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How a World Book encyclopedia changed everything for puppeteer Ronnie Burkett

Set in a secret location, Burkett’s latest show Forget Me Not turns the audience into puppeteers

Set in a secret location, Burkett’s latest show Forget Me Not turns the audience into puppeteers

Master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett with a character from his immersive new show, Forget Me Not. (Dahlia Katz)
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When master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett was growing up in Medicine Hat, Alta., in the early 1960s, his parents did what many pre-internet families did: they bought a set of World Book encyclopedias.

One day, Burkett was bothering his mother while she was making lunch, so she told him to go look at some books. Burkett sat down on the floor, crossed his legs, picked out one of the encyclopedias — it happened to be the "P" volume — and opened it at random. The two-page spread he saw was all about puppetry, and it instantly changed his life.

"I looked at it and I thought, 'That's what I'll do for the rest of my life.' And she called me for lunch and I closed the book and well, here we are," says the Order of Canada recipient in a q interview with Tom Power.

'The joke in the family forever was it could have been plumber, or it should have been pediatrician. But no, it was puppetry,' says Burkett with a laugh. 'Who knows if it had fallen to proctologist what our conversation would be.' (Dahlia Katz)

"The joke in the family forever was it could have been plumber, or it should have been pediatrician," says Burkett with a laugh. "But no, it was puppetry. Who knows if it had fallen to proctologist what our conversation would be."

Of course before the internet, a kid living in a small city in Alberta couldn't Google or watch YouTube videos to learn his craft. Instead, Burkett went to the library ("where the world opened up to me," he says), and in the books he found names and addresses for puppetry organizations. He joined as many as he could, then began what he jokingly calls "the lifelong stalking of puppet mentors."

Among those mentors was Bil Baird, a puppeteer most famously known for creating and performing the "Lonely Goatherd" puppetry sequence in The Sound of Music — and also appeared in that World Book encyclopedia spread surrounded by puppets.

When Burkett was just 10 years old he wrote to Baird, but heard nothing back. He tried again at 14, but still received no reply. At 18, Burkett finally met Baird in Moscow. On his 19th birthday he auditioned for Baird.

"In the audition, I went up on what we call the bridge, which is where if you're doing long-strung marionettes, you stand up on these planks. And he had a notoriously dangerous bridge that had no leaning rail or anything. It was just a plank eight feet up in the air. And I dropped the puppet," remembers Burkett. "He still hired me."

Since those days, Burkett has risen to become Canada's most renowned puppeteer, known for his exquisitely crafted puppets, and for the colourful lives he breathes into them at every show.

Inspired by underground Czech marionette theatre, The Daisy Theatre mixes improv and cabaret and is as funny and racy as it is touching. Penny Plain is an end-of-days tale that has been described as "part gothic thriller, part apocalyptic drawing room comedy." Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy is a semi-autobiographical tale about rekindling a passion for life.

A scene from Burkett's Penny Plain. (Ronnie Burkett/Theatre of Marionettes/photo by Trudy)

Along the way, Burkett writes his own scripts, performs every show, and plays all of the characters, from saucy drag queens to carnival barkers to dying mothers, many of which mirror corners of his own personality.

'Something unique and special'

But for his latest show, Forget Me Not, Burkett has upped the ante even further: instead of performing for a typical static, seated audience, he invites audience members to a secret location where they are given puppets and asked to become part of the constantly shifting show.

Because there is no onstage or offstage, they also get to see Burkett's artistic process in action, and get a clear view of how he manages his multitude of puppets.

Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett welcomed CBC News for a behind-the-scenes look of his newest theatrical show 'Forget Me Not' 3:11

The show touches on the awkwardness of falling in love, the importance of ritual, and the pain and rejection of loss. Audience members are also forced to look at their role as observers — not only in the show, but in life — and how people can stand around doing nothing when horrible things are happening.

Along the way, the audience's uniquely crafted puppets — known collectively as "others" — take on lives of their own, to the point where, at the end of the show, people are bidding them goodbye.

"The bigger thrust of all of that was: how do you make a community with a bunch of strangers in this false world of going to see a show? We could have cranked out 100 puppets in a few months with some moulds and a really fast and dirty way to make them," says Burkett, who instead spent over two years individually sculpting and costuming each "other."

Burkett with characters from The Daisy Theatre, a constantly evolving puppet cabaret. (Alejandro Santiago)

"I thought if I'm going to give an audience member something to use, I want them to have this sense of being gifted with something unique and special," he says. "And I think that happens."

'I'm not limited to this shell'

So why does Burkett choose to tell stories through puppets? During a brief stint in theatre school, he learned his options would be seriously limited.

"They said, 'OK look, you're always going to be this height and this is your skin colour and this is your gender, and you can play five years younger and five years older. And since you're never going to be the leading man, Ronnie, you should learn how to tap dance because you'll be the goofy best friend or the leading man.' I thought, 'Well screw that,'" says Burkett with a laugh.

For me, the advantage of this work is that I'm not limited to this shell that I inhabit in the world.- Ronnie Burkett

At the time, he had already been touring with puppet shows, and had played The Witch and Rapunzel and Prince Charming and The Big Bad Wolf.

"So for me, the advantage of this work is that I'm not limited to this shell that I inhabit in the world, which I like. As a performer, I want to be this old naked crone reading love letters, and I want to be the 14-year-old lovers in the show and an animal that talks or whatever," he says.

"So for me, the most limitless mask as a performer is to be a puppeteer."

Forget Me Not is at a secret location in Vancouver until March 1.

— Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Vanessa Greco

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