Ronnie Burkett: the maverick puppeteer

Who says puppets can't act? Burkett thinks they can, and his plays for them have tackled everything from Aids to fascism
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"A gay Canadian puppeteer," Ronnie Burkett once said, "is as much of an outcast as you can get." Not so, as he's now discovering. A gay Canadian puppeteer who specialises in Chekhovian drama ­ now that's an outsider. After a maverick career lasting 20 years, the 43-year-old Albertan is now celebrated as one of Canada's two most distinguished theatre exports (the other is Robert Lepage). His rise to fame saw him credited with single-handedly rejuvenating puppetry in North America. But his most recent work ­ including Tinka's New Dress, seen at the Barbican in 1999 ­ has junked the puppetry rulebook on which he once swore. "I now focus on text and acting," Burkett says, and last year, remarkably, he won a major Canadian playwriting prize for one of his puppet pieces.

Next week, Burkett brings his latest work, Happy, to London. It's not as cheery as it sounds: it was inspired by the suicide of a friend whose husband had recently died. "Why did this happen?" Burkett found himself asking. "Why didn't she go through any of the prescribed stages of grieving to get better? I began to think about what happiness is and what grief is." He's devised a marionette production on the theme, in which a pensioner with a mysterious past passes through the lives of several lodgers in a boarding house.

If it's at all like Tinka, in which Burkett broached fascism, Happy will provoke highly individualistic reactions. We may be used to seeing puppets entertain us; in recent years, we've seen them do avant-garde visual theatre, too. But very seldom do they play lifelike roles in scripted dramas or generate debates about memory and loss, politics and principle. But, says Burkett, "What I'm writing and performing is what I want to discuss with the world."

It's been a long journey, then, from "High on a hill there's a lonely goatherd", the sequence in The Sound of Music that inspired the seven-year-old Burkett to first pull a puppet's strings. Back then, he wrote to the film's puppeteer and granddaddy of US animation, Bil Baird, begging for a job. When Burkett was 19, Baird invited him to New York and offered him work. But the young Ronnie was joining an ageing profession. The artform desperately needed reanimating. That period had a profound influence on Burkett's later work. With Tinka and the Aids-themed cri de coeur, Street of Blood, Happy forms a trilogy that explores how the past reflects on the present. That, says Burkett, is because "the people who taught me my craft were all at the end of their lives. When I set out in the world, I lived with people who were 70 and 80 years old. Their memories were the things that fuelled me." The fact that puppetry itself has a more vivid past than present ­ Tinka's New Dress was about dissident Czech puppet theatre under the Nazi occupation ­ only adds to Burkett's retrospective obsession.

There was a time when his concerns were more superficial. Having left the US, where Jim Henson's Muppets had suddenly put paid to more precious puppet forms, Burkett returned to sleepy Calgary to raise hell on the fringe theatre circuit. He was ­ an unlikely title, this ­ "the bad boy of puppetry". He opened at gigs for The Stranglers. His work was gleefully raunchy: one of his early musicals, Virtue Falls, had a hero called Dick Swell and a song entitled "I Love Dick". His puppetry skills were estimable, but they were being used mainly to demand attention. "When we are younger," he says now, "we all show off technique. But true virtuosity is when you don't notice the technique at all."

Two years ago at the Barbican, the technique in Tinka was exceptional. Burkett, who performs alone, makes no effort to conceal himself in his productions, but one's eyes rarely stray from the marionettes. There's equal skill, and chutzpah, in the way Burkett splices his dramas with outré (and often improvised) cabaret interludes. Tinka featured a raucous comic double-act called Franz and Schnitzel and ­ for its UK run ­ a stuffed toy called Tony Bear. Happy introduces a camp MC called Antoine Marionette. "Those scenes gives everyone a little breath of relief," says Burkett. "The sheer act of focusing on these little wooden people must be tiring."

"But societally we're conditioned to bow down to icons," he argues. "The Catholic Church uses icons to give power to their message and control their flock. I think these puppets are kind of icons." It's one theory to explain his popularity; he's got others. "People have noticed me because I'm actually discussing something. In North America, puppetry lives in its own ghetto: birthday parties and shopping malls, cruise ships and advertising. The nature of the puppeteers' livelihood is separate from the theatre. So many of us just concentrate on being sculptors and designers and woodworkers."

Burkett's the blazing exception. "Part of the fuel in creating Happy," he explains, "was that the theatre community here were beginning to talk to me as a playwright and an actor. So I tried things that, without that encouragement, even I would have been reluctant to do." Such as? "The usual rule is you've got to keep a puppet moving all the time. Don't just let it sit and talk, certainly don't let it have an inner monologue going on. But I have moments of great stillness and quiet, of real acting, in this piece. And, just as normal actors bring their life to a role, I bring mine to these little moveable people."

It amounts to a whole, eye-opening new genre ­ to which, Burkett thinks, the theatre world is suddenly catching on. His stepdaughter recently gained entry to Canada's national drama school using an excerpt from Happy as an audition speech. This month, the industry body Puppeteers of America invited Burkett to lead a workshop on "Text and Acting for Puppeteers". "That's never been done before,' he laughs. "I though that was very funny." But it's about time, he reckons. "If you'd told me when I was younger that I would become the oddball in the puppet world simply by speaking, I wouldn't have understood that. I could have chosen to run around stage in a thong beating a drum, tearing puppets and lighting them aflame ­ that would have been terribly avant-garde and wouldn't have got any notice at all. All I did was have puppets speak text for two hours and that, apparently, was revolutionary."

Happy, 20 June-7 July, as part of BITE:01 at the Barbican Pit, London (020-7638 8891)