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Pulling strings, making trouble

From the productions of Dora-award winner Ronnie Burkett to the giants who populate protests, political puppets are acting up


BY Jennifer O’Connor

First, the sketch. Taking pencil to kraft paper, he draws the face, the body, the costume. Like a child at play, he becomes absorbed in the character, in the whole spectacular world he is creating. This is how each of Ronnie Burkett’s marionettes begins.

Burkett is the most renowned puppeteer in Canada. Since founding his Theatre of Marionettes in Calgary in 1986, he has introduced characters such as Eden, who blows up gay bars to incite his fellow homos’ rage; Pity Beane, who is obsessed with the portrait of a beautiful young man (whose story, however, is far from pretty); and Honeydog and Little Burp, a dog and a duck that form a genuine—if not biological— family. Now based in Toronto, Burkett will stage his latest work, Billy Twinkle, Requiem for a Golden Boy, in 2008. In it, Burkett plays a cabaret puppeteer who is looking back on various episodes in this life. (The flashbacks, naturally, feature Billy’s marionettes.) The recipient of numerous awards, including the Obie and the Dora, he’s often credited with reviving the art of puppetry in this country.

His success has influenced numerous other troupes that are now in the spotlight, Calgary’s The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, Saskatoon’s Red Smarteez Marionettes and Runaway Moon Theatre from Enderby, B.C., among them. Their success— everyone from the Calgary Herald to the New York Post to Variety is raving about the Trout’s latest, Famous Puppet Death Scenes, for example—as well as annual events such as the International Festival of Animated Objects (IFAO) in Calgary and La Semaine mondiale de la marionette in Jonquière— prove there is an audience, albeit small, for this art form. As Xstine Cook, founder of the IFAO, says, “Realistically, puppetry is always going to be a niche of Canadian theatre, but I think it’s getting a lot stronger, it’s being taken a lot more seriously.”

Why are these stringed thespians acting up now? Perhaps the appeal of the puppet, says Peter Stinson, one half of Red Smarteez Marionettes, is its unexpectedness and low-tech charm in a pixilated world. Or maybe it’s because an endless offering of megamusicals and remounts has left audiences hungry for new, innovative, unapologetic work: something puppetmasters, at their best, are happy to supply. Indeed, they are bringing a renewed sense of political activism, social commentary and artistic expression to Canadian theatre.

A working drawing of a full-sized marionette from the front and profile is finished, and templates are drawn for the various body parts. Heads are sculpted out of Plasticine. Then, moulds are made and the heads are cast in light and resilient paperclay.

Puppets such as those in Burkett’s oeuvre are some of the most politically engaged performers. He didn’t intend it to be that way—Theatre of Marionettes’ first plays were bawdy comedies and campy musicals—but he was a gay man living in Calgary as the Reform Party was gaining popularity, a time when you could listen to phone-in radio and hear, “Throw all them people with AIDS in camps.” Beginning with 1994’s Tinka’s New Dress, a play about survival under a repressive government, he became more raw and insightful. Whereas Tinka and 1998’s Street of Blood, which dealt with AIDS, were overt comments on social issues, later plays are more nuanced. They’ve featured residents of a small apartment building trying to find joy (Happy); a young art student, the aforementioned Pity Beane, researching the history of a painting (Provenance); and a mentally challenged adult who is unaware that his mother has died (10 Days on Earth).

“I think,” says Burkett, “I’m more political now than ever, but I’m political in a more one-to-one way. I think 10 Days on Earth was hugely political. It asks, are we responsible for one another? What is community? What is family? A dog and a duck? Anyone with a brain knows whom I’m talking about there. I think that’s a subtler entrance point, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing because it maybe dawns on people a few days later, or it lingers a bit longer, rather than going, ‘That was a two-and-a-half-hour rant.’”

Puppets express their politics in their form as well as their words and actions. Toronto’s Clay and Paper Theatre, for one, stages most of its productions in public spaces and offers pay-what-you-can performances to reach the most diverse audience possible. The company’s most recent play, We Need Help, is an unapologetic critique of our society’s dependence on oil. The puppets—large rod puppets, masks and umbrellas painted with images of a bee, squirrel and raccoon—are made on the cheap. “Imagination,” says artistic director David Anderson, “need not be constrained by the monetary resources that are available to it.”

Of course, puppets are also regulars at demos (remember Nemesis, a giant puppet with bright orange hair that some feminists wheeled up to the security fence during FTAA protests in Quebec City?). “Politically,” says Cook, “I think they’re powerful because you can put something together very quickly but yet it can have the movement and the message all tied together on a visual level. You focus on it more than you focus on the other people.”

Cook’s latest work is the Spirit of the White Buffalo, a 12-foot-high puppet that took two years to make and recently won the Best Western Theme prize at the Calgary Stampede and the Most Original Float honour at the Peigan Indian Days Parade. The buffalo was made with the help of 20 offenders in the Native Brotherhood and Vocational Welding programs at Drumheller Institution. Inspired by the project, four inmates carved an alabaster white buffalo sculpture that will be raffled off in January, with proceeds going to Young Spirit Voices, an Aboriginal drama group.

The wooden bodies are sanded and jointed. While he does his jointing work he thinks: How will the character walk? Will it kneel? How high does it shrug its shoulders? The stringing is most important because that will determine where the main weight is held, affecting how the marionette will hold itself and move across the stage.

