BWW Interview: Carolyn McBurney
I first encountered Carolyn McBurney on Facebook, as part of the Brelby Theatre universe. My first in-person experience with her was when I saw her in John Perovich's Unexpected, last spring. When I contacted her later, to ask a couple of questions for a BWW feature, I learned that her father had died earlier the day of the performance. I was floored. There was no hint of anything going on outside the world of the play. I knew that, were I in her shoes, there was no way I'd have gone on. Her commitment and old-fashioned grit blew me away. Earlier this month, I saw her in a brief, powerful performance in Perovich's My Love | My Lumberjack at B3.
McBurney has been a Tempe resident since 1987. For 15 years, she worked in Phoenix metro television in the capacity of marketing and community relations. She has served on a number of boards in the non-profit community over the years, bringing her media expertise to the table to produce public service campaigns and develop collaborations between non-profits, government agencies and the corporate community. She has recently returned to theatre, after taking a "mom break" for many years. She has an extensive background directing and producing for stage and television. She recently directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Phoenix's Space 55 theatre. She loves collaborating on original works and directed a number of world premieres in Arizona and Texas, including After Hours at Rosie's Pub, Poseidon's Regret, The Circle Dance and Take Me Back. She has received Arizoni nominations for her roles in Be a Good Little Widow and Nearly Naked Theatre's Phaedre. Other favorite roles include Hedda Gabler, Madame Rosepettle, Lady Bracknell and Prospero. She has a degree in Theatre Arts from McMurry University and besides directing, enjoys performing and designing as well. She recently enjoyed designing costumes for My Love | My Lumberjack at B3 Productions and has also costumed actors at Brelby and Nearly Naked Theatres. Other theatres she has worked with include Desert Foothills, Now and Then Creative, East Valley Children's Theatre and Valley Youth Theatre. Carolyn is married to Bruce McBurney and they have a daughter, Robyn, who works for the State Senate of Arizona.
Thank you, Carolyn, for taking the time to talk with me today. You sure do get around the Valley!
With your extensive background in TV Marketing/Promo, I'm wondering if that affects your relationship with live theatre - how your work as an actor/director/designer is informed by your perspective from the PR end of things. In my view, it sometimes feels like trying to both prevent and prepare for war. You know what I mean?
Just like with any area of expertise, it skews your view on things. In choosing a script, for instance, I weigh whether there is an audience for it, is there an available pool of talent? But the artist kicks in and says "Wait a minute - is there a different approach to it that would speak to this market?" I like to think that by having a foot in both worlds, I can approach projects with a broader perspective.
As a sister "woman of an age," I'm interested in your take on the massive chasm of next to nothingness that are roles for women our age, and the glut of women actors our age. Is the answer just to continue to create and produce our own work?
Of course, we can continue to produce our own work- and there is a growing amount of that being done in the Valley. Some of the companies in town have had their awareness awakened to this issue and have started choosing scripts by and for women - some even have roles for women our age! There are also groups of women forming to address the issue - Arizona Women's Theatre has expanded its mission to that express purpose and mounted Eve Ensler's "Necessary Targets" at Mesa Encore Theatre in September. The Bridge Initiative is focusing on works by and for women. What concerns me is how we approach it. I hope that rather than be bitter and becoming entrenched, we find ways to work within the system to change it. We all need to challenge ourselves to be more proactive in ferreting out scripts that represent those not being represented- not just "women of a certain age", but disabilities, cultures, creeds - and when we select those scripts - casting from those populations.
You sure won't get an argument from me in that respect. My company (Universal Access Productions) is all about making work by and for traditionally excluded populations. It's tough, no matter how you slice it, for huge swaths of the artists in any region these days. Especially in the non-profit art world.
I'm interested in how you feel about cross-gender casting? I see that you played Prospero. I did, as well, and I found it uncomfortable - and not in a good way, the way playing Vivian in W;t is uncomfortable. The relationship simply feels dishonest and forced to me. The Helen Mirren film didn't illuminate the situation for me, and neither have various stage productions I've seen. Same with women playing different men's roles in Mackers, et cetera. I'm more interested in actually playing those roles as men (who come in all shapes, sizes and vocal ranges).
That's what I did. I played it as a male. It was a good challenge and more honest. The relationship between Prospero and Miranda is so special as Father/Daughter. Again, you have to look at the characters' intent and how it best translates. Gender-bending for the sake of gender-bending doesn't teach us new things. It can be useful, however, if we make discoveries as a result.
HOW COOL! What was that like?
I found him to be such a relatable character- multi-faceted with traits of male and female already. Prospero does everything to the max - He is an intellect, immersed in his study of magic- to the point of neglecting all else. I am very driven - so, yeah - not hard to relate to. The sense of betrayal by his own brother and the resulting banishment, being left with the care of his infant daughter - he finds himself unseated and vulnerable - I loved exploring that side of him. At the same time, upon arrival to the island, the testosterone raged. I tried to capture the struggle for power and control that overtook him as he relates to the inhabitants of the island and later the shipwrecked traitors. I love big, strong personalities. He is just plain mean and does what we so often do when we "tame" those whose world we overtake. At the same time, he has this beautifully nurturing side with Miranda and I loved exploring his soft, parental love for his daughter. I think I loved working the magic side the most. He is so proud of his prowess as a mystic and Prospero is a master - using it for good and for ill. We made the masque very humorous and I tried to make him even frivolous - juxtaposed with the opening shipwreck conjuring and curses put upon Ariel and Caliban. None of these are exclusively "men traits". To remain true to the script and cast the male roles with women offers new levels that served this script well. Fernando and Alonso were also played by women.
Was it challenging to move like a man?
Ah, movement.... Funny thing about that. I was just coming off of a bad knee injury, so the staff that I used as Prospero was extremely helpful in dictating how I moved. I really appreciated the many levels to the set by Cody Goulder as well, as it lent itself to a more lumbering, "manly" stride.
How serendipitous was your injury, then! Life is always interesting. Thank you, again, Carolyn, for taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to seeing your stuff in the coming months!