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Monday, April 26, 2004

Puppeteer credits Canada with his shining success: Ronnie Burkett says audiences here were open to his adult marionette shows

National Post
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Arts & Life
by J. Kelly Nestruck

Before Ronnie Burkett begins anything, he knows how it will end.

For instance, the first things Canada's puppeteer extraordinaire knew about Provenance, his new hit play about the perils and pleasures of the beautiful, was its title and the final tableau. "I always have the ending right away," Burkett explains. "I'm one of those people who likes Mapquest on the Internet: I like to know where I'm going and how to get there."

This philosophy applies not only to Burkett's art but to his life as well. Since his childhood in Medicine Hat, Alta., Burkett has had his destination firmly established.

It was the early '60s and Burkett was just seven when he announced to his parents that he intended to become a puppeteer. "They thought it was absolute nonsense," he recalls. "I think it was just assumed I would outgrow it."

Four decades ago, though, the very idea of having a viable career in the manipulation of marionettes and hand puppets -- never mind doing it for adult audiences -- seemed absurd, which is why Burkett's parents, a probation officer and a housewife, weren't exactly thrilled with their son's decision.

But, truth be told, even today Burkett's success seems improbable. His dark trilogy -- Tinka's New Dress, Street of Blood and Happy -- toured the globe, winning him awards and fans wherever he went. The Village Voice has effusively labelled him "one of the world's geniuses."

Provenance had critically acclaimed runs in Edmonton and Vancouver this fall and has broken the record for advance sales at CanStage in Toronto, where it opens tomorrow night. After a visit to Calgary in March, it will head overseas to festivals in London, Manchester, Vienna and Melbourne.

Burkett remains an anomaly, commanding large crowds at theatres around the world with an art that is generally relegated to the school tour circuit. "Very few puppeteers anywhere in the world have been allowed to have a career in the real theatre," he admits. "I'm pretty fortunate ... I don't have to do the shows in malls."

The longer he works in puppetry, the more he becomes convinced that his astonishing ascendancy could not have happened in any other country than Canada. "In other places, in more dense countries or places with older, longer traditions, there are certain ways that things are done," he says. "Or in a fast culture like America, there are trends: Now we're all doing Muppets, now we're all doing television."

"[Here] if you say, 'I think I'm going to do adult marionette shows in real theatres,' most people just look at you blankly and say, 'Great. Good for you.' "

The birth of the Canadian Fringe Festival movement in the '80s also helped facilitate Burkett's rise. At the very first Edmonton Fringe Festival -- the first Fringe anywhere this side of the Atlantic -- Burkett met other unorthodox theatre artists and discovered that an audience existed for his provocative puppetry. "It was a convergence of all these freaks who had been told that they didn't belong in the legitimate theatre," he recalls.

With 32 different marionettes, hand puppets and jointed dolls, Provenance tells the story of a young Canadian art history student named Pity Beane, who has fallen in love with a boy in a painting. She travels across the world to view the original painting, now held in a Viennese brothel, only to discover that the boy's story is not what she expected.

"Often when we desire or objectify a person in our lives, we don't really need to know their back story," explains Burkett. "It's better if they stay two-dimensional to satisfy our fantasies."

It's tackling serious subjects through theatre that satisfies Burkett, and he anticipates continuing to do so into the foreseeable future. "I get to go to talk to all these strangers in the dark every night, and they actually listen to what I think about my species, about humankind," he says. "It's phenomenal."

posted by J. Kelly 10:56 PM

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