I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
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Hello, and welcome to the School of Puppetry podcast. Each month I talk to a puppeteer about their work, their insights and their techniques.
This month’s interview is pulled from the archives. Way back in 2009, I had the opportunity to interview Ronnie Burkett, a Canadian puppeteer, and since I have an interview with him and since he was mentioned in previous podcasts, I thought it would be a good idea to re-post the interview with him.
However, this podcast also requires a fair bit of introduction so bear with me as I explain. For those not familiar with Ronnie, he is considered one of the best marionette artists of our time. Ronnie makes and performs all his puppets, solo, and usually has 2 or 3 hours worth of a show. The puppets are extremely detailed and often include tiny rings on fingers and so on. He produces drama for adults, rather than children’s shows so these are performances that include a lot of realism. He’s toured all over the world for several decades with his company ‘Theatre of Marionettes’. His work has received numerous Canada and international awards, and has received funding and support from Australian theatre companies for a few of his shows.
In 2002 Ronnie made his way to Australia for the first time with his show Tinka’s New Dress. At this time there also happened to be a summit for puppetry taking place, and naturally he was there: I was lucky enough to be part of a small group of students from my university course who was attending the summit. Ronnie gave a talk there about puppetry, that I kid you not, had the 200 or so puppeteers giving him a standing ovation at the end. His passion was so infectious and heartfelt that we could not help but applaud on our feet. A few days later my friends and I got to see Tinka’s New Dress and boy did it blow our minds. Since that day I’ve seen every show Ronnie’s brought to Australia… which brings me to 2009.
I had found out that Ronnie was returning and immediately booked myself some tickets to see his show, Billy Twinkle. As it happens, I’d been in touch with Ronnie via email in the past and since I had a popular blog I thought it would be a great idea to see if I could arrange an interview. I contacted the publicity staff and lo and behold, an interview was born.
This is a good point to mention there may be some spoilers. This show has been ‘archived’ from Ronnie’s repertoire, so it shouldn’t matter much now, but I’ll add the spoiler alert anyway. I also reviewed the show which you can find on the School of Puppetry.com website, and there are amazing photos available on the transcript for this podcast as well as on Ronnie’s website. I’ll also add that Ronnie mentions a lot of Australian puppetry, and if you’re curious to learn more about the references, I’ve added links to them on the transcript page for this podcast episode. There are a couple of references to Ronnie’s past performances, as well as to items within Billy Twinkle where either the photos or links on the transcript page will be useful to view as context for what we discuss.
So, back to my intro: I had been invited to do the interview at the venue where Ronnie was performing, and when I went in it was clear Ronnie was doing a ‘media call’. He was up on stage with his puppets being photographed for the local press. I sat around for a bit while they finished up and got some photos myself. There’s Ronnie with Billy Twinkle (the main character), Rusty Knockers (a stripper), Biddy (who I’ll explain further down), and Sid Diamond (Billy’s mentor - a side note is that Ronnie ‘annoyed old guys’ as he puts it, into being his mentors). Finally the photographers finish up and the publicist invites me over to Ronnie, who by the way, still manages to remember who I am after several years of initially meeting and very little communication in between.
And this is where every fan of Ronnie will get jealous because not only do I get Ronnie all to myself (minus the publicist and stage manager), not only do I get invited up on stage, but he actually gives me a tour backstage of the sets, puppets and everything. As a fellow theatre worker, I totally respect someone else’s set and wouldn’t even dare to ask, let alone expect to see backstage - but he takes me around as if I were a long lost friend. I see all 26 of his puppets hanging up behind the set. As with many of Ronnie’s shows, the hanging puppets are somewhat visible to the audience at all times. I’m literally able to reach out and touch all of the puppets - although I don’t - and this is where I got a lovely photo of Biddy, the female marionette. For those not familiar with the plotline of Billy Twinkle, it’s about a faded puppeteer who is questioning his life choices whilst performing on board a cruise liner. Billy Twinkle reminisces about going to puppet festivals as a kid, and Biddy is one of the fellow puppeteers who attends. Biddy herself walks around on stage with a green Jesus puppet; and this is one of the photos I managed to take. Ronnie pointed out to me some of the more unusual characters of the show and remarked that the strings, 16 on each puppet, do get tangled quite a lot.
