The New School of Theatre at LCC — The Betty Burdick Interview
|November 12, 2012||Posted by Troy M Apostol under Interviews|
Troy M. Apostol is Director for Hitting The Stage. He is a frequent contributor to Hawai‘i’s theatre scene, mainly in acting and directing.
Betty Burdick—the new head of Drama and Theatre at Leeward Community College having stepped up to lead the program after Dr. Paul Cravath’s retirement—has been hard at work crafting a new vision and direction for LCC theatre. I was able to sit down with Betty at LCC, my old alma mater, to talk about her new production, Alice in Wonderland (in rehearsals at that time), the changing face of theatre at LCC, as well as future plans. Fond memories of Paul Cravath and LCC craziness became mixed with Betty’s new perspective and purpose, as we talked about what things have changed, what’s stayed the same, and what it means for LCC students…
Aloha, Betty! Go ahead and tell us a little bit about your theatre background.
BB: I started taking acting classes when I was fourteen at Honolulu Community Theatre (now known as Diamond Head Theatre), and then performed there a couple of times and then went to Mills College in Oakland, California, where I got my BA in Theatre. And then went to New York for two years, one year going to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.
Then I went to Seattle. I was in Seattle from ’75 to ’81 doing theatre around there. And then I went to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, and was really busy there for five years, and then went back to Seattle. And then decided I would go back to school in New York again. Which is when I went to the National Shakespeare Conservatory.
I was in New York that time until ’95, and the last year I was there I was just going, “OK, so what am I going to do with my life? I’m not making it here.” Because I discovered I couldn’t divorce myself from the business part of it. That when I would try to do the business part of it, it would make it icky? And make me not want to do theatre?
BB: So I applied to several colleges, and UH was the first one to pay my way. So I went there and met the gang, and was there for three years, and thought I would be leaving soon, but I got married to a man who grew up in the same valley as I did although we didn’t know each other.
And in ’99 I started teaching at HPU and Leeward Community College. I taught at both places for twelve years.
And now you’re in this head position at LCC. How did this come about?
BB: Paul left a year ago. And so they had me doing his work without the job title. So I didn’t officially apply for the job until March of last year and then got the job in May.
What classes are you teaching?
BB: I’m teaching [Beginning Acting] 221 and 222. I’ve added a class in the spring: 220: Beginning Voice and Movement, what Paul Mitri Teaches over at UH.
BB: And this Spring I’ll be teaching 260 for the first time. 260 is the [in-class created Lab Theatre production], which will become Twelfth Night.
The transition from Paul’s style to your style: I remember Paul’s style as being very outrageous and dramatic. How has that transition been, and is there a Betty style?
BB: I’m sure there is a Betty style. I’m a little tighter than Paul. Especially his mainstage shows were pretty free flowing as [far as] getting them up and having them done. My first show on the mainstage was Oedipus, and although the concept was modern it was pretty “strict script.” This year, unlike me, I’m doing a “build-a-show”, which is Alice in Wonderland.
What does that mean, “build-a-show”?
BB: Well, I chose this show because it was really simple, and a friend of mine did the adaptation for it and I acted in it with her in the 70s in Seattle. And we knew we wanted to do Alice, me and Sami Akuna and John Signor and Don Ranney, so I started looking at scripts. And I looked at André Gregory’s and went, “Well, it’s good but it’s dated.” And I looked at Eva Le Gallienne’s, “Well, it’s OK, but it’s three hours long.”
So I remembered this script that Linera Lucas has done and called her up and said, “Say, do you still have a copy of this script?” And she went and dug it out of her basement and rewrote it and sent it to me. So it’s a very short mushing together of the two pieces [Alice's Adventure in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass].
But when I say it’s a “build-a-show,” it’s just bare-bones script. To show her falling down the rabbit hole and the different things that happen, I’m creating [it] out of the 35 people [I have] in the cast. Something which I used to laugh at Paul about because he would always complain about it. And I would go, “Well, I would never have 35 people on stage!” (Laughs.)
(Laughs.) Other than the build-a-show method, are there any other kind of flavorings or treatments you’re doing with the show?
