The toys are back in town

By James Keller

Whether you’ve been waiting for this since rehearsals or you’ve never even heard of it, One Yellow Rabbit’s production of Ronnie Burkett’s Happy will be a theatre experience unlike anything most of us have ever seen.

The significance of Happy is that there is a cast of only one. One human that is–and this is just the voices and movement. The real stars aren’t even real people.

They’re puppets.

"Not a lot of puppeteers do
theatre," explains puppeteer, actor and playwright Ronnie Burkett. "[Puppeteers] still do shows
in malls or school or on television, but I just decided I was a theatre
guy and that’s where I wanted to work."

As unusual as puppetry is in popular culture, Happy’s themes certainly aren’t unfamiliar to the average audience member.

"Happy is about grief and what it takes to be happy," says Burkett. "I wanted to explore why for some people, grief is this wall that you just keep hitting over and over again, and there are some people who go through grieving and kind of climb over that wall and become happy again."

Another related theme Burkett uses is perspective. As he explains it, perspective is essentially varying states of grief and happiness that have tremendous effects on our lives.

"We’re told that life is black and white, and to live successfully you have to find subtle shades of gray," says Burkett. "I think that between black and white is colour, and the real risk of being alive is to dive within the colour and live a colourful life."

Rehearsed last March in University of Calgary’s Reeve Theatre, the play follows Carla and Drew, who live together in a rooming house. After Drew’s sudden death, Carla must progress through different stages of grief in search of resolution.

Burkett hopes the use of puppets and the well written script will heighten the experience of the audience and affect them in a much different way.

"When [puppets] work, it’s because they’re not human beings," Burkett says. "What’s interesting is that the audience starts caring about the characters. Afterwards, they’ll think, ‘oh wait a minute, that wasn’t a real thing.’"

Burkett goes on to explain that this is achieved through the active roll the audience has in brining these characters to life.

"They only live in an audience’s mind or heart because the audience willed them to live. I think that allows you to go more personally into the themes–they’re not the real thing and I think we all know that."

Puppetry, considered by some as an odd area of theatre to specialize in, has been a childhood dream for Burkett.

"When I was seven, I opened the World Book Encyclopedia and it just fell open to puppets," remembers Burkett. "I looked at it and thought, ‘well, that’s what I’ll do for the rest of my life.’"

Through these endeavours, Burkett built a career and a prominent place in the Canadian theatre world. Happy is the third instalment in a trilogy that began in 1994 with Tinka’s New Dress and continued with Street of Blood. During this time, Burkett only made his name larger and more heavily renowned for his work.

"Over the last five years, I’ve been regarded mostly as being a playwright and an actor," says Burkett. He finds it exciting that a puppeteer he won awards for acting over hundreds of other colleagues in the field. "I think it’s fantastic."

The increasing level of puppetry in theatre is one that Burkett feels can change audiences’ perception of work on stage, and also one that
caters to a new generation of theatergoers who have been bombarded with technology every day of their lives.

"We’re all accessible all the time," begins Burkett. "The audience is just dying for the human voice on stage that’s not amplified and talking about something. If it’s not all bells and whistles and high tech, it’s kind of appealing."

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