After this brief tour we come back around to the front of the set, and he asks me whether I want to do the interview, or just want to chat. At this point I give in to my better angels because all I wanted to do was chat… but I knew all my subscribers would hate me if I did that, so I caved in and said, "let’s do the interview".
Well, he and I sat on the edge of the set, and chatted. I used my camera to record the audio, as Ronnie didn’t want to be filmed. We quickly ran out of time, so I didn’t get to ask all the things I wanted. But luckily before we separated I managed to get a photo with him on the set.
I can’t express how wonderful the morning was. From the second I stepped onstage, to the second I left, Ronnie was as friendly and chatty as everyone else had told me. He really treated me like a long-lost friend, and I can’t thank him enough for taking the time to talk to me and to open up his work and life for the interview. Thanks go to Amaya Courtis and Carmen Greenway (from Mollison Communications and the Arts Centre respectively) for setting up the interview in the first place.
Now just one more thing before I get to the interview itself: Ronnie has a new show coming out called The Daisy Theatre. It sounds amazing:
Inspired by the illegal underground “daisy” puppet shows of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and the beginnings of cabaret at the famed Le Chat Noir in Paris, The Daisy Theatre blends nightly improvisation, variety acts and music, monologues and morality tales, plus new short playlets by nine Canadian playwrights written for the resident company of over thirty marionette characters. Each performance will be different, daring, ridiculous and on the edge, in the hands of renowned puppeteer provocateur Ronnie Burkett. No two performances of The Daisy Theatre will be the same, making this is a show to see more than once.
It looks like Ronnie will only be touring this around Canada, so if you’re up there and haven’t seen him this is a perfect opportunity to do so. I’ve seen Ronnie when he screws up or is improvising and it’s just as much fun as when he’s not.
And now… here’s the interview; feel free to ignore the quite Australian-centric start, but there’s good stuff later on…
ME: Um… god, I don’t know where to start…
RONNIE: Just start at the beginning. What’s your first one?
ME: Yeah, start at the beginning. Well, because your shows are lots of adult puppetry [RONNIE: Uh hum] I just wonder is it difficult to get people to come to see adult shows?
RONNIE: Well, I suppose there’s always the preconception that puppets are for children and in most cases they are. So my focus has never really been to go after a puppet-going audience, because such a thing usually doesn’t exist. So I’ve been lucky to just go after, to play in places where there’s a theatre-going audience and they kind of slide me in with the season there. Yeah, it is hard because there’s the preconception, but I’ve been pretty lucky - and maybe because from the get go the shows are obviously adult you know, so there’s no confusion that it’s a children’s show.
ME: And how’s it working in Australia? Because you’ve come here a couple of times.
RONNIE: Yeah, this is my fifth time in Australia actually. [ME: Really?] Yeah, cause I started at a festival in Perth years ago. Um, well I love it here. But I think there’s a lot of similarities in understanding between Canadians and Australians, because we’re far-flung colonies and we grew up with the Queen on our stamps and things. And we have a kind of isolation geographically. So I think there’s a sensibility that’s shared. So it’s been really easy for me to play here. And ever since I’ve come to Melbourne the reception’s been really good so I look forward to Melbourne more than anywhere really. [ME: Well, that’s good] Yeah.
ME: And this time around you’re doing Melbourne, Geelong and Sydney? [EDITOR’S NOTE: These are all places in Victoria, Australia] [RONNIE: Yes, yeah] So um, because, you’ve only done one city at a time I think previously?
