Puppet master pulls strings on campus

By Stephen Slessor

Not many boys from Medicine Hat grow up to be internationally renowned theatre performers. One who did is currently working at the University of Calgary.

Master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett is in town preparing his latest production, Happy, for premiere at the World Stage Festival in Toronto in April. The U of C Drama Department has given him use of the Reeve Theatre to develop and rehearse the show. In return, many rehearsals are open to students interested in watching the top-notch artist at work. As well, Calgarians will have a chance to preview Happy in a series of workshop-rehearsals starting Mar. 20.

Burkett knew from a very young age he wanted to work with puppets, and he’s never looked back.

"When I was seven, I opened the World Book Encyclopedia and it fell open to puppets and I looked at it and thought, ‘well, that’s what I’ll do for the rest of my life,’" he says matter-of-factly. "It’s the perfect job for a loner because you can make the world small."

Burkett learned his craft by writing to every puppeteer he could find to ask for advice. Eventually, a few became mentors. At every opportunity he would visit them to watch and learn. Between visits, he took up acting, singing, and dancing and gradually honed his skills.

Meanwhile, puppetry in Canada blossomed with the popularity of the Muppets, spawning a host of puppeteers working in live and television productions for children. Although he did work in children’s puppetry for years, Burkett wanted to break out of what he calls the "puppet ghetto" of schools, shopping malls, birthday parties and Christmas shows.

"Large groups of children scare me," he says laughing. "What I want to say isn’t for children. I want to talk to my own species, which is adults."

The result was the formation of his own company, Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, in 1986. Happy is his eighth production.

Early shows earned him a reputation for cutting-edge theatre. Then, in the late 1990’s, Tinka’s New Dress and Street of Blood, which together with Happy form a trilogy, pushed him onto the international stage. He won rave reviews and a multitude of theatre awards. Despite the success, he remains humble.

"It’s quite amazing that the theatre community in this country and in other countries have accepted this work as theatre," he muses. "When Tinka won an obie (Off-Broadway Theatre Award) for Off-Broadway work in New York, they chose out of the whole off-Broadway season and a puppet show from Calgary was one of them. That’s amazing."

Life as an artist is by no means easy for Burkett, as evidenced by the dark circles under his eyes. He is a writer, singer, actor, puppet carver and small-business owner all-in-one. He admits it’s exhausting work. However, there’s a spark in his eye and renewed energy in his voice when he remembers great moments on-stage.

"Like a revival meeting, the audience was so charged and so there that we came off stage and just jumped up and down," he says about a performance in Manchester, England a year and a half ago. "That probably gave us enough fuel for another 10 years touring."

Such moments aside, Burkett laughs at his less positive experiences. He refers to a children’s festival in Saskatchewan as a "circle of hell," and boasts of taking such lofty venues as the National Arts Centre in Ottawa off his list of places to play. Closer to home, he vilifies Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects.

"Alberta Theatre Projects’ audience is the meanest audience in Canada," he bristles. "No one goes in that theatre to take a risk. They go there to have a nice social evening."

A prairie boy at heart, Burkett draws on his own life experiences when creating new works. For instance, Street of Blood is set in small-town Alberta. The storyline for Happy has definite personal origins as well.

"The basic idea for [Happy], about grief and happiness, happened when a couple we know. The young guy died one day, and a month later his wife was dead," he explains. "She’d killed herself and I just kind of looked at that and said, ‘whoa, what is this?’ She didn’t have the normal grieving process. Why not?’"

Happy asks what happiness really is and why the grief of losing someone affects different people in different ways. Burkett doesn’t offer any definitive answers.

"It’s like we’re told that life is black and white, but what if there’s no grey in-between?" he asks. "What if being alive is living in colour?"

One thing is definitive; Burkett appreciates the opportunity to work at U of C. Normally, he would develop a show in the studio, but this time, he’s working on-set. He rehearses with Stage Manager Terri Gillis and brings in music and technical specialists as needed. They have all the bells and whistles of a theatre at their disposal.

Drama classes have also benefited from Burkett’s presence. Several groups have attended rehearsals, talked with Burkett and his crew, and watched them in action.

The next step is to consult the public. Workshop-rehearsals of Happy run Mar. 20 to Apr. 1. Each night, Burkett will present the show at it’s current stage of development, with full runs planned in the final week. Viewers can voice their opinions in nightly talkback sessions. Burkett hopes the public will appreciate the chance to participate in the final stages of developing Happy.

"I’ve got to think that theatre-goers would be interested in seeing stuff created," he says.

Tickets to the workshop-rehearsals cost $10 for the general public,

$8 for students and seniors, and are available at the Campus Ticket Centre.

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