Pulling Ronnie Burkett’s strings

It’s hard to imagine being truly alone. For the most part, even though most people have some degree of independence, most rely on someone or something to help them live their lives. But if we were alone, and didn’t know it, would we feel lonely? Ronnie Burkett answers this question with his new play Ten Days on Earth.

Ten Days tells the story of a simple man, Darrel, whose mother dies early in the play. Darrel doesn’t understand why she won’t come out of her room and continues to live as if she were still with him. The play’s theme emerged from a variety of Burkett’s own thoughts and experiences.

“Two or three productions ago, I was on tour and making my way to the theatre one day and I stopped in a food court in downtown Manchester, England,” explains Burkett. “There I saw this elderly woman with her simple son. It was obvious he was very dependent on her. It broke my heart. I thought, what’s going to happen to him when she goes?”

Burkett made his name by providing serious themes and stories to the sometimes-trivialized art of puppetry. When he first created his Theatre of Marionettes 20 years ago, there were no texts, dramas or plays to perform for an aspiring puppeteer. Realizing this, Burkett created Marionettes with the goal of getting his foot in the door of a theatre, and performing serious works that engaged an adult audience.

Flying in the face of the stigma associated with the medium, Burkett’s performances are certainly not for children. Ten Days has a 14 + age limit placed on the ticket sales. This isn’t surprising considering previous performances have starred puppets as holocaust survivors, AIDS victims, prostitutes and a whole gallery of other unseemly wooden things. This, more than anything else, has separated Burkett from his peers. Few other puppeteers have the resolution to tackle the same subjects.

Burkett enjoys asking questions to the audience and forcing them to think about what they just experienced at his shows. Though he admits the Internet has provided a medium for puppeteers to share their works in new ways, it’s also taken something away from the performance arts.

“We do miss out on having that primal campfire thing of one guy sitting around and telling you a story,” says Burkett. “I’m getting a whole new audience coming back to the theatre because it’s a guy with iconic figures talking in an acoustic voice with no microphone, [and he’s] telling a story that begs and demands thought.”

From the beginning, Burkett achieved what he wanted with his plays. By tackling serious issues, he forces the audience to engage themselves in a conversation about what they just saw. Though he’s at the top of the puppetry world, as evidenced by the awards given him by groups like the Puppeteers of America, Burkett has only begun.

“At this point, I feel like a lot of people are willing to ‘grand old man’ me in a way,” says Burkett. “I do like the little accolades as they come. But quite frankly, I feel like I’m just beginning. Don’t retire me yet, kids.”

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