Strings Attached: One-On-One with Puppeteer Ronnie Burkett

Canadian Ronnie Burkett is one of the world’s premier puppeteers. For 25 years, his Theatre of Marionettes has been gripping adult audiences with plays featuring the unique combination of mature, thought-provoking, philosophical themes enacted on stage with puppets. Burkett’s current show, Penny Plain, set during the apocalypse and featuring a cast of characters including the blind and aging Penny to psychopaths, cross-dressers and even Geppetto and Pinocchio, is currently playing at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. Burkett recently spoke with Zoomer about Penny Plain, what goes into his craft, his fears as a performer and one embarrassing on-stage incident in Amsterdam.

Mike Crisolago: Tell us a little bit about how the concept for Penny Plain came about.

Ronnie Burkett: “It was just watching a lot of documentaries, and there’s that series called Life After People and I was fascinated by that and just this premise that if we got out of the way that the Earth would actually regenerate itself quite nicely. When we think of the end of the world, we think that the Earth is going to end, when in fact the end of the world might just be the end of civilization and that the world will continue on without us.- I think man’s fascination with the end has been ongoing.”

MC: Has it been a fascination or a fear for you?

RB: I’m a newshound but I’ve long known that my life is finite and that there will be a time when I’m not on the planet, so I don’t have any great mystery about death or the end. That’s why I’ve always just been a worker bee and gotten on with it.

MC: As far as your shows go, you are the sole performer manoeuvring all the puppets and doing all of the voices. How much of a consideration does that become when you’re actually writing the shows?

RB: When I’m writing it, I’m actually talking to myself in a way or improvising and my fingers are moving at the same time. I’m setting the rhythm really because if the character’s rhythm isn’t coming out of my mouth in a way that sounds right to me, then I edit or re-write or start over or change the voice.

MC: That must present limitations too, such as in cases when you have multiple characters arguing and you’re doing all the voices.

RB: That’s rehearsal in a way, and I’ve been doing that since I was a little boy. But in a way, and this is going to sound a little bit crazy, but I kind of have to just get out of the way. I have to make sure it’s all in there and let it start and let characters really have their own opinion.

MC: Something that really brought me into the play were the little nuances that the puppets exhibited, whether it be hand movements during a conversation or picking up an object, as it really gives them another dimension and an air of life. Is that something that you have to consciously work at doing or does it come second nature by now?

RB: “That’s a combination of several elements that end up on stage. These shows take a year to build-so when I’m jointing a knee, for example, on the first Penny marionette I know that that puppet has to fall to the ground and kneel and lie on the floor and feel the grass. So I’m actually building that all in and it’s kind of a pre-rehearsal for me. But it’s my constant thing to refine those marionettes and what the joints do and what the controls can do.”

MC: So you have multiple marionettes of the same character for the show.

RB: “Every time a character changes their clothes, that’s a new puppet. So I think there are four Penny marionettes just to serve that.”

MC: How do you manage to keep track of all the puppets on stage?

RB: “The very first week of rehearsal on the set I don’t want the puppets anywhere near me. So, it’s a lot of masking tape on the set with character names on it just to figure out where everybody is because I only have two hands. Once that’s done, then we put the puppets in. Every character has 16 strings and there are 33 marionettes so that’s a lot of strings up there in the dark.”

MC: If you can take us onto that stage for a moment, when you’re manoeuvring all of these puppets and doing all the voices, what state of mind do you find yourself in?

RB: My first goal is to always tell a story and get through the show and keep the audience engaged. So some nights I’m quite Zen-like and you just go into that zone with the audience and the story unfolds. Many nights however, like the night after (the Toronto) opening, I think everybody with bronchitis in Toronto showed up. [Laughs] So on those nights, I’m at work and it really is about always being aware of the audience.

And I think in the last few years I’ve realized something deeper that helps me get on stage, and that is that these are not my enemies. These are people who’ve paid 50 bucks to see a puppet show. [Laughs] And they actually put their coats on and left the house. And actually these are probably the best friends I’m ever going to know. So that’s how I approach every night now.

