful Manors dated Dec 1, 1992 and the "Complimentary Drink" card for the after party, which of course I didn't use as I was under age! :) 
 
This Ottawa Sun newspaper advertisement for Awful Manors, from Nov 1992, features Ronnie's puppet character Melba Dangereuse "The Toast of Paris". As I was raised in a Catholic family, I was quite amazed to see that my mother had cut this risqué ad out of the newspaper and stapled it into the scrapbook that she was making about my puppetry. Somehow, Ronnie's puppets (or at least Melba Dangereuse) had penetrated through the barrier of correctness that seemed to hover over my family life up to that point. Yay for Ronnie!
 
Kidding aside, it was extremely relevant at this point in time in the early 1990's that Ronnie spoke so openly about being gay during his TV interview with Adrienne Clarkson. Other than myself, Ronnie was the first gay person that I knew of or had ever met! As I grew up in a Catholic environment I had learned throughout my childhood to supress my gayness and as a result had issues with internalized homophobia. So at that point in time during my teens I wasn't even close to acknowledging to myself that I was gay, let alone to my parents, but Ronnie's interview with Ms. Clarkson certainly helped to brake the ice in this area. I saw for the first time that it was okay to be gay, and that I could be happy too. I also saw how easily my parents accepted that Ronnie was gay and didn't mind that I went to see his puppet shows. They did not forbid me from it, and they didn't say anything negative about Ronnie.
 
This may sound corny, but by being so open Ronnie indirectly let me know that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I suspect he did the same for hundreds, if not thousands of others all over the world wherever he toured his puppet shows, leading us all by his very brave example. This may not seem like a big deal today, but back then it was still quite taboo to be gay, and there were few laws in place, if any, to protect against anti-gay hate crimes. Without question, Ronnie was very brave to be so candid. I have admired him and his puppets ever since.
 
In Ottawa, Ronnie made the cover of the Sun TV guide the week that his interview on "Adrienne Clarkson Presents" aired. This was a 1 hour program on CBC which aired Tue, March 16, 1993, six years before Ms. Clarkson would become the Governor General of Canada. Being the obsessed puppet freak that I am, I recorded the program on VHS! Below is the article from this TV guide. Click on the image to make it larger.
 
 
Little did I know back then that Ronnie had already had a very full and busy career as a puppeteer, having created many one man marionette shows and worked on several TV productions. Here is a list of his earlier work that preceded the 1991 debut of Awful Manors. While today I at least know of these projects, unfortunately I still know little about them though I have seen many images of Ronnie's puppets from these shows. Some of the dates noted here have yet to be confirmed, so this is just a rough list....
 
1973 The Patchwork Girl of Oz
1976 Ronnie apprentices with American Puppeteer Bil Baird
1977 Cinderabbit (TV special, won an Emmy Award) Cinderabbit photos:
1980 Plight of Poly Pureheart
1980 - 1986 Harriet's Magic Hats (TV series, seasons 3 and 4 as Ralph the Parrot)
1986 Fools Edge
Virtue Falls
1989 Shakes vs Shaw
1989 Punch Club
1990-93 Chicken Minute (TV series, as Anatole an alligator character)
 
 
 
1991 Awful Manors
1992 A Line of Balance (Video about the creation of Awful Manors)
 
Tinka's New Dress, 1994
This is arguably Ronnie's most acclaimed production, gaining him significant attention from the international theatre community. In Canada it won a Dora Mavor Moore Award. Unfortunately this is also one of the few shows of his that I missed! I've been kicking myself ever since...I just wasn't on the ball!

Canadian Theatre Review magazine, No. 95, Summer 1998. This special puppetry issue includes the entire script for "Tinka's New Dress" and a lengthy article about Ronnie Burkett which sheds some light on his earlier work and experiences as a puppeteer.

After his productions are retired Ronnie publishes the scripts for his plays in book form. In addition to being the first book in the "The Memory Dress Trilogy", "Tinka's New Dress" is the production that began Ronnie's successful book publishing enterprise.

1996 Old Friends

Street of Blood, 1998
Ronnie performed "Street of Blood" from May 5-16, 1998 at NAC in Ottawa. Below is the NAC's newsletter Stages, Vol. 7, April 1998, featuring Street of Blood on the cover and an interview with Ronnie Burkett. Once again, I had to scan it in two parts... click the images for a larger view.



Above is a full page add for "Street of Blood", page 4 in X Press, Ottawa's Newsweekly, April 30, 1998. A full page article also appeared on page 11. I like the photo caption, which reads: Esme Massingill: "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille."

