John Addis

If you want to do something really radical, to change your industry in a way that only you might understand, then Australia is the right place to be.

The daisy show

When the Nazis rolled into Czech territory in the northern spring of 1939, resistance was substantial but subtle, as circumstances required. Of the many ways in which the Czech national identity was sustained and defiance expressed, I find puppetry the most curious.

Shows took place not in conventional theatres but in front rooms, stables and cellars. The German censors were alert to any form of political expression contrary to Nazi ideology, so each performance was almost entirely allegorical. The Czechs, with their rich history of puppetry, got the message, the Nazis didn’t *. Performances were as much of the underground as other forms of resistance. Indeed, they came to be known as “daisy shows”. Daisies, you see, grow in the dark.

Ronnie Burkett, once known as the “bad boy of Canadian puppetry”, told this story during a recent speech in Melbourne, subsequently broadcast on Radio National’s Artworks program. Growing up in Western Canada, a region not especially well endowed with marionettes, he became fascinated with the art form but was alone with his passion. He resolved to move.

Computer programmers gravitate to Silicon Valley and Bangalore, bankers to London and Zurich. Puppeteers, apparently, head to what Burkett calls the “puppet ghetto” of New York.

But, a few months after his arrival, a strange thing dawned on him. He would attend dinner parties, flush with his enthusiasm for using marionettes in bawdy, riotous shows to adults, only to be told that “no one uses marionettes any more”.

It was dispiriting. Being at one of the centres of world puppetry was a constraint, not a release. Even in puppetry there are fashions.

He moved back to Canada, where there were no trends, no fads, no fashions and very few puppeteers. Free from the influence of others he was able to do what he chose, not what others expected of him. And his art form flourished. Burkett writes his own scripts, uses his own voice for every character and is an award winning, highly respected practitioner in his chosen field.

And here we are, like Burkett, stuck at the ends of the earth, thousands of miles from the centres of power. It matters not whether it is politics, art or business – few look to Australia for inspiration.

The trends get here, eventually, but many of the fads pass us by, fading too quickly to even have the energy to reach us. It seems we’re always 10 years behind.

As for our place in the world, the modern Romans in New York and Los Angeles barely know we exist. Were it not for Steve Irwin and Paul Hogan, we probably wouldn’t. The Europeans can locate the country on a map but, beyond the kangaroos and koalas, don’t much seem to care. As for Asia, well, as one Singaporean once told me: “Australia? Good place for holiday.” Not a whole lot different from Western Canada really.

And that’s the point. What a perfect place to let your creative spirits run free, to hang out in the shed and fiddle, to try things that haven’t been tried before. Here, you can change the world, because the world’s not watching.

* They did catch on, eventually. More than 100 Czech puppeteers were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.


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