MC: Have you ever had a catastrophic moment on stage where you’ve dropped a marionette or something’s tangled?

RB: Years ago I used to close my eyes on stage, feeling like it would take me away. One night in Amsterdam, I had my eyes closed and I was doing a beautiful, tender little scene and the audience was laughing. I finally opened my eyes and one of the puppet’s heads had come off and it was just swinging on the string-.I learned years ago that if something dreadful happens on there, if I acknowledge it, or the puppet makes a joke about it, the entire audience laughs.”

MC: You’ve talked before about how you’re using mostly long string puppets in this show, while in the past you’ve used mostly short string. After doing this show, do you have a preference?

RB: I’ve got to tell you, I love the long strings. For me, it’s just a different kind of elegance. The short strings is really immediate and almost rustic, but with that length of strings I’ve got to be really in control up there and, honestly, just to make a little hand movement is such a tiny little gesture on my part that I’ve had to calm myself down on those controls. And I really love it.

MC: Have you ever found that people judge your show before seeing it because it’s with puppets and maybe not take it as seriously?

RB: I think it’s a uphill battle-.If I stood backstage and thought about what I’m about to do, I honestly don’t think I’d get on stage. And the few times I’ve stood back there and gone, ‘Okay, what am I doing? I’m going to go tell a story with marionettes and have people believe that I can do a 14-year-old girl’s voice’ and then I fill myself with terror. It’s ridiculous. I think about other things.”

MC: Regarding the Geppetto character in Penny Plain, I think it’s inevitable that people are going to draw comparisons between you and him. What does that character represent to you?   

RB: Geppetto, for me in the show, is really the main discussion of parents and children because he’s disappointed that Pinocchio didn’t want to stay a magical little child-.And so they had to reconcile that and, in fact, I think what Geppetto did is what parents kind of have to realize, is that you’ve created something with its own will and it needs to go into the world. You have to let go of those strings.

MC: You work solo on your shows. As far as partnerships go, are you open to working with other puppeteers on one of your productions?

RB: I don’t think I’ve explored solo performance yet, so I think if I ever get to the point where I go, ‘Well there, that’s all you can do as one performer’ then I might open it up. But I’ve certainly worked with other puppeteers on other projects and on television and that stuff but-.I still think that there’s so much I can explore as a solo performer.

MC: Along those same lines, have you ever considered how different your shows would be were you to hand your scripts over to a company of actors?

RB: I did hear someone who got into a national theatre school use a monologue from one of my shows in her audition. I performed that piece for years and to hear a real girl, who was a real teenager, do it was wild. [Laughs] It wasn’t a middle-aged old fart pretending he was a teenage girl.

MC: Your partner John Alcorn wrote the music for Penny Plain. What was that collaboration like?

RB: Our first one was on the previous show Billy Twinkle and there was almost a murder-suicide. [Laughs] The interesting thing is that-.just because you’ve worked together previously doesn’t mean you have the full vocabulary for the next time because every project is different. Once you realize that the excitement is about building the vocabulary-.that’s what keeps it really exciting.

MC: Is there anything in particular that you hope people take away from Penny Plain?

RB: When discussing the environment and the personal view is that we’re actually in Heaven and we’re already in paradise so it was kind of (me saying), ‘You know, couldn’t we just kind of notice that we’re in the garden already?’ This is an extreme what if, but it doesn’t need to be.

MC: What’s next for you and your theatre as it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year?

RB: You know, I just hope to keep going, actually. I hope to be 79 years old and have the 50th anniversary-.In terms of the next scripted show, I have three ideas bopping around in my head so they’re either one show or three separate shows, so I haven’t a clue.

Penny Plain runs at Toronto’s Factory Theatre until Feb. 26. It then continues onto Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (March 13-April 1) and Montreal’s Place des Arts (April 12-21).

-Mike Crisolago