Happy, 2000
This is another of Ronnie's most acclaimed productions. It is also the second and last show of his that I've missed seeing! Yes, although I am a die-hard fan and puppet freak I have missed two of the three Memory Dress Trilogy shows!!!! As penance I must sit among the ashes!

However, I have seen every show since!

When Ronnie was touring his show "Happy" he made the front page of the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, Feb 20, 2001. By this point, not only was he firmly established as an internationally acclaimed Canadian theatre artist and puppeteer, he had become an unofficial ambassador of Canadian theatre abroad. An example of exceptional Canadian talent that was exported to tour in other countries. The article states "[...] Happy has moved audiences to tears in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Germany, and is scheduled to open London, England on June 18." If there was a glass ceiling for puppeteers in legitimate theatre, Ronnie smashed it to oblivion all over the globe.

Provenance, 2003

Ronnie performed provenance in Toronto in 2004 at the CanStage Theatre. My parents and I traveled to Toronto especially to see the show. Above left is the program for the show's run at CanStage, and on the right is the final book form of the script that was later published.

This is a flyer from Toronto's CanStage Theatre's 2003-04 season, which lists the performance dates as Jan 9, - March 4, 2004. As you can see, Ronnie is featured on the cover, however I especially like the picture of him that is on the inside of this flyer, shown below (I included a larger version of it too!)


Here is a great image of Ronnie being controlled by Plato, the monkey from Provenance.

The following year, Ronnie brought Provenance to Ottawa. Above Ronnie is the cover story for the Capital Xtra! newspaper, Jan 13, 2005. The article was on pages 13-14.
 
In Ottawa, Provenance was presented at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, which has since relocated to a brand new facility. I took this photo of the marquee which list Ronnie's show ran from Jan 12-30, 2005. I took the opportunity to see Provenance two more times.

This is the front and back view of a promotional card for the Ottawa presentation of Provenance at GCTC, and below is the poster.

 
When Provenance was in Ottawa, Ronnie kindly met with me again and allowed me to take photo's of several marionettes, patiently holding each of them up one at a time. Unfortunately for some of the pictures my flash created white hot spots that washed out the puppet's faces, but I still like the pictures none the less. (I had yet to switch over to a digital camera, so I was using a film camera and therefore had no way of knowing if the pictures worked until I got them developed.) Above left is Tender seated in front of the painting that was the catalyst for the show's story. Pity Bean, seen here on the right in her Beaver costume, was researching the painting to learn of its provenance, hence the title of the show. The puppet of Tender was not a marionette, but rather a doll which Ronnie set up in a miniature chair for the photo.

Pity Bean's beaver costume was made by puppeteer Noreen Young whose puppet character Gertrude Diddle, from the TV series Hi Diddle Day, captivated Ronnie in the 1970's. Noreen has since given the original Gertrude puppet to Ronnie, and it remains on display in his workshop. In a 2014 interview for the star.com Ronnie described Gertrude Diddle as being "his muse". Here is a link to the article:
https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/2014/03/21/ronnie_burkett_puppeteer_and_his_creative_space.html

Leda Othenreath and Plato the roller skating monkey. I tend to like Ronnie's animal character's the most and especially liked Plato, he's an awesome puppet. They're all awesome!
 
Young Leda and her husband Dooley, and Hershel Flechtheim. I'm always amazed at Ronnie's ability to find puppet-sized items, such as Hershel's glasses! I find it a challenge buying my own glasses, and yet so many of Ronnie's puppets have perfectly reproduced puppet-sized specs!!! How does he do it?

A ballet dancer
 
Joanna, one of the ladies in the brothel, with Pity Bean in her skating outfit in the background. Pity looked really cute in that outfit!
 
10 Days on Earth, 2006

When Ronnie toured "10 Days on Earth" in Toronto he returned once again to the CanStage Theatre. I went to Toronto specifically to see the show. Above left is the program from Can Stage and the book version of the play that was later published. The book led to Ronnie being recognized as a finalist for the Governor General Literary Awards in 2008.

It is hard to pick just one of Ronnie's characters as the favourite so I have several favourites. "10 Days on Earth" provides three of them: Lloyd with his puffy hair and beard, Little Burp, and Honey Dog.

Billy Twinkle, 2008

Ronnie brought his production of "Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy" to Ottawa, performing at the National Arts Centre, Nov 25-Dec 6, 2008. Another brilliant show with amazing puppets!!! This is a large card used for promotion. Below is the back view which includes a synopsis of the show.

