by Ilana Reimer
One day when Ronnie Burkett was seven years old, he was flipping through the World Book Encyclopedia and it fell open to a two-page article on puppets. He was fascinated. All he wanted to do was make things, tell stories, invent characters and do crafts. This seemed like the perfect combination of everything his seven-year-old brain had dreamed of. “I thought, ‘Well that’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,’” Ronnie says.
As it turns out, puppetry is still all he dreams of doing.
Born in southern Alberta, Ronnie grew up in Medicine Hat. He started his professional career at the age of 14, when he began touring Alberta with different puppet shows. At the time, puppetry wasn’t something many people in Alberta knew much about, other than a few television shows, like The Muppets.
“I think that everyone, including my parents, thought ‘What the heck is this? Why would you want to do that?’” Ronnie says, laughing. But the appeal of working independently and being able to fit so many of the things he loved into one career proved too strong for him to listen to the “reason” of others.
Fast forward to today, and Ronnie is a recognized as one of Canada’s foremost theatre artists. The playwright, actor and designer behind the Theatre of Marionettes, Ronnie has built a primarily adult following for his work. Some of his recognitions include the 2009 Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, a Village Voice OBIE Award in New York for Off-Broadway Theatre, and four Citations of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry from the American Centre of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette.
But how did he get from an ambitious 14-year-old to an internationally-acclaimed puppeteer? Well, on May 27th, Ronnie will be visiting Almonte from Toronto, where he’s currently based, to give a talk at the Almonte Old Town Hall. He’ll discuss his amazing career, tell funny stories about life on the road, and answer questions from the audience. But just to hype your curiosity, here’s a sneak peek.
In his late 20s, Ronnie had already toured and done television work, and he wanted to try something new. “I had this stupid idea to start this company that did theatre for adult audiences,” he says. And so, the Theatre of the Marionettes was born. The Alberta Theatre Project took a risk on him and gave him a slot at their venue. Then, as Fringe Festivals gained popularity, he began travelling from festival to festival, gaining attention from the theatre world. Ronnie began to gain an audience he didn’t even know existed before he started.
He had been frustrated with the conventional limitations of theatre, which handed him the list of roles that fit his body build and skin colour. “I wanted to be the witch and the prince, the hero and dog,” he says. “So for me as a performer, as an actor, puppetry is limitless, because I’m not held to the fact that I’m a white guy who’s six-feet tall. It’s incredibly freeing.”
This summer, the Theatre of the Marionettes will be 30 years old. Normally Ronnie’s shows involve 35-40 marionettes. He writes his own scripts and tests them before live audiences without the puppets. Right now he is in writing mode, but he is also sculpting two puppet heads a day. “It’s like creating a piece of theatre, the only difference is part of the workload is building all the actors,” he says.
While most of Ronnie’s interests centre on puppetry, he is also a lover of dogs and making food. “If I wasn’t a puppeteer hopefully someone would pay me to have dozens of dogs and cook for everybody,” he says.
One of the challenges of his lifestyle is that it is forever changing. He’ll spend a year in the studio building a new show, and then be on the road the next year. However, he’s been doing this since high school, so most of his friends know the deal.
“Travelling on the road is hard, it’s not for everyone,” Ronnie says. “But I actually love it. After I’ve been in the studio for a year I’m itching to go back and live in hotels, and after six months in hotels I’m itching to come home.”
When he was starting out, Ronnie learned a lot of what he knows through the mentorship of established puppeteers. As a kid, he wrote fan letters to puppeteers, who gave him advice. One such fan letter ended up in the mailbox of Noreen Young. “Foolishly, she wrote back,” he says. “And she’s been stuck with me ever since.”
Due to a lasting friendship with Noreen, Ronnie has been to Almonte many times, and has attended several Puppets Up! festivals as an observer. He says that he’s looking forward to his talk on May 27th, which promises to be a great night.
“I made Noreen promise she would buy me a milkshake,” he says, laughing. “So if I get my milkshake, it’s a great trip, right?”
The talk begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Almonte Old Town Hall. Tickets are $25 and are available at Baker Bob’s and Mill Street Books. Ronnie will also be in Ottawa for three weeks starting in the end of November, performing an improve dialogue show at the Great Canadian Theatre Company.