Acclaimed puppeteer Ronnie Burkett comes to Vancouver BC

When Ronnie Burkett first started doing The Daisy Theatre, coming March 21 to April 9  at the Historic Theatre at the Cultch on Commercial Drive, the show was conspicuously lacking in personality. In fact, it was lacking three personalities: What the puppeteer calls “the holy trinity” of Schnitzel, Esme Massengill and Edna Rural, veterans of star-making appearances in previous Burkett shows.

After traveling the world, Ronnie brings his production to Vancouver, BC.

Ages 16+. Patrons under the age of 16 will not be admitted.

Audience favourite Esme Gassengill returns in The Daisy Theatre, running from March 21 to April 9 at the Historic Theatre at the Cultch. Alejandro Santiago

“It was only halfway through the run when, walking the dogs one night, I thought, ‘For heaven’s sake, it’s really rare that a performer, especially a puppeteer, will get a signature character,’ ” Burkett recalls. “And I had retired three great signature characters. So the next day we started redesigning and rebuilding them and put them into the show.”

The Daisy Theatre was originally prepared for Toronto’s Luminato Festival in 2013. Initially, the show incorporated mini-plays by 10 Canadian playwrights that Burkett had commissioned. But that didn’t go over so well.

“The audience told me they didn’t like it,” Burkett says. “Some worked, some didn’t. But pretty quickly the Daisy just got its own thing going.”

In its current format, The Daisy Theatre “is kind of like a vaudeville show,” says Burkett. It’s a combination of set pieces and improv, with new characters and returning favourites, song-and-dance numbers and scenes from theatre classics.

The latter category includes what Burkett calls “Canada’s worst actress” doing “a bastardized version of the crypt scene from Romeo and Juliet.” A newer character is an elderly male English teacher who loves to perform Tennessee Williams’ female roles. “I’m not in any earnest way doing Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams,” Burkett says. “They’re springboards for these characters.”

Since he formed Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes in 1986, the Alberta native’s adult-oriented fantasias have made him one of the world’s best known puppeteers. The Daisy Theatre is his 13th show, following hits like Penny Plain, Billy Twinkle, 10 Days on Earth, Provenance, and the trilogy of Tinka’s New Dress, Street of Blood and Happy.

Burkett had been preparing a new scripted piece for this year, but the demand — it’s returning to Vancouver for the fourth time — for The Daisy Theatre has pushed back the new show.

“The Daisy, I think, is something I’m going to do until I die,” says the 60-year-old Burkett. “I might put it to bed and do something else, but it will always happen because it’s a really good reminder of how to play with the audience. And it’s a great little lab because I’m not held to a full script or conceit.”

The Daisy has been a welcome relief from the scripted material, he says, not just because of the subject matter but also the size of venues that he has been playing.

“What The Daisy Theatre did was reminded me that puppets work best when they’re small and subversive,” says Burkett. “I don’t want 800 people in the audience anymore. That was a goal for years, to get into the legitimate venues. When I did I realized it was too big. Nobody was close enough to see the puppets. I couldn’t smell the audience, and they couldn’t smell me working.”

When it comes to the smell of the audience, Vancouver rates highly by Burkett’s standards — especially since new people keep coming out to the shows, along with returning customers. And that audience is diverse.

“I look out at a Vancouver audience, and there’s no one demographic. Everyone’s out there. That’s the great, democratic thing about the Daisy Theatre,” he says. “And it’s good to laugh with an audience again. Some of the work had gotten so dark and so serious that it was just like, ‘I’ve gotta lighten up.’ The Daisy allows me that.”

From the upcoming events section of The Georgia Straight in Vancouver:

Editor’s choice

The Daisy Theatre at the Cultch

It’s a show that changes every night, and for those who have seen it, it’s like an addiction. Which of his warped and wonderfully wrought characters will puppet genius Ronnie Burkett bring back for the return of the Daisy Theatre? Will it be drag queen Dinah Dooya? Lounge singer Rosemary Focaccia? Fairy child Schnitzel? Or “Canada’s oldest and worst actress”, Miss Lillian Lunkhead? We can’t tell you—the man has more than 40 to pull from—but if you’ve never caught the one-of-a-kind marionette show for adults before, you’re in for a wild mix of cabaret and vaudeville on strings, of course. Over the years, we’ve raved about the show: “These moments surpass anything you get from most evenings at the theatre.” Go see what the fuss is about, or lose yourself in the twisted world for a second or third time.

The Daisy Theatre is at the Cultch from March 21 to April 9.

My ex-wife and I had done puppet shows for years and I had the good fortune to see one of Ronnie’s performances after my divorce. I highly recommend his shows to every adult. More about Ronnie on his Facebook page, and The Canadian Encyclopedia.