Ronnie Burkett Receives Governor General’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award


On June 7, 2024 puppeteer extraordinaire Ronnie Burkett was awarded the Governor General’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award for his work as puppeteer, playwright, designer and performer.

As one of our Distinguished Artists (2015) Ronnie takes a look back with us on his  formative years in the province and the environment that helped support and shape his astonishing career. See With strings attached below.

Recognized as one of Canada’s foremost theatre artists, Ronnie Burkett has been credited with reinventing the art of puppetry. Provocative, topical, compassionate and entertaining, his work has revitalized puppet theatre, consistently attracting adult audiences who are enthralled by the colourful characters populating his miniature world of big ideas. His productions have been commissioned and presented by major theatres and festivals, and have earned critical and public acclaim across Canada and around the world. He has also shared his knowledge and experience with hundreds of aspiring artists through masterclasses, workshops and lectures.

With strings attached: the world of acclaimed Alberta-born puppeteer Ronnie Burkett

By Liz Nicholls,

In Ronnie Burkett’s remarkably eerie puppet play Penny Plain, which premiered in 2011 at the Citadel Theatre, an estranged father and son are reunited in a rooming house at the end of the crumbling world.

Geppetto, literature’s signature puppeteer who had once disowned his magical creation, the child who left home to become “a real live boy,” is now a sad old man. And Pinocchio is back, all grown up. “I like my world small,” says Geppetto.

Small, yes. But in the case of the internationally acclaimed master puppeteer/ playwright/ actor/ director/ designer from Medicine Hat, Alberta, large, too. Large as life. As we’ve known in this part of the world ever since the 14-year-old puppeteer started touring original hand puppet musicals through the Alberta hinterland. Ever since the very first Edmonton Fringe in 1982. Ever since the 1990 start of his long history with Theatre Network — the Edmonton company Burkett has often said has been seminal to his unique continent-spanning career — where his latest puppet play Wonderful Joe premiered on the mainstage in April.

Burkett, who received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement June 7 2024— an honour to add to his Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award (2015) and Order of Canada (2019) — is invariably the tallest member of Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes casts (and the only one whose head isn’t made of a Paperclay/Celluclay mix). But diminutive as they are, with strings attached, his puppet cast-mates breathe the breath of life along with him. They’re dimensional actors rightfully claiming complex roles as flawed, deeply human characters you care about — actors who “exist only to be those characters” Method acting at its most rarefied — in the real live theatre. 

How did he happen, this brave Alberta-born original with the improbable combination of technical virtuosity, exquisite craftsmanship (recognized in his 2009 Siminovitch Prize for design), theatrical exuberance, a playwright’s voice and vision, a satirist’s edge? Burkett has talked before now of his younger self, the seven-year-old prairie kid mesmerized when the family World Book Encyclopedia fell open at P for Puppet. Ah, the mysterious allure of puppets over pucks, and the enchantment of the world made small. “I wanted to build things, make stuff, act stuff, draw stuff…. And puppetry, I realized, was all of it, at once! I didn’t have to decide.”

His parents weren’t exactly puppet-savvy, to be sure; really, whose are? “But hey, if this was what their not-hockey-player kid had decided he was doing instead, OK,” Burkett says affectionately. “In my ‘tween years I remember my mom getting fed up with my obsession; ‘I’m gonna burn those damn puppets’…. Until she saw me sewing a costume one day and said ‘O, c’mon, give it to me!’, because I was doing it wrong.” It’s a reaction you might imagine from that plump prairie sage and quilt-sewer Mrs. Edna Rural of Turnip Corners, AB., one of Burkett’s most beloved, and oft-quoted, characters (and the real star of his wild and wonderful 1998 “prairie gothic epic” Street of Blood).   

“When my dad saw me get my first $50 cheque for doing a show,” Burkett says of the original hand puppet shows he toured through Alberta towns as a teenager, “something in his middle-class brain went Ahah!…. That’s how things are on the prairies: can you make a dime doing it? And are you any good at it? Well, you must be if people are willing to pay to see you….”

The young loner wrote letters to the best puppeteers everywhere. By age 12 he was taking correspondence courses from “the old boys,” as he calls them. Burkett still tucks a tiny portrait of Martin Stevens, “the king of American puppetry,” into all his sets. By 19, Burkett was living in New York, working for Bill Baird and the only permanent Equity puppet theatre on the continent.