RONNIE: Uh I think we did Melbourne and Brisbane once. Yeah we did. Yeah, so it has been pretty much one at a time. But Geelong got on board because of the Arts Centre involvement [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Victorian Arts Centre to be more precise] and we just played there. And that was great. And the Sydney Opera House is also a co-commissioner with the Arts Centre here. So because they both were producing commissioners we were able to set the tour up that way.
ME: I’m really happy that you’re going to all three cities because I know a lot of people want to see your work, and last time I had to fly to Sydney. [RONNIE: Oh did you? Yeah] Yeah, I know of a few other people did too.
RONNIE: Yeah, I know a lot of kids from the school did, yeah.
ME: It’s nice that you’ve come back to Melbourne.
RONNIE: [laughs] Well I guess that it’s my per- that’s my favourite place in Australia is here.
ME: Well, I’m glad. Um… let’s see… Kind of asked you this before but I’ll ask again. Do you ever have complete disasters on stage?
RONNIE: Well, yeah, because it’s stuff that’s made, you know… like I’m looking at the stripper over there and I’m looking at her shoulder and I know how her shoulder’s made. And you know, sometimes a pin holding a leg together will just work its way out even if it’s been nailed in and epoxied in place. Over a couple hundred performances, strings break, once in a while a leg falls off - we’re pretty religious about how we build them and I check them every night so everything’s ready to go. But you know, I think the analogy of - I’ve seen violinists and guitar players have strings break, you know? It’s the same thing, you can never predict when something like that will happen. For me, a disaster would be dropping a puppet. That would be the absolute worst disaster, anything other than that you can kind of get around.
RONNIE: Oh the rabbit? [ME: Yeah] That god awful rabbit. [ME: laughs] Yeah, yeah, but that, see that sometimes worked out in my favour because the audiences loved that. Because we’d literally have to stop the show and do some silly thing where his head got turned around. And people love that. You know that- I think there’s nothing worse than seeing a performer not admit something’s gone wrong, cause then the whole audience goes, "[eeeh] Does he know? Does he know?" So as soon as you have a character comment that their leg fell off everyone can have a laugh and relax and we can just get on with it.
RONNIE: No, there’s all kinds of joints in these things. It’s kind of like ah- like if we undressed them all Naomi, it would be like a textbook of 20th century American puppet building. You know there’s a Tony Sarg knee joint, and there’s a Rufus Rose middle joint, and there’s the Burkett Co. neck joint, so whatever works. Some have this really intricate little wrist joint that we make and it’s very finicky. And sometimes it’s just a piece of string depending on what they need to do. Like the lady who drinks, with the fan, she’s just a piece of rope so she has complete flexibility. So uh… And some of them are new inventions. Like the stripper, I- because she’s so visible, like her hip joint was the first time I carved buttocks as the top of the legs. So then we had to figure out how that hip joint works so, it-it’s always a bit of trial and error. [ME: Yep] Yeah.
ME: And what do you use for the strings?
RONNIE: I use fishing line. [ME: Really?] Years ago I used really thick fishing line, thinking that was the way to go so it wouldn’t break, and over the years it’s gotten thinner and thinner and thinner and thinner.
ME: And it doesn’t break?
RONNIE: Usually not. Chances of string breaking are far lesser than a string untying itself on the control.
ME: Yes, don’t want them untying themselves.
RONNIE: Eh, they’ll do what they want I guess.
ME: Do you get much of an opportunity to meet other puppeteers while you’re here?
RONNIE: I do. Yeah. Pretty much wherever I travel I meet puppeteers. And it’s either a case of seeking out the old greats, or the younger ones finding me. So it’s always a lovely balance. You know last time I was in Sydney I made a little pilgrimage and went and saw Mr Squiggle. [ME: laughs] Who wasn’t part of my childhood but I’d heard of Norman for years. And through a mutual friend I got a phone number for him and I called and his wife invited me for lunch the next day and so I got to know Norman and see Mr Squiggle, and um have lunch with him and it was great, and we’ve kept in touch since.
