Canadian national treasure and master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett returns to Montreal with his bawdy Daisy Theatre gang in Little Willy, a brand-new production based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The little gay boy from Medicine Hat, Alberta, who would grow up to become the protégé of legendary puppeteers Martin Stevens and Bil Baird before becoming one of the great puppeteers of his generation, is now beloved by audiences worldwide.
Burkett won an Emmy Award in 1979 (at age 22) for the puppets in the PBS TV puppet-musical Cinderrabbit before forming the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes in 1986 to produce satirical works aimed at an adult audience. The rest is history.
We recently sat down for a candid Q&A.
The Daisy Theatre gang are back with a brand-new production based on Romeo and Juliet. What can you tell us about your new show?
I thought it was going to honour the bard a bit more than I did. I was working with a dramaturg Tanja Jacobs. I think she thought it was going to be a pretty straight performance of the text with these characters. Then she came to see Little Dickens last December and she went, “Oh, I get it now.”
The premise is the Daisy gang thinks they’re doing (aging diva / movie star character) Esmé Massengill’s new musical All Hands on Deck. But the theatre has actually advertised Shakespeare so they’re thrust into this panic. And, you know, all the old broads in the Daisy Theatre are vying for the role of Juliet. We also made a marionette of Shakespeare who also appears in the piece. And (jazz musician) John (Alcorn) wrote five new songs for this, which are funny and dirty. You know, every Daisy Theatre show starts with a burlesque number with Dolly Wiggler our stripper. John wrote an Elizabethan, Shakespearean-style strip number for her!
How did you deal with COVID and are you relieved to be back on the stage?
I think we’re all going to have some lingering PTSD from this. I never would have taken a year off. So I kind of welcomed it. Then it turned into two and a half years. That was a bit nuts. When it started I was having a banner year. I’d been in Australia, then did a month in Vancouver and then suddenly we’re in lockdown and I watched two years of bookings just disappear.
I had no idea what the reemergence of theatre would be like. Around the time of lockdown was the big Black Lives Matter movement over George Floyd and all these overdue conversations in the theatre about inclusivity and diversity. And I thought, well, maybe I won’t work again anyway because I’m officially an old white man now.
But people were starved for live theatre. We booked a seven-city tour and I was actually going to do another show, but they wanted us to do Little Willy because people just wanted to laugh. It really felt like a comeback tour. I haven’t felt that kind of enthusiasm from an audience in a long time.
My gay reference point for marionettes was Wayland Flowers and Madame. About whom you have a great story.
I was in New York working for Bil Baird. I was 19, fresh from Medicine Hat. And two puppeteers I was working with were friends with Wayland and took me to the Upper West Side to a small club where he was doing his act. He blew my mind. I had never seen anything like that, didn’t even know you could do that in puppetry. They took me backstage to his dressing room to say hello and before I could say anything, Wayland just looked at me and said, “Didn’t I rim you in a hallway somewhere?” I didn’t really even know what rimming was! That was a very speechless interaction on my part!
The gays love your aging diva / movie star character Esmé Massengill. Where did she come from?
I think she is an amalgamation of old movie love, diva love – all of those clichés of little gay boys watching movies. And just this general sense of camp I grew up with. The benefit of being Canadian is when you’re growing up, you have all of this influence from American culture, obviously, but there’s also that heavy influence of British culture, their comedy and their sense of camp and mime.
What was it like growing up a gay kid in Medicine Hat?
Isolated which is why I think puppetry was a lifesaver for me. For a loner child, here’s a craft where you’re not locked in your own body or your own reality and you can invent any character, make it and perform it.
Were you able to come out to your parents?
Yes. It took a long time. And of course, they knew. My dad was a hockey player and hockey coach. He was a jock. But he’s the one who as soon as I started getting gigs would load up the car and drive me to those $50 gigs when I was 14. So he was complicit in all of this.
Are you a queer artist or an artist who happens to be queer?
You know, that’s a really good question. And I think the answer is both depending who I’m talking to. I think for young queer artists it’s important for them to hear me say I’m a queer artist. I’m very cognizant of that. And I really like the word queer, you know? So if I’m talking to a young theatre maker, to a young queer puppeteer, then I say, “Yeah, I’m a queer puppeteer.”
How does your queerness inform your work?
All those tropes of an outsider looking at a larger world, I can certainly put myself into the shoes of people who aren’t welcome at the table. I also think theatre is about a connection with the audience over longing. Even if it’s comedy, I think we are all longing and if you can tap into that with a character, especially a puppet, it comes alive. I think queer people grow up longing. Especially when you have to be silent or try to blend in or be invisible. The sense of longing is very real for the queer community.
Is there a lavender ceiling in the puppetry world?
I don’t think so. But I kind of went my own route anyway. You know, it’s not lost on me that during all these years, for the majority of my career at regional theatres, for example, I’ve been performing primarily for a heterosexual audience. That’s a big old homo up there with his dollies! The gay audience has always been there too, but I think the real breakthrough came with The Daisy Theatre. That’s when I noticed a lot more queer people in the audience.
What lessons did you learn from your mentors that you now pass on to young puppeteers?
That if you learn good technical skills early, it’s going to be your safety net for the rest of your life.
How long have you and your life partner, jazz singer-songwriter John Alcorn, been together?
Twenty-three years. We met through a dramaturg I was working with at the time. It’s always murder-suicide when you work with your partner. It took us a while to figure out how to work together and now we work together really well.
Do fans still throw themselves at the feet of Ronnie Burkett?
We have a running joke: There are some performers like Danny MacIvor and other queer artists who have all the hot young theatre guys salivating over them because they want to do their plays. While all I get are middle-aged women bringing me banana bread backstage! I’m a chick magnet! I adore all my fans!
Are you excited to return to Montreal? Because we’re excited to see you again!
I really am. You know, it took me years to get to the Centaur Theatre. But that first time when I came with The Daisy Theatre, it was like an explosion. It was the same thing with Little Dickens. I have a great audience in Montreal.
How do you feel when people call you a living legend – because you are, Ronnie.
Well, I still feel like I’m in the middle of it. But I’ll tell you a story: about seven years ago, I was waiting in the wings to go on stage in Vancouver. It was a Saturday date night, everybody was dressed and the room was really electric. I was peeking through the curtain and got really scared. Then I had this moment where I thought, “Wait a minute, Ronnie, these people have taken their Saturday night and chosen to be at a puppet show. And they spent $65 and dressed up.”
It dawned on me in that moment that no one in that audience wanted this to fail. For the next two hours, these people were actually my best friends on the planet. It began a new-level of love affair with my audience and I have nothing but overwhelming gratitude.
INFO: Ronnie Burkett and his Daisy Theatre present Little Willy, a brand-new production based on Romeo and Juliet, created and performed by Ronnie Burkett with original music by John Alcorn, at the Centaur Theatre in Old Montreal, from May 2 to 14. For tickets, visit centaurtheatre.com.