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Illuminating Thoughts: Ronnie Burkett on Forget Me Not

Beloved puppet master and creator of Forget Me Not, Ronnie Burkett shares his illuminating thoughts on asking the audience to connect and letter writing as a political act of defiance. 

Apr 26, 2019 | BY: Ronnie Burkett


Tell us about the journey from the original concept of Forget Me Not to what will be performed at Luminato in June. 

RB: Originally, I was going to be shockingly thin and have an eye job by the time this thing premiered. Neither has happened. Otherwise, it’s been a long journey.

When one sets out to throw everything they know up in the air, the landing of those pieces is surprising, unexpected, and alternately cruel, joyful, or illuminating. I began with what I thought was an exploration of love letters, and had to go through an initial overly-romantic view with my own longing, which gave way to a darkness and cynicism. 

Ultimately it lead me right back home to the notion that we are best and bravest when we truly declare ourselves, even in the face of uncertainty at how that will be received. Especially in the face of that, actually.

How long has Forget Me Not been in development? 

RB: Well, “in development” and “in my head” are two different things! A notion of the core idea came to me about a decade ago, but two other shows were created and toured extensively since, so this has been brewing a long time.

As for actively on the table, Forget Me Not has probably been simmering for three years now. The creation of the 100 Handpuppets project took over two years alone, although there was no script for the show at all during that process.

But creating a hundred one-of-a-kind handpuppets (for the audience!) in a painstakingly old school technique was a ridiculously ambitious conceit. I’m glad we embraced it though, as irrational as it seems. But I am convinced that artisinal work with all the provenance of the craft’s heritage is truly beautiful and the best gift I can give an audience.    

Tell us about the major inspiration(s) for Forget Me Not.

RB: With cursive handwriting disappearing from curriculums, and a generation that won’t be able to write or read it, I realized we have not only a lost form of communication, but actually unwittingly created a future secret code.

So the notion of love letters being dangerous, and requiring an epic journey, really grabbed me. Tandem to this, in the last five years, I have fallen madly in love with the audience. I don’t want distance. I want them right there, in it, with me. So the thought of incorporating them so intimately in the staging and playing of a show terrified, delighted, and propelled me toward this idea.

 

Sketch of "She" from Forget Me Not by Ronnie Burkett. Photo by Jorge Ayala-Isaza

What can viewers expect when they go see Forget Me Not? Who do you think will be the most interested in this work?  

RB: I think anyone who wants to connect with the performer in a real way will be interested in this work. There are moments of passive observation, sure, but those are balanced with sections of the play where the engagement and activity of them is necessary.

In a way, this is dangerous. I’m asking the audience to connect with me and these characters, physically and emotionally. This is not for observers. This is an invitation to the dance. 

If you had to summarize the story of Forget Me Not in 5 words, what would they be?  

RB: Hmmm. Well…

“Love’s a beautiful, dirty journey.”

“Ronnie has lost his mind.”

“Damn, the audience smells good.”

“Love’s language cannot be lost.”

“We are each other’s other.”

How does Forget Me Not speak to contemporary society?  

RB: It began as an “in the future” dystopian fantasy. And then the world became…the world we live in now. Barely futuristic, more “right around the corner”.

Look, everyone walking into the theatre is connected to a device. Addicted to it. Tracked and monitored by it. So, we start there. And hopefully remember that taking a pen in hand to a piece of paper to declare ourselves to another is actually a political act of defiance against cynicism and branding and cat videos.

What are some of the biggest challenges/setbacks you have faced while creating Forget Me Not

RB: The eternal setbacks of independent artists…money and time. There is never enough time to build a puppet show. Never. Oh, and crippling self-doubt. That never helps, y’know?

But when a fella is surrounded by the embrace of the most amazing collaborators, it keeps one bouyant and hopeful. Some of the finest humans ever put on this planet walk into Puppetland regularly and save my ass.

Do you have a favourite line or section from the piece? 

RB: There is a secondary storyline, a “play-within-the-play” of a boastful humpbacked dwarf named Zako Budaydos. He has become the heart of the piece for me. I love him.

Audiences know me primarily as a marionette performer, but I began with handpuppets. And Zako is a handpuppet. He’s as visceral and raw as puppetry can get, and a kind of homecoming for me.