So I usually have pilgrimages, you know. Do you know Peter Scriven’s work [ME: Yes] from The Tintookies? [ME: Yep] Well, when I’m in Sydney I’m going to go out to NIDA and see the archives of his work, just cause you know I’m always interested in what happened before and I think he’s a fascinating man, that I actually think he’d be a great film because he was such a grand flawed character you know. - So I do. Because I’m a puppet geek right? That’s what I do. And- and when you play places repeatedly then you do meet a few people that become your mates and your friends and you get excited to see them every time.
ME: Well that’s good. At least you have an opportunity to- cause I mean, some tours you know, I don’t know what your schedule’s like and-
RONNIE: Yeah, I don’t get a lot of opportunity to see other work. You know I’m not actually able to see other shows, either because they’re not happening when I’m here or that’s just not something I do when I’m in my own performing mode, but yeah I kind of do seek out some puppeteers and like I said, then others seek me out, which is cool.
ME: That’s good. Um… let’s see… we should talk about the show. Um… Billy Twinkle, it’s about a puppeteer on a cruise ship. [RONNIE: Yep] Tinka’s New Dress was also about puppeteers, is there some sort of theme running here?
RONNIE: Well, write about what you know. And I thought, when I wanted to do a play about a guy stuck in the middle of life, middle of career, you know, I thought, "well it could a lawyer or an accountant or a baker". You know, I mean, the universal is in the specific right? So you just needed to find a setting. And, and I thought "well, why not expose a bit of puppetry to the general public and show what a bunch of whack jobs puppeteers are". [ME: laughs] Like the little lady with her muppet of Jesus, who is the only character I didn’t invent because as you know they exist. And you know I suppose um, characters like that I could have been really harsh with, but actually those little ladies are the backbone of puppet organisations you know.
They keep them going in a way, because of their hobbyist’s fervour. So I have great affection for her and it turns out the audience actually loves her the most. So go figure. But um, yeah, I thought it might be interesting to see this guy, and also because he is a cruise ship puppeteer we can see his act a few times, and keep the show biz factor in there. Which might be a little more interesting than a play about a lawyer having a mid-life crisis. [ME: Yep] It’s visually more interesting. Yeah.
ME: Um, is it weird putting, sort of, your life on stage?
RONNIE: Well it’s not really my life. There’s aspects of my life you know. The fact that I was young and annoyed old guys, Billy and I share. But it’s not as autobiographical as people will think. I talked to a lot of people my age who are puppeteers and a few who are cabaret and cruise ship puppeteers, and got their stories, and kind of put it all into a big pot and invented this guy named Billy Twinkle. Cause I don’t think he’s very likeable at the beginning. And he’s kind of stuck and giving up and doesn’t like what he does anymore, and I really like what I do.
ME: Yeah. Is it hard to do that? Because, I mean you’re extremely passionate about puppetry. Is it hard to sort of, take a character who’s a puppeteer and who doesn’t like what he does?
RONNIE: Well, I think the thing is when you create a character you have to let them be themselves. The minute you want them all to be your point of view it doesn’t seem very interesting. The nice thing about Billy is that through the journey of this play he rediscovers his passion and his sparkle. And that’s the whole point of the discussion is that, you can be stuck in the middle of anything but you know, if you look back you can move forward you know, in this odd way of seeing what interested you in the first place.
ME: And um, kind of weird question, but do the puppets slightly look like you, or is it just me?
RONNIE: Well slightly. I mean in Tinka’s New Dress Carl for example, the puppeteer, looked a lot like me. But on this one I actually didn’t want to do a self sculpt. I wanted, and-and, you’ve seen the other work Naomi so you can see the puppets in this one are a different proportion. The heads are bigger, and I wanted them to look more like puppets this time because it’s a play about a puppeteer doing his life with puppets. So I thought it would be more appropriate if they looked puppet-y. And so when we came to sculpting Billy I thought, "well, I’m going to set a look for him, but I’m not going to try and be naturalistic or sculpt myself".