And three years later, rebelling from “the great Muppet foam rubber explosion” for TV that was trending in NYC — “I’d tell people in New York I wanted to do a marionette show and they’d say dismissively ‘nobody does that any more!” — he was back in Calgary, going his own way in a place that was cool with that. He was creating the most exquisite and expressive marionettes the country had ever seen. He was giving them individual voices, human aspirations and flaws, and juicy roles. And he was taking them somewhere they’d never been, through the stage door, and onto the stage of real theatres, for adult audiences.

“The same rules and that same community didn’t exist in Alberta,” he says of his time in New York. “I didn’t have a tribe of puppeteers as I did there.” And there was artistic freedom in that. In Calgary “I had best friends who were performance poets, dancers, drag queens, freaks…. The thing about Alberta was ‘well, go ahead and do it then!’”

There was mentorship from afar, yes, for a self-educator like the prodigious young talent from Medicine Hat. But for an artist emerging into a theatre career in the ‘70s, there was something crucial and closer at hand, as Burkett declares emphatically, lamenting its loss for up-and-comers now. “Funding! Small money for young artists … $500 or $1000 a pop, that got me to national puppet festivals, to expose me to the community and the craft, and bring it home! And such things simply don’t exist now….”

He remembers his Grade 8 self arriving home from school one day, during the four years the Burketts spent in High Prairie, to find his dad meeting with a pro-active representative from Alberta Culture. “He’d heard about this kid who liked puppets, and made an offer: ‘we have a little money if you want to go to a conference’.” And that,” declares Burkett, “was the beginning of it; Alberta Culture was active and supportive in a real way then. The interest was there!”

“And in tandem with that was school touring in Alberta … schools had money for performers,” witness the impact of Wagonstage or Citadel On Wheels. In his 20s, Burkett was the beneficiary of “a real circuit,” he says; he landed a year’s worth of bookings in little Alberta towns. He did his hand puppet melodrama The Plight of Polly Pureheart 1200 times, in every kind of venue, on a stage he actually wore in a backpack. The show fit in two suitcases, one for puppets, one for the theatre; “I could throw it in my little Toyota, or put it on a bus, or a crop-duster plane.”

“That was the show that introduced me to the Rabbits,” he says of Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit, whose adventurous High Performance Rodeo was a natural habitat for Burkett shows in years to come. He remembers taking Polly Pureheart to an “infamous underground club, 10-Foot Henry’s” at the Rabbits’ urging one night. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he laughs. And his apprehension grew when “the guy before me was a percussionist who played a giant metal Coca Cola sign he’d found on the road.”

Polly Pureheart was the first Burkett sighting by Edmonton Fringe audiences, in the debut edition of that mighty game-changing festival in 1982. He shared a venue with the newborn Edmonton company Teatro La Quindicina; people sat on cushions on the floor. Four years later, the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, now officially named, was at the Edmonton Fringe with Burkett’s first full-fledged marionette show, a flamboyant commedia musical, Fool’s Edge. Audiences were amazed by the sight of the puppeteer, an outsized cameo player in a cream-coloured suit, racing manically around a stage he shared with his puppets, thumbing his nose at the puppet rule book in an extravaganza of raunchy high-camp brio and thrilling virtuosity. 

Burkett is amused by the memory of a later revival of Fool’s Edge in a Workshop West season. A subscriber called the vice squad, reporting that he was doing pornography for children. “She just assumed that if there were puppets, it must be for children.” With the odd exception (Felix Mirbt was in Canada doing puppet adaptations of Woyzeck and Brecht), “puppets just didn’t hang out in the adult theatre.” Burkett changed that; he almost single-handedly pried them loose from the  iron grip of kids’ entertainment.

“I didn’t feel I had to be racy and risqué, I just was,he says of the razzle-dazzle that propelled his Victorian operetta Virtue Falls and later Awful Manors, an astonishing “gothic romance/ thriller/ murder mystery/ musical that premiered at Theatre Network in 1990, with 17 characters and 43 puppets, and the puppeteer amusingly relegatingly himself to the butler role.