Was there a specific piece of art/artist that first inspired you as a young artist?  

RB: Oh honey, I grew up in Medicine Hat (in Alberta)…ANYTHING artful saved my life and said “get out into the world!” But specifically, books on puppetry in the library.

People who had careers doing this. And I either got to work for them, know them, or research them in such detail, it has never EVER stopped changing my life, even to this day. I love those who went before me, as much as I’ve loved any lover.

Do you have any rituals or routines that you do before or when you’re creating? Any weird objects or superstitions that help you be your best creative self? 

RB: I think my studio is the most beautiful room in the world, especially in the early morning darkness. I have to get into it before sunrise, before the world wakes up. So that means I’m usually up by 4:30 a.m., just to have some silence, some focus, some time to speak to all the dead mentors, and to be here ready to go before the city roars and the world starts emailing me endlessly.

Email is the destruction of humankind, seriously. And if not, certainly the destruction of a mindful, artful life. So, quiet in the dark, coffee in hand, listening to the chattering, bullying, glorious dead while a dog snoozes beside me, is the best way to begin. Always.

What was your first big work that you created? Is there anything you’d change about it? 

RB: My career has had sections, or phases…periods, I guess. And each has had a “big work”. There was a huge one-man show with 45 marionettes, Awful Manors, which was incredibly ambitious, in the period when I was focusing on campy, musical spoofs.

Then the next phase of my career, which began with Tinka’s New Dress changed everything. The work became personal, darker, and about something beyond entertainment. It toured for eight years, took me onto the world stage, and got a lot of attention. I’d say that might be the significant milestone when there was a shift in my career, but also how I viewed puppet theatre.

None of my mentors told me that sort of work was possible, let alone that I’d be the one to do it. But I started touring when I was 14 years old, and that work was no less significant. It’s all just a wild trajectory through a love affair with puppetry.

If I had to to revisit any of it, yes, knowing what I know now, I would change it. But that’s not the point of a life or an artistic path; I could never recreate the crazy youthful me who took the risks I did at various stages. Nor could those younger versions approach the form as I do now, after almost five decades into this love affair. And audiences show up. Always. There’s the signifcant thing.

What are your procrastination go-tos when you want to take your mind off of work? 

RB: Beer, Instagram, cooking, my dog Robbie, Rupaul, sitting shell-shocked in a frantic haze, puppet books, and napping on the studio couch. Often all at once.

Have you attended/participated in Luminato before? What’s your favourite Luminato memory? 

RB: The Daisy Theatre premiered as a commissioned work during Luminato 2013. It’s been on the road non-stop, touring internationally (New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, five consecutive years in Vancouver, to name a few), with no end in sight. It’s an improvised vaudeville show, and so, for the premiere run, I had a friend from the U.S. who bought tickets for every performance.

At the final show, he was called onstage by the main character, Schnitzel, for a chat. They talked about love. And then he called his partner up onstage, and plucking the little flower from Schnitzel’s head, my friend got down on one knee and proposed in front of the the audience. It was as crazy magical as it sounds. I’m so excited that they both will be coming back to Toronto to see Forget Me Not.

What’s your favourite spot in Toronto (or the world)? 

RB: In Toronto, my studio. Because there’s the best dog, chandeliers, and 1600 puppet books. In the world, Australia…Sydney or Melbourne specifically. Australians get me, they’re like Canadians, but without parkas.

Which other Luminato 2019 shows are you excited to see? 

RB: Happily/sadly, I’ll be performing Forget Me Not for the entire duration of Luminato, so I won’t be able to see other work. But I’ll be doing a show, and that’s my only and happiest job.

Why did you want to present your work and be a part of the festival? 

RB: It’s a ridiculous luxury to premiere a work in the same city I live in. I have access to the studio, my team, and I don’t have to say goodbye to my partner and dog to go on the road.

But also, the festival gives an interesting view of work outside the box of the usual fare in Toronto’s arts scene, and I’m so happy to be back again to take a giant risk with such tremendous support. 

Experience Forget Me Not from June 5-23 at the Joey & Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre in Toronto, Canada during Luminato 2019. 

 

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