ME: Yep. And um, the heads on the little stage there. [RONNIE: Uhum] Are some of those from other shows?
RONNIE: No, these are all from the molds that the puppets were made from. [ME: Okay] So we had the molds, and we just recast them all and put them up. So while Billy is revisiting his life, his whole life is around him on the proscenium. And these heads are papier mache for the first time. [ME: Oh?] So there’s no fancy toxic chemical stuff [ME: laughs], it’s brown-wrapping paper and corn-starch glue. [ME: Right] And we would, every morning, whoever’s first in would have to make the corn-starch glue. [ME: Oh right] Yeah.
ME: I could imagine it would have taken a long time to make them.
RONNIE: It was labour intensive. But I also needed to, er, stir the pot up. Because we knew how to build puppets a certain way. And I thought, "well let’s make it exciting and fresh by changing how we build puppets totally". There’s a bit of mutiny in my studio about that. And when I mentioned papier mache people were quite reluctant. And I said, "we’re going to make papier mache look like porcelain". And if you look at the stripper’s body, it’s pretty smooth, so… [ME: Yeah] It was fun actually mastering an old technique and finding a way to really control it. Cause you know if you read any puppet book, and I have 1200 puppet books in my studio, I spent a whole summer reading old papier mache recipes from the ’30s and ’40s and everybody has a different version. [ME: Yep] So I kind of diluted them all into my version. So now I’m the expert just like they all were. [ME: Yeah] [Laughs]
ME: Which kind of brings me to another question, is that, I know your papier mache recipe is online, um-
RONNIE: And that’s old, I’ve got a better one now. [ME: Ok] See that’s why I hate the internet you know? The minute you say something it’s there forever and it’s like, that’s about 12 years old.
ME: Is there any chance on getting any more information, tips or anything like-?
RONNIE: Alright, what do you want?
ME: [shocked at the willingness to be so open, and not knowing where to start] Everything.
RONNIE: [both laughing] Don’t pay your agent as much as me, there’s my tip. … Ahhh… What do you want?
ME: Oh god… I just, I know so many people who would just ask a zillion questions. [Talked over by Ronnie] From [unintelligible]
RONNIE: Yeah, I guess that’s why I can’t get one off the top of my head you know? You could look at any puppet and go "well, how’d you do that" or "why’d you do that?" And then, yeah… There’s a lot of, it’s interesting that you ask that though, cause there is a lot of information in that you know. We- Like one little tip is, in Tinka’s New Dress all of the men’s pants were wool, and they were really fine wool and beautiful wool, and I would never use wool on a costume again, ever. You really always have to think, scale scale scale. So all of the, the pants - there’s a man in a little grey-striped suit I think, if you look around there the kind of chunky fellow - that looks like a wool suit but that’s just t-shirt material. So Billy’s jeans are t-shirt material, his dad’s pants are t-shirt. So it’s taken me all these years to figure out that you know, puppets can’t wear the same fabric that a human wears.
ME: And why is that, just because of the construction?
RONNIE: Well, as I keep saying to the costumier, she goes, "look it bends". And she’s using two hands with human force. And I go, "put a string on it, will it bend if you just lift it with one string". So, that’s why Billy’s little jeans are as light as possible. And usually I torture the fabric and wash it and bleach it, and wash it again and break it down. So, um, it’s stuff like that that takes a long time to learn.
ME: Yep. It’s good stuff to know. [RONNIE: Yeah] Because I would never have figured that out.
RONNIE: Yeah, I mean for a TV-style puppet with rods and all of that, you know, where you’ve got the actual force on the rods and you can do all of this, then you can use a human fabric. But on these guys- and again on a glove puppet you want something sturdier right [ME: Yep] because they have to live up to all that abuse and sweat actually.
ME: Yep, sweaty hands.
