There was a moment last winter, Ronnie Burkett confesses, when he wondered if it was a good idea to bring his new one-man marionette extravaganza, The Daisy Theatre, to Luminato Festival.
“I worried about it for a few months,” he confesses, taking a break from final preparations for the show’s 10-day run. “I thought the stakes might be too high. Toronto tends to make the stakes high for things.”
But then a friend’s voice of reason weighed in, reminding Burkett that a) it’s a festival, b) the weather is good, and c) “I’d be performing in my old stomping grounds [the Berkeley St. Theatre], where I’ve built seven previous shows. So I should just go out and have fun.”
And there was another reason for comfort. To a greater extent than in his previous work – Burkett usually functions variously as writer, wardrobe/set/lighting designer, carpenter, producer and performer – the creative burden here would be more of a shared enterprise.
That’s partly because Burkett’s partner in life, jazz composer/singer John Alcorn, has provided several new songs, with lyrics. And it’s also because Burkett had “this cockamamie idea” to invite 10 of the country’s most distinguished playwrights (including Daniel MacIvor, Damien Atkins, Brad Fraser, Joan MacLeod and Morris Panych) to contribute short playlets, which will be enacted within the show.
“The money I offered them was shockingly paltry,” he says, apologetically, “but they all said yes.”
It’s Burkett’s affinity for text that makes him, in modern times, unique in the demi-monde of puppetry. “The form is generally taught to be non-verbal,” he explains. “Julie Taymor [The Lion King], War Horse – that’s all about physical movement and visuals. But I’ve always spoken, because I love language.”
And historically, writers such as Maurice Maeterlinck, George Sand and Federico Garcia Lorca wrote for puppet theatre. “I’m a junkie for all of that stuff,” Burkett says. “I own 1,400 books on puppetry.”
What audiences will therefore see when the curtain opens will be something of a theatrical pastiche – music hall meets scripted dialogue meets improvisation – all of it delivered with Burkett’s now legendary panache. As much as 80 per cent of the non-scripted material, he says, will be improv, so that theatre-goers are unlikely to ever see the same show twice.
Some of his most famous characters are returning, among them Edna Rural, the Alberta widow who too freely speaks her conservative mind; the monstrous faded film star Esme Massengill (think Hermione Gingold); and Franz and Schnitzel, puppets that spring directly from the subversive roots of the original Daisy Theatre, in Second World War, German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Then, artists used puppets to satirize the Nazis, invoking the flower because, ostensibly, it grows at night.
By the end of the run, Burkett expects there’ll be 30 separate marionettes competing for stage time.
“The most I’ve had for a single show was 45,” he says, “but I was much younger then.” Now 56, Burkett has been a puppeteer for more than 40 years.
In fact, although The Daisy Theatre’s Luminato opening is billed as a world premiere, the seeds for its germination were actually sown 19 years ago in Calgary, during workshops for another Burkett work, Tinka’s New Dress.
The 75-minute show also contains a bold gamble – four sections in which audience members will be asked to operate a marionette or perform other tasks.
“Some nights, Burkett warns, “the content will be so political, I’ll get myself in trouble. Some nights, it’ll be like a 12-year-old boy telling boob and fart jokes. Some nights, it’ll be navel-gazing, esoteric and philosophical. It may all depend on how much caffeine and sugar I’ve consumed.”
But don’t be surprised to hear Burkett (as Esme) lay waste to the high-blown Ph.D. treatises on the meaning of puppetry. “She’s going to say, ‘It’s not meta-theatre at all. It’s just an aging man playing with dolls!’”