Ronnie Burkett is one of the great puppeteers not just of his generation, but of all-time.
The out master Canadian puppeteer returns to Montreal with his R-rated Daisy Theatre gang in Little Dickens, a naughty remake of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, currently playing at the Centaur Theatre.We recently sat down for a candid and wonderfully queer Q&A.
Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. Puppets or Marionettes?
Either or. Puppet is like the family name, like Burnett. And marionette would be the specific, like Richard. They are interchangeable as far as I am concerned.
Is it true that “The Lonely Goatherd” puppets of Bil Baird in The Sound of Music was what made you decide to become a puppeteer?
Yup. It was two-fold. Before The Sound of Music, my parents did what all middle-class parents did then, they bought an encyclopedia set. One day I sat on the floor, grabbed a random volume – the P volume – and it fell open on a two-page spread about puppets. There was a picture of Bil Baird and his wife surrounded by puppets. I looked at it and thought, “That’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.
”Later that year The Sound of Music came out and it was the first time I was allowed to go to a movie by myself because back then you could send a seven-year-old to the theatre! And there onscreen were the Baird marionettes. I wrote him a letter and said I could move to New York and I never heard back from him. I wrote him again when I was 10. I said, “Seriously, I am ready to leave my family and move to New York.” He didn’t reply. Then I wrote him when I was 14, and when I was 18 I met him – of all places – in Moscow. He said, “Hey, are you stopping in New York on the way home?” I said, “Yeah, we have two days in New York.” He told me to come see him and on my 19th birthday I auditioned for him at his Greenwich Village theatre and he hired me.
I once took the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg. I swear we must have been 50 gay men on that bus! When was the last time you watched The Sound of Music?
I’m in hotel rooms all the time, so if it’s on TV, usually during the holiday season when I do a lot of touring, then I watch it from start to finish.
Growing up, my gay reference point for marionettes was Wayland Flowers and Madame.
A game-changer. It was Bil Baird’s son Peter, whom I lived with for a while, he and his girlfriend took me to see Wayland in a club on the Upper West Side and this was just before he exploded. I’d never seen anything like it. He wasn’t doing ventriloquism. His mouth was moving and the material was crazy. I was 19, I was so green! They took me backstage to meet him and I was so excited. And Wayland looked me up and down and said, “Didn’t I rim you in a hallway somewhere?”
When it comes to puppetry, the reference point for so many people are the Muppets. Is this an obstacle to your work?
That’s what people think of today when you say puppets, and there are so many clones of them everywhere. You know, when the Baird Theatre closed – I was the last person Baird hired – Bonnie Erickson hired me. She designed Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf, and I worked in her shop. So I learnt those techniques from the best. When I came back to Canada, I did (children’s television) work for years. At one point I thought I can’t do TV anymore. I had to commit to my own work.
What was it like winning an Emmy Award in 1979 for the puppets in “Cinderrabbit” on PBS? You were so young, like 22-years-old!
I thought, “This is it. I’m going to do television.” Thing is, I wrote a lot of fan letters when I was a kid growing up in Medicine Hat. The only reference I had were library books, and my chief mentor was (Indiana puppeteer) Martin Stevens who came up with a correspondence course in puppetry, 20 sessions for $30. It is still the basis of all my technique. He and his wife also toured adult marionette shows.
Where did your aging diva / movie star character Esmé Massengill in The Daisy Theatre come from?
Massengill was a douche that was advertised on TV when I was a kid! (Laughs) Well, there you go, my darling, there is the gay! Esmé Massengill is all the clichés that the gay boys love. She is Carol Burnett, Gloria Swanson, everything that little gay Ronnie loved.
How does your queerness inform your work?
It’s always been there. Growing up in Canada – and I don’t think the Americans I know get this as strongly – American friends know musical theatre, but I know a sense of camp from all the British TV I watched. That sensibility mixed with Carol Burnett was my training ground as a child. That’s why I love a good boob joke. Also, a sense of the other, looking at the world from the outside of the glass, your nose pressed against what we think are the normal people. That really gave me (grist) as a creator and performer. I know what being other means.
Little Dickens is quickly becoming a beloved holiday classic.
It’s so much fun because everybody loves A Christmas Carol, there are a gazillion versions of it, most regional theatres have their own version, but to see Esmé Massengill as Scrooge and to see Schnitzel as Tiny Tim, it’s pretty joyful in a filthy adult kind of way.
Googling you, I came across pictures of you as a young man. OMG you were such a twink!
I was a club kid (in New York) for a long time. I had a lot of experiences under my belt by the time I was 24. Hello drugs, sex and disco! I worked the entire time, but I had a delayed teen rebel phase.
When folks call you fabulous, a genius, a legend, how do you feel?
Hmmm, you’re making me emotional. (Long pause) When you daydream as a child and pray you’ll get out (of Medicine Hat) and do it, you never imagine it will be this level. I never thought it would be this good, honest.
Ronnie Burkett’s Little Dickens runs at the Centaur Theatre from November 19 to December 15. For tickets, visit centaurtheatre.com.