Puppets have a unique power to comment on society. This may be done with humour: “A puppet lends itself to satire,” says Stinson. “You can create caricatures with the faces. The characters can be really over the top, just being themselves. Actors can be kind of stifled by their bodies or by who they are.” Puppets can also be much more serious, speaking out when people can’t or won’t. “There are things that are difficult to hear,” says Cathy Stubington, artistic director of Runaway Moon, “but if they’re said by puppets it’s like it’s not taken as seriously, so you can listen to it. You have to open your imagination and your heart to listen to a puppet, whereas there are all kinds of reasons to keep your senses closed when you’re listening to a person, especially when what’s being said could be contentious.”

Another paradox is that while at first an audience might feel distanced from a character made of papier mâché or fabric, the connection that can form between them is unlike any other because the stars can only exist if we let them. They can seem more real, more engaging. “In a lot of film and theatre,” says Anderson, “there’s not much left to the imagination. You’re just sort of being entertained or following the plotline, and I think puppets really give that imaginative space to people.” He adds: “Because of that distancing effect, because even if they’re small, they’re larger than life, they focus attention.”

A new marionette must be made each time the character has a costume change. The ensembles come out of boxes labelled “gaudy glitz: gold/bronze/copper” and “vintage ostrich plumes.” No detail is forgotten: beads are handsewn onto sweaters, soles are cobbled onto leather shoes.

True, puppets have their weaknesses: they have limited mobility and facial expression, for example, and they can be more attention-grabbing props than characters. But the opportunities they open up for creative expression are one of their definite strengths; their appearance can further engage the audience and make powerful visual statements.

The craftsmanship involved in making a puppet is often readily apparent and bewitching. “Personally,” says Burkett, “I think that’s why audiences will sit and watch a two-hour marionette play. I think they know it’s handmade. I think they know the combination of my point of view—that I’m not lying, that it’s an authentic point of view that brought us all together in this play—but also that I cared enough about it to design it and build it and stand up there and jiggle it around. Because you don’t see that much. There’s a lot of franchised theatre.”

Puppets also allow artists to experiment with scale and form, to communicate visually what would be impossible otherwise. In one Clay and Paper play, for example, a character was represented five different ways, drawing on the innate characteristics of each type of puppet. Her incarnations included a comedic hand puppet, an oratorical rod puppet, and an emotional 18-foot, giant puppet. Runaway Moon Theatre has also done this kind of work. At the beginning of one production, a character was a onefoot- high marionette. As the narrative progressed and its essence was revealed, the character was portrayed first by a two-foot-high, then a three-foot-high marionette, and finally a live actor.

Whether hand puppets or marionettes, these creations are often used to transcend boundaries between disciplines and between them and their audience. For example, Wendy Passmore-Godfrey, founding director of Calgary’s W.P. Puppet Theatre Society, notes that numerous other art forms, such as painting, film and music, are incorporated into puppetry. (In her work, Passmore-Godfrey has also used shadow projections, masks and dance.) And Stubington tries to create projects that require audience participation. In 2005, Runaway Moon launched the Institute of Spectacle program with By the River. At the beginning of the rehearsal period, artists led workshops on everything from large puppetry to stilts to ribbon dancing. “Art is separated from society,” says Stubington. “I just think it’s really necessary for people to participate in culture and recognize their creativity.”

Puppets have existed in every culture throughout most of history. (There is also a rich puppetista tradition.) As Rutgers University theatre arts professor Eileen Blementhal writes in Puppetry: A World History, in ninth-century China, puppet shows were so anti-government that one rabble-rouser “travelled around arranging puppet shows to gauge unrest and recruit local malcontents.” In post-Revolution France, Guignol (a character who’s still seen today) stood up for other working-class Lyonnais and put bourgeois bullies in their place with a whack of his baton. And in 2000, Theatre Junction, a Pakistani troupe, staged a show about political corruption unsubtly called Bunch of Lies. (Party loyalists shut down the production and assaulted the puppeteers.)

Canada, of course, has its own puppet history. For example, as Blumenthal describes traditional Kwakuitl initiations: “[A] nearly life-size ancestor effigy is draped over the body of the initiate, who wears it like a necklace: The live person’s head pokes through the puppet’s rope belly, letting the ancestor’s wooden arms and head dangle down in the front, and its legs hang down in the back.” Jumping forward, artists and companies such as Théâtre sans Fil (Sky Blue Takes a Wife, The Hobbit), Felix Mirbt (A Dream Play, Happy End) and Luman and Arlyn Coad (Master Peter’s Puppet Show, The Snow Queen) began performing in the 1960s and ’70s.

Canadian puppetry continues to evolve. This fall, the first puppetry program will begin offering courses at the Université de Quebec à Montréal. And more artists are exploring shadow puppets, puppet slams and puppet films (in 2005, Heather Henson, daughter of Muppet creator Jim Henson, launched Handmade Puppet Dreams, a travelling festival of independent work).

The lack of funding available to artists, however, casts some doubt on how the artists will be able to move forward. “The funding situation for young artists is appalling,” says Burkett, adding, “If we’re going to de-fund a generation then we’re going to lose that generation of interesting work and it will just be—what?—Manitoba Theatre Centre doing The Goat again or CanStage doing Little Shop of fucking Horrors.”

Now, Burkett is ready to play. Face, body and costume have composed a character. He’ll begin pulling on its 15 strings. It will nod its head, it will swivel its hips and it will flick its wrists. Finally, the marionette will come to life.

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