Burkett in Britain!
Beccy Smith welcomes the return of Canadian marionette maestro Ronnie Burkett
Ronnie Burkett’s latest creation, 10 Days on Earth, co-commissioned by Barbican BITE07 and queerupnorth (alongside Canstage and Wiener Festwochen Profile), receives its British premiere on 18 April 2007 at the Barbican in London, with a three-week run there before travelling up to Manchester.
The show sets out to explore themes of loneliness and independence, focused through the worldview of one of Burkett’s typically dysfunctional characters. The plot focuses on Darrel, a mentally ‘challenged’ man whose journey through the ten days following the death of his mother gradually gives him the tools to deal with her death. In this limbo, unknowingly alone, Burkett explores the love of mother to son through scenes from family past and fantasy present, showing how Darrel’s mother has paved the way for him to travel forward in the world without her.
Burkett can be seen as the original puppet auteur: writing, designing, making, and performing single-handed (often with considerable ingenuity) all of his shows. Inspired, apocryphally, by the arbitrary page that his family encyclopaedia fell open at in a random experiment aged seven, Burkett committed completely to puppetry, memorising all available material in his local library of Alberta as a child. At fourteen, when he visited an international conference of puppetry in Michigan, he was able to win the respect of some of his heroes through his obvious study and passion for the form, earning him a training and mentorship that would last many years. Formal training followed, firstly though a unique, though limited-in-relevance puppetry scholarship to Salt Lake City, and later under the apprenticeship of hero Bill Baird at the only permanent professional puppet theatre in America at that time. But it was only when, disheartened by serious job prospects in New York, Burkett returned to Calgary that his own work began, slowly, to emerge. Working as a jobbing puppeteer but absorbed into a society of young artists, Burkett began to perform his work at a local punk bar, an environment which arguably played its part in his developing aesthetic, emphasising its sardonic, satirical and flamboyant characteristics; its love to shock.
His early work as Ronnie Burkett’s Theatre of Marionettes (formed 1986) evolved from these cabaret interludes – stylish, comic and satirical (one early show included a representative of the Canadian Arts Board named Phyllis Stein) with strong, complex narratives. In The Punch Club, Burkett created a meta-theatrical satire of his unfortunate experiences performing at the theatrically conservative Shaw Festival in America, whilst Awful Manors was an Agatha Christie-style Gothic mystery. The turning point came in 1994 with Tinka’s New Dress – the maturation of his work was reflected in a clearer political and emotional weight in the material.
Some critics have attributed the change in Burkett’s style to his experiences during the AIDS epidemic in North America in the late 80s and early 90s, a backdrop which Street of Blood, the second in what was to become the Memory Dress trilogy, broaches explicitly. Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that his idiosyncratic form found its best content then and the results were explosive: Robyn Archer, artistic director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, said at the time: “I think it’s fair to say that in that show, Ronnie reinvented the medium.”
Burkett’s work is preoccupied by multiple narratives, with huge casts (of puppets) and multiple world views. His last show, Provenance, took in a Viennese brothel, bohemian parties in Paris, high society London, and the horrors of the First World War. His characters are often damaged, fragile individuals but his approach is unashamedly melodramatic, running us through a flamboyant barrage of emotions as he unlocks their tales. His is theatre on an epic canvas, and always with issues to explore – identity, sexuality and the power of art to change the world and our experience of life. He is said to have been particularly inspired by Josef Skupa, legendary Czech puppeteer whose performances under Nazi occupation were steadfast in their underground resistance. In Tinka’s New Dress one main character – a puppeteer – discovers the power of protest that his puppetry can wield in a monolithic oppressive society.
In 2001 Ronnie Burkett received the President’s Award from the Puppeteers of America, sometimes known as the Pulizter of Puppeteering, and in 2003 the Herbert Whittaker Drama Bench Award for Outstanding contribution to Canadian Theatre. He has broken attendance records set by conventional dramas at small theatres in New York and Toronto, outpacing both Rent and Angels in America. Despite this success, Burkett has long been critical of audiences across the pond, refusing ever to play America again and labelling them “the stupidest audiences on earth”.
But the UK has always been a favoured country. Burkett’s last appearance at Barbican Bite (with Provenance in May 2004) was accompanied by a Masterclass hosted by the Puppet Centre Trust. Three companies using puppetry in their work took part, sharing their work with him and discussing their approaches to making a show. (The companies were Blind Summit, Mishimou, and the Little Angel/Indefinite Articles in the person of Steve Tiplady.) Burkett gave his time for free to this event as a donation in kind to the Puppet Centre, which was greatly appreciated.
This year’s event promises to be one of the international puppetry highlights of 2007. It’s great to see him back in Britain, and to note the significant contribution of British commissions in making this production happen. This is another major marker in the legitimisation of puppetry as an adult artform in the UK, and the vision of queerupnorth and BITE in their commissioning is an important development in the international identification of Britain as a country with a serious commitment to puppetry.
Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, 10 Days on Earth
is at The Pit, Barbican as part of BITE07, 18 April – May 2007. www.barbican.org.uk/theatre
The queerupnorth International Festival 2007 will take place in various locations throughout Manchester from 7-27 May 2007. For details of appearances by Ronnie Burkett and other performances and events see www.queerupnorth.com