With his penchant for apocalyptic story lines, politically charged dialogue, and adult-only content, it’s no surprise that master puppeteer and playwright, Ronnie Burkett has been called the “bad boy” of puppetry. Equally unsurprising – this former apprentice to The Sound of Music’s puppeteer, Bil Baird has been credited with “single-handedly rejuvenating puppetry in North America”. Having received critical and public acclaim for his performances across Canada, the U.K., Australia, Germany, Austria, Sweden, and elsewhere, Burkett is recognized today as one of the world’s foremost theatre artists.
Now, with his latest creation Penny Plain set to take the stage from November 17th to December 17th here at The Cultch, we wanted to give you a back-stage glance at the incredible artistry involved in Penny Plain’s nearly 30 distinct puppets – along with some insight into the artist himself.
Photos by Ian Jackson from Penny Plain
The Early Years
Burkett’s fascination with puppetry began when he was just seven years old, after he opened The World Book Encyclopedia to an entry on puppets. “There was a diagram [in the Encyclopedia] on how to make a marionette,” he recalls. “I went downstairs and took a saw, cut a broom and jointed it with some screws. I got a really good spanking for cutting the broom up, let me tell you.”
But what began as an obsession with “just…building puppets” soon led to school shows, productions on TV, and eventually touring around community halls and shopping centres. For Burkett, the clear next step was full-length plays. At age fourteen he began touring his puppet shows, and, thanks to his persistent letter writing skills, by age 19, Burkett had scored a job in New York, working with prominent puppeteer Bil Baird.
“I was relentless in writing letters to old puppeteers as a child,” he says. “While other kids were learning to smoke and make out in the back of a car, I was doodling knee joints.”
The Production Process
A drawing from a marionette in Penny Plain
Those “doodles” are the starting point for each and every one of Burkett’s handcrafted marionettes. Working in what he calls “factory mode”, Burkett’s year-long construction process begins with a working drawing of a full-sized marionette, including the front and profile. “First I start alone on paper,” he describes, “and then transfer my ideas to color sketches. It becomes a multi-week process of creating heads and faces [out of Plasticine], and then bodies and legs. It’s six to seven months of body parts alone.” From miniature sweaters with hand-sewn beads to tiny soles cobbled onto leather shoes, no detail of the finished puppet is overlooked.
But rather than completing one marionette at a time, Burkett’s studio is a jumble of “feet and limbs and half bodies” that only come together in the final stages of the production process. His one rule for each of 33 puppets built for Penny Plain: “no matter if I have the most beautiful puppet head sculpture in the world, if I can’t do the voice for it while I’m sculpting, it won’t be a character in my show.”
Burkett’s insistence on treating his marionettes as “bona fide actors, moving with all the subtleties of life” sums up the playwright’s most revolutionary contribution to theatre. “Just as normal actors bring their life to a role, I bring mine to these little moveable people,” he says.
“These puppets are built and designed and exist solely to be those characters. It’s a whole kind of weird chemistry magic thing that goes on, because I don’t really make them come alive. I do the voice and I move them around, but the audience has to suspend their disbelief. And when they do THAT, that’s when the character comes alive.”
Photos by Ian Jackson from Penny Plain.
As for his latest creation? “I wanted to be out of the way,” he says, “[to see] if the puppets can hold the show where they have their own playing space and I never go into it.” And while he’s never quite “invisible” to his audience – he stands in full sight, just above his puppets – Burkett continues to break boundaries with this David Suzuki-esque apocalyptic production.
After all, it’s this kind of innovation that Burkett argues is the reason “why audiences will sit and watch a two-hour marionette play.”
“I think they know it’s handmade. I think they know the combination of my point of view—that I’m not lying, that it’s an authentic point of view that brought us all together in this play,” he reflects. “But also that I cared enough about it to design it and build it and stand up there and jiggle it around.”
Penny Plain is running November 17 to December 17 at The Cultch. Tickets start at $45 and are available online at tickets.thecultch.com, by phone at 604.251.1363 or in person at 1895 Venables Street.