PUBLICIST: Sorry to interrupt guys, just five minutes more [RONNIE: Ok thanks] if that’s ok?
RONNIE: See, you get lost in puppet talk though right?
ME: Yeah, and I’ve got another page full [of questions]. … Um, alright… Well, I’ll just finish off with a really [RONNIE: Get to the big one, come on] No, this is, this is for a friend. Do you ever talk to your puppets when you’re alone?
RONNIE: No. I sometimes swear at them, during set up [laughter] or you know? But, ah, no. They’re, to me, again like a musician, they’re like my cello or my guitar or my piano. You know, I revere them as an instrument and I take good care of them. For me though, the character doesn’t just live in the thing, the thing is one third of the character. So I look at those and I go, "yeah that’s the puppet of Billy, but that’s not the character of Billy" because the rest of the equation is the script, and what he says, and the other third is how the punters react to him. And so I actually have favourite puppets that weren’t my favourites when I was building them. But the minute you get them in front of the audience you realise the audience has a great affinity with that character. And so I think you need all three parts of that equation.
So, I think if they, if I just talk to them then I would just think they existed as some sort of mythical thing on their own. [ME: Yep] Which is not to say I don’t talk to myself… constantly. [ME: laughs] But you know, here’s an answer for your friend. I remember years ago - and it was after my main mentor had died - and I was in the studio building something, and I got really frustrated with it and I slammed it down on the table, and it was like a voice behind me - and it wasn’t. But I heard his voice in my head say, "pick that up, you know how to do that". And I picked up the thing and finished it. Because I realised it’s just a thing. It’s nothing to be mad at or take your frustrations out on.
If a puppet falls apart or doesn’t respond properly it’s not the puppet’s fault, it’s cause the maker didn’t do it the right way in the first place, or he’s being impatient with his instrument, you know? [ME: Yep] Um, as my teacher used to say, "it’s not the violin that makes the music, it’s the violinist", so yeah, I don’t really talk to the puppets. And I’ve had my friends promise that if I do start talking to them, just you know, put the straight jacket on, wipe the drool off my chin and send me away. [laughs]
ME: … That’s exactly… I just, I sort of, I think I talk to my materials but not my puppet.
RONNIE: Yeah, oh absolutely. Yeah. You know, I swear like a trucker sometimes in the studio, at things. But it’s more about my own frustration, yeah… Um, there was one other thing I wanted to say in regards to that, it’s just kind of left my mi- well, again you know, I mean I do run into those earnest puppeteers sometimes who - especially at puppet festivals who walk around with puppets talking to you through their puppet. You know, you might want to say this, someone did that to me in Manchester, England two years ago and she came up to me with a puppet and started talking.
And I just put it down and said, "don’t embarass the profession like that anymore, save it for the show". So I actually am not very tolerant of puppets walking around and talking to people in funny voices. It’s like, you know what? Talk to me. [laughs] Because I think a lot of people get into puppetry because they’re shy or socially awkward. I’m not. You know, I have friends, I have family, I have a real life so I don’t need puppets to be my friends.
ME: Which is fair enough. [Both laughs] Well, I-
RONNIE: Got one more or is that it?
ME: No, no, I think-
RONNIE: Probably going to get booted out of here anyway-
After that abrupt ending, it’s probably worthwhile at this point to mention we were, by this time, getting lots of looks of encouragement to wrap up the interview. Anyway, the next episode I don’t have planned just yet but am hoping to do one on the topic of making caricature or look-a-like puppets. If you have any questions you want answered on that topic, please email me via podcast @ school of puppetry dot com dot au.
And finally, a quick update on feedback: I’m happy to report that Kelvin Kao approves of the latest episode where he says that the audio quality has improved. I have narrowed down a few issues in saving and converting mp3 files which should, I hope, mean that quality will be better for future episodes.
Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions for future episodes? Send them to podcast @ school of puppetry dot com dot au.
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