 
String Quartet, 2010

String Quartet is a book that was published in February 2010. It brings together in one volume the scripts for all three of the Memory Dress Trilogy plays as well as Provenance. I've shown it next to the regular edition of Provenance for size comparison. This is the first larger format publication featuring Ronnie's work, at least that I know of.

 
Hopefully someday a "behind the scenes" type of book will be published showing the production of Ronnie's shows and puppets, with photos of all the puppets from his many past productions. In recent years Ronnie has posted a significant amount of "in the works" material on Facebook. An actual book that collected all of this type of information would be phenomenal!!!

Penny Plain, 2011

Ronnie brought his production of "Penny Plain" to the NAC in March 2012. Above is the book that was later published next to the book for "Billy Twinkle".

This is the NAC's March-April 2012 program flyer which features Ronnie Burkett on the cover with his puppets from "Penny Plain".

This is the March-April 2012 program for placedesarts in Montreal Quebec featuring the main character from "Penny Plain" on the cover.

The Daisy Theatre, 2013

Ronnie's current show "The Daisy Theatre" was presented in Ottawa at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Nov 29 - Dec 18, 2016. In this variety style production Ronnie revives some of the beloved characters from his past productions while also introducing a whole cast of new characters. However, with "The Daisy Theatre" each show is different! Ronnie expertly ad-libs his way through each evening, interacting with and responding to the audience. Some hilarious cabaret style numbers are also mixed in to the presentation, which can include any possible line up of characters that Ronnie may choose to perform on a whim! In spite of the unscripted nature the show still has drama, which Ronnie is so good at that it would be remise for him not to give his audience a dose, yet it is also much lighter than many of his past works. The focus for this production is clearly more comical in nature.
 
It was heartwarming to see Edna Rural again after so many years, and boy can she talk! Hilarious! As I had missed seeing "Happy" this was the first time that I got to see Schnitzel in action. Esme Massengill from Street of Blood is also part of the cast but on the night I attended she didn't make an appearance. Though considering she's a vampire that might have been a good thing! This is a really awesome concept for a Ronnie Burkett show, and the format suits his comedic skill perfectly. In fact this show is so unique from Ronnie's other productions it has it's own website: http://www.thedaisytheatre.com/

Online articles written by Ronnie Burkett:

PROPTOLOGY website:
Index page for Winter 1995 edition: http://home.eol.ca/~props/index.html#toc
Article: "Papier Mache Rediscovered" http://home.eol.ca/~props/papier.html
Recipes for Papier Mache: http://home.eol.ca/~props/recipes.html

More online info about Ronnie Burkett and his puppets:

Ronnie Burkett Daisy Theatre website:
http://www.thedaisytheatre.com/

Ronnie Burkett's Theatre of Marionettes on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/RonnieBurkettTheatreOfMarionettes/

Ronnie is represented by John Lambert & Assoc. Inc.
http://www.johnlambert.ca/English/portfolios/ronnie-burkett/

The Canadian Museum of History online exhibit "Art of Puppetry" has a page about Ronnie Burkett with links to selected archival documents. There are some archival items in the scroll bar, and a link to more after the text paragraph:
http://theatre.historymuseum.ca/narratives/details.php?lvl2=4810&lvl3=4820&lvl4=5337&language=english

Here is the Canadian Encyclopedia information about Ronnie Burkett:
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ronnie-burkett/

The Gary Goddard Agency listing for Ronnie Burkett:
http://www.garygoddardagency.com/burkett/

Here is the Wikipedia article:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronnie_Burkett

Thestar.com interview with Ronnie Burkett:
https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/2014/03/21/ronnie_burkett_puppeteer_and_his_creative_space.html

 
To date I've seen seven out of the last nine theatre productions by Ronnie Burkett, who has proven again and again that he can indeed work miracles with his puppets. Over the years, I've tried on many occasions to write a one man puppet show with no success, always finding that I haven't enough hands to do the types of stories that I come up with. Yet somehow, magically, Ronnie make his stories come to life in such a way that it seems there has been a full cast of characters interacting on stage by the time he takes his final bow. That is a skill that can't be copied or faked no matter how much one knows about the technical workings of puppets.
 
When discussing puppeteers specifically, it is critical to point out that there are many who feel at liberty to promote themselves as a "Master" puppeteer. More often than not, such puppeteers have bestowed the title upon themselves simply for the sake of boosting their own ego, or to make themselves sound more talented than they actually are. In truth however, such a title is genuinely reserved for individuals like Ronnie Burkett who so clearly possesses an extremely rare level of talent and genius.




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Text and original photos © Mike Artelle
Posted Dec 29, 2016

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