“I’m glad I was that way back then,” he muses. “Being ‘the bad boy of puppetry’ was … a good initial hook, a calling card, to get an adult audience for puppets. And I thought I’d stay there, in the high-camp zone, doing those big saucy musicals forever…. ” And why not? Audiences loved them; the queues at Theatre Network’s old Roxy on Burkett show nights went outside and down the block, even in Edmonton winter.

Something happened that retired the cream-coloured bad boy suit.  Something to do with the theatrical magic of puppet characters the audience believe, and engage in. “Every time I figured out what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life, there was another twist. And Tinka’s New Dress was the biggest twist of them all.” 

Inspired by the underground puppet cabarets of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Burkett’s landmark 1994 play “was the start of what I really do as an artist,” as he’s often said. Which is to say complex, powerfully dramatic plays in a theatre taken over by living, breathing, feeling puppet characters whose wooden feet touch the rocky ground of our world and kick up the dust. On the front of the twinkling carousel of the Tinka set is written, in Czech, “as a witness and a warning.”

This first of Burkett’s “Memory Dress Trilogy” is a haunting meditation on oppression, coercion, the marginalizing or co-opting of artists by repressive regimes, the high price of dissent. And it was followed in 1998 by Street of Blood, which located Mrs. Edna Rural in a prairie world of vampiric showgirls, gay terrorists, AIDS, a blood supply crisis, and Christ on a comeback tour. Happy in 2000 explored grief and the mysterious human capacity for happiness. All of them were expansive, bravely probing dramas, with questions about us, our humanity, our art, our place in the world, all laced with Burkett’s cheeky insurrectionist humour and intrinsic playfulness. The courage to step out and be disturbing, to make us engage with the society’s outliers — marginalized by age, infirmity, cultural prejudice —has always been, strikingly, part of the artist’s repertoire. 

All three signature “Memory Dress Trilogy” shows were built in Burkett’s Calgary headquarters, a converted Buddhist temple (“the Shirley Temple,” as christened) in the Ramsay district. All three would play to sold-out houses at Theatre Network, — as Provenance, a quest to understand the human pursuit of beauty, which premiered there in 2003, and 10 Days On Earth, whose mentally challenged hero has to find his own family when his mother dies.   

Looking back on his formative Alberta years (he moved to Toronto, for love, “not career,” in 1990), Burkett muses on the fortuitous combination of time, place, and cultural will that gave him his start. As he describes, the Fringe happened at a time when there was money for the arts. And regional theatres, opening secondary spaces and looking for content, “shopped the Fringe for new, edgy, small, cheaper work.” Burkett’s marionettes found themselves venues, en route to mainstages across the country, and award-winning runs in the theatre capitals and festivals of the world. The Citadel’s co-commissioners of Billy Twinkle, for example, were the National Arts Centre, the Cultch in Vancouver, the Arts Centre in Melbourne, the Sydney Opera House, the Barbican in London.  

The days of active national touring, “a will and mandate that the arts belong to the entire country,” are gone, and Burkett deplores that. “Even though I didn’t know it at the time, I can’t stress enough the vibrancy of provincial and federal arts support” in the period he was creating a marionette theatre and launching a theatre career. “You don’t know the era when you’re living in it.” 

“What’s happened is that our cities are unlivable for artists, unaffordable. .. I would never have my own home and work space if I was starting now in Toronto or Vancouver. In Calgary, at the time, I had both. Timing was on my side.”

“I never planned to be a playwright,” he says. “If you’d suggested that 40 years ago I’d have laughed in your face…. There was no great canon of contemporary puppet theatre I could source. ‘F*!!, I’m going to have to write it’!” And that happened at “the precise moment (I) become politicized by the real world. AIDS was happening; the Reform Party was happening…. That was timing. I couldn’t have predicted it; I couldn’t have dreamed it.”

In four decades of artistic innovation, Burkett has expanded the eloquent Martin Stevens mantra under which he’s always created: “‘A puppet is the shape of an idea in motion’ was missing something,” he says. “’Witnessed’. It needs an audience.” Enter, us. 

Marionettes have a special bond with their audiences; the magic by which they come to life and move us demands our imaginative participation. “The audience is complicit,” Burkett says. “And I think the audience loves that. Even if they don’t know it.”  

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