Toronto
5 min

Blood thirsty

Macabre puppets come alive

ON TOP OF THE WORK. Ronnie Burkett gestures to Eden, a gay terrorist and star of Street Of Blood. Credit: Trudie Lee

Got a taste for blood? An eye for gothic? An ear for wit? Well Ronnie Burkett Theatre Of Marionettes has a show for you.



Opening Wed, Sep 22 at the Canadian Stage, Street Of Blood is the latest work by the reformed bad boy of the puppet world, Ronnie Burkett.



Yes, Burkett is now reformed. His marionettes may still curse a blue streak, crack sexy jokes and perform incredible acts of violence, but Ronnie Burkett himself is a changed man.



“Five years ago, around the time of Tinka’s New Dress [Burkett’s big international hit], I was on top of the machine. Now, I am on top of the work,” Burkett declares.



The “machine” is the institution of show biz – publicity, chutzpah and showmanship. Burkett used his machine to build an international audience, garnering awards and his bad boy rep. That was then.



These days, his emphasis has changed. Gone are the works of epic proportions, such as the outrageous Awful Manners which was performed on the largest set ever built for puppets in North America and was populated by 45 marionettes.



The show-stopping has stopped. In it’s place, Burkett is emphasizing the work, itself, through keen observation, emotion and thematic nuance.



“It’s fascinating for me to watch the audience reaction,” says Burkett. “For the first 10 minutes, I can see them watching the craft: How is he doing it… the voices, the movement?



“And then they’re into it. I can see them relating only to the puppet and forgetting about me [Burkett appears on stage with his marionettes]. It’s a wild experience to know these characters move people. And it’s still funny!”



He dismisses any similarity between his own life and Street Of Blood. “Art as confession is highly overrated!” says Burkett with a flourish and a laugh. “My poor parents. I had to keep telling them, ‘You’re not them,'” referring to the less than ideal parents in the play.



“They hated Street Of Blood – until last week when we swept the Bettys (Calgary’s theatre awards). Then they loved it!”



Street Of Blood is the story of Eden, a gay Albertan, adopted by a farm couple, Edna and Stanley Rural. (Burkett is adopted.) Eden moves to the big city and begins bombing local gay bars to awaken the latent rage of the gay and lesbian community.



This is not dissimilar to Burkett’s own desire to stir the pink masses. “But Eden’s rage is not my rage,” says Burkett. “I have my own rage – we all do. Originally, I looked at the script and Eden running around blowing things up, and I thought, ‘No way! This is way too much.’ So I took it out.”



However, after one Halloween while Burkett was developing the show, his partner, Larry Smith, awoke him to say that their studio windows had been soaped with the inscriptions: “Die fags” and “Fags out.”



“So then I put it all back into the show,” says Burkett.



In Street Of Blood there is a rape, a beating, and a group of little old ladies consumed by vampires. And Christ appears.



None of which Burkett will admit has happened during his 42 years. Though Edna Rural, the mother, shares some characteristics with Eileen Burkett, including the phrase, “Lord love a duck,” the abusive, rage-filled Stanley Rural bares no resemblance to Burkett’s father, Ray.



Burkett, who began his puppet career when he was 14, says: “My father would pile me into the back of the car, with all my puppets, and drive me all over the province for some 50 buck gig.



“It’s not that they pushed me into it – I wasn’t some stage kid. They just never said ‘No.’ They never said, ‘Yes,’ either.”



Burkett has come to the conclusion that, to his parents, puppets were a phase he would grow out of. “Where I come from, no one’s a puppeteer,” says the boy from Medicine Hat.



However, one day, when Burkett was seven years old, he was harassing his mother for attention while she was cooking. She advised him to amuse himself with the Burketts’ brand new set of World Encyclopedia. Burkett grabbed the “P” volume and opened it to “puppets” and has never looked back.



Although this sounds like a story from a press release – and it is – what should one expect from a born storyteller. “I knew from then on, that was what I was going to do. But I knew I couldn’t do it at that age, so I read everything I could get on puppets. I armed myself with knowledge.”



As a child, Burkett was a loner. And his single-minded drive to become a puppeteer didn’t court popularity. Did he get teased for playing with dolls? “Oh yeah, there was some of that, but I kept pretty much to myself. What is the sense of sharing with people who don’t know what you’re talking about?”



Little Burkett wrote to every professional puppeteer he could find, asking to be taken on as an apprentice. “Some didn’t write back – who wants to take on a kid? But some wrote back and told me things.”



When he was 14, Burkett travelled to a puppet festival in Michigan. But rather than landing in a field of kindly Geppettos, Burkett found himself with some pretty tough customers. “They were savvy, crusty old boys – hard drinking mother-fuckers.” While listening to the old-timers’ stories, the 14-year-old would correct the masters on their career details. Rather than ostracizing him, his precociousness won Burkett many a crusty old mentor.



“I was very lucky. I got these guys at the end of their lives. They gave me so much. So many important rules. All of which I’ve since broken.”



One of his mentors was Bill Baird, with whom he apprenticed in New York when he was 19. Baird was the puppeteer for the “Lonely Goat Herder” sequence in the Sound Of Music. Another of Burkett’s mentors was Martin Stevens who tutored him in the basics of building a technique. “He would write to me saying, ‘Good, now you know how to build puppets – but you have to become a good actor. Take lessons….. Good, you can act – now you have to learn to sing.’ He taught me that I had to move beyond the craft stage of puppetry in order to make a career of it,” says Burkett.



However, having mastered his craft, Burkett decided to leave behind the world of puppet rules and puppet organizations and make a stab at fringe theatre. He also dabbled in film and video as a writer, director and performer for a time.



Forming Ronnie Burkett Theatre Of Marionettes in 1986, he has since toured the world with shows designed to knock the spots off Howdy Doody.



He has broken taboos – and not just the ones set up by his mentors.



In Street Of Blood, for example, he plays Christ (sans marionette). A gay Christ? That would knock the spots off an atheist. “I am not playing Christ gay!” the puppeteer exclaims. “It’s just me – and I am gay”



Reformed bad boy… yeah, right.



And as for lavender lethargy, it pops Burkett’s cork. Although blowing up gay bars is out of the question for Burkett, he does complain: “Where is the gay theatre audience? What do I have to do, work out for a year and then pose naked on the poster?”



Street Of Blood.



$32-$40.



Sat, Sep 18-Oct 23.



Canandian Stage.



26 Berkely St.



(416) 368-3110.