One of the world’s great puppeteers finds renewal — for himself and his art form — in mentorship
· Photograph by Robyn Cumming
Burkett did, like Billy, use his festival trip to make connections with older puppeteers, who subsequently became mentors. From his home in Medicine Hat, he would exchange long letters with the masters of the golden age, eventually inviting himself to visit during school holidays. There, he would sit and watch and learn. Quietly. “When I used to go to those old boys’ places, I maybe got to sweep the floor and clean out the mould bucket,” he says. In return, he learned about neck joints and other technical arcana, and absorbed the varied experiences and sometimes conflicting approaches of his mentors.
The process of teaching and studying has continued informally throughout Burkett’s career. As we chat on the roof of his hotel, his mobile phone buzzes with a message from a real-life cruise ship puppeteer, still learning his craft, who attended the production the night before. After the show, the puppeteer came backstage with Norman Hetherington, a retired legend whose Mr. Squiggle character was a fixture on Australian TV from 1959 to 1999. The three men talked shop and, as Burkett puts it, “wiggled puppets together.”
Still, at fifty-two, Burkett has yet to replicate the formal apprenticeship patterns of his youth. “Every time someone says to me they want to apprentice, they’re literally saying, ‘Teach me everything about puppetry.’ They have no portfolio; they haven’t read any books.” But the problem extends beyond attitude. Whether because of Muppetization or the disappearance of the small arts grants that allowed him to attend festivals as far afield as Moscow when he was a teenager, there don’t seem to be many young English Canadians exploring the art. Puppetry’s missing generation has made Burkett a master without disciples — or rivals. “I wish there was that new thing nipping at my heels,” he says. “Where is he? Or she?”
At $100,000, the Elinore and Lou Siminovitch Prize is the largest theatre award in Canada. With that windfall, though, comes an endearing quirk: the winner keeps only three-quarters of it. The other $25,000 goes to a protege of his or her choice. Burkett had received the email congratulating him on his victory just a few hours before meeting me at his Sydney hotel last October, though he wouldn’t be permitted to reveal the win for another three weeks. In hindsight, he was clearly already mulling over the dilemma during our conversation: “I was recently asked who is the hot new thing in puppetry in English Canada,” he said at one point, without divulging who had posed the question. “I can’t give you a name. Quebec has plenty, of course. It supports its own, and the arts scene is alive because of it.”
He eventually found someone: an English Canadian born and raised on Vancouver Island, who discovered puppetry only after moving to Montreal and has been based in Quebec ever since. Clea Minaker was a student at McGill University in 1998 when she saw Burkett’s Tinka’s New Dress. It was the first significant puppet show she’d ever attended, and it changed her life. The relationship between Burkett and his audience was unlike anything she’d experienced in conventional theatre. “I found it absolutely wonderful and fascinating,” she recalls, “that you could be moved to believe in an inanimate object; that collectively we could suspend our disbelief and put life into something.”
She and two friends decided afterward to put on their own puppet show. They borrowed books from the library and wheedled a $1,000 grant out of the university, and seven weeks later put on a forty-five-minute show featuring a mix of string puppets, hand puppets, and other creations. Both of her collaborators from that show are now professional puppeteers, one in New York and the other in Melbourne. Minaker herself is best known for spending parts of 2007 and 2008 on the road with Feist, providing live shadow puppetry and other visuals behind the singer. Perhaps even more impressive to Burkett was the fact that she’d spent three years at France’s national puppetry school before returning to Canada in 2005.
Any mentorship that includes a $25,000 cheque is by most definitions a success. But both Burkett and Minaker hope to make something more of the relationship. The two had met only once before the award, but they’ve since had dinner a few times; Burkett imagines the mentorship will ultimately consist simply of hanging out, loaning her some of the 1,200 puppetry books in his personal library, and exchanging stories. “We have a lot of stuff to share, and I’m really excited to see where her own career takes her,” he said in an email. “She doesn’t do puppetry the way I do, and that’s good.” Already, a chance meeting between Burkett and Atom Egoyan the morning after the Siminovitch ceremony last November has helped facilitate Minaker’s possible involvement in an opera the filmmaker will be directing.
After losing his job in the opening scene of Billy Twinkle, Billy contemplates ending his mid-life crisis by hurling himself over the railing of the cruise ship. Burkett was feeling no such angst when he wrote the play: “All the way up until it premiered in Edmonton, I was adamant that this is not me; this is just a character.” So there was a certain cruel irony to the fact that, a week after the premiere, the federal government terminated the arts export program that helped subsidize shipping costs for Canadian shows touring internationally. Burkett was already committed to runs in Britain and Australia, incurring shipping costs of $21,000 and $24,000, respectively; such expenses are typically borne by the country exporting the show. “Suddenly, within a month, I’m thinking the company has to fold,” he recalls. “So then I did have a crisis.”
Billy Twinkle’s journey back to hope culminates when he meets a junior version of himself, an eager young puppet boy desperate to learn from him. Burkett weathered his real-life crisis by tightening his belt and asking the host countries to help cover shipping. And indeed, after touring the show to enthusiastic reviews and winning the Siminovitch Prize, his confidence is back on the upswing. Still, you can’t help feeling that the final scene of Billy Twinkle is as prophetic as its opening, and that his most redemptive reward was finding the metaphorical equivalent of a twelve-year-old from Medicine Hat — a protege who will join him in carrying forward the endless evolution of their oft-neglected art form.
has a solo exhibition at Push Gallery in Montreal this fall. Her work was featured in 2009's Emergence: Contemporary Photography in Canada