BB: Well, I started off saying to my production team I want it earthy and I want it Jungian. So it’s the idea that it’s Alice’s dream and that everyone she meets in the dream is her.
That’s of course not going to come across so much on stage but Don Ranney ran with that and said, “OK, I’m going to put her brain on stage” and has piles of things—some things that are from the story but that we don’t hear about, and some things like an iPad and an iPhone that would be in a modern young woman’s psyche. So there’s a big pile of stuff in the middle of the stage and it’s part of her brain.
And then John Signor has one of his classes is going to be in the show as the band. And they’re actually writing some of the pieces, too. Because Lewis Carroll wrote a whole bunch of poems and we’re putting them all to music. And they’re all coming out different styles so it’s kind of neat.
And she’s supposed to be seven and one-half, and she says she’s seven and one-half, but I’m not making her do anything that would make you think she’s seven and one-half, except skip a lot. (Laughs.)
(Laughs.) Any kind of message in the show you’re trying to get out there?
BB: “We all need to find ourselves.”
That’s an important one, especially for college students.
BB: Yes, yup.
So, you’re in rehearsals? How are they going?
BB: Pretty good. We have our first stumble through tonight.
Any standouts or problems to be had?
BB: Well, most of the problems are my problems. (Laughs.) We discussed how to show that she’s falling down the rabbit hole, and so the simplest thing that Don came up with—I had a bunch of ideas that were not so simple—is using shadow puppetry. So when she’s close to the light she’s big and when she’s far from the light she’s small.
And the Jabberwocky, of course. I have two cheerleaders in the cast, and they’re helping me create a pyramid for the Jabberwocky.
BB: We hope so! We’ll see. (Laughs.)
How is the cast?
BB: The cast is wonderful. They’re all talented and they all get along and I haven’t had to beat any of them yet, so…
So, you’d been teaching here at LCC for twelve years now. What do you think of the kind of talent the LCC students bring?
BB: Well, I think that the LCC students go out into the community and prove that they have something to give. Kumu Kahua just put on a show, One Comedy of Erras, that had a bunch of former Leeward students in it. So that made me happy to see.
Paul’s idea and my idea about what is good acting is similar, and I’m trying to follow what he did. Because up until I saw him teach Beginning Acting I always thought that [teaching] Beginning Acting was an impossible task.
Because I enjoyed coaching actors at that point, but to teach beginners, some of whom might never take another acting class in their lives, the thought just made me want to curl up and go to sleep. Because there’s just so much information you have to get out. And I started sitting in on Paul’s classes, and went “This is the way to teach theatre!”
And he’s teaching theatre. The format doesn’t just teach acting it teaches theatre, whereas most acting classes they’re very into acting isolated from the rest of theatre. So what I really liked about Paul’s format was that he made it all come together so that by the end students feel confident enough to go out and work on stage, because they’ve worked with all the different elements.
[At the start of the interview I bumped into Kemuel DeMoville, an old theatre friend from UH and recent-ish hire at LCC.] How is it working with Mr. DeMoville? He teaches Drama 101, yes?
BB: I initially felt kind of proprietary about Drama 101 because that’s the class that got me here and I’ve been teaching it since 1999. But having Kemuel here, especially since his specialty is Pacific theatre, has been really helpful, I think. I feel like he gotten more out of his students then I’ve gotten out of mine, and that he’s organized in a way that I wasn’t.
I’ve sat in on his class a couple of time and it sounds like he’s doing a great job so it’s working out well. Plus he’s excited and ambitious and wants to teach stuff that we haven’t taught here in a while. He is going to be offering playwriting next, next semester. He’s going to try to offer children’s theatre as well. And is considering storytelling, but we still have to talk about that.
Excellent. So let’s switch gears a little bit: Twelfth Night!
BB: Twelfth Night! Every spring the theatre people get together with the literature people and say, “What Shakespeare will we teach this Spring?” This is for [a program called] “Semester of Shakespeare.” And the past year I have been able to direct a few scenes, so we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello. But I went, “The Lab Theatre’s mine now, all mine! I’m going to do Shakespeare!” (Cheers.)
BB: Because I know Paul, he didn’t like Shakespeare.
Yeah, I remember that. Any plans for Twelfth Night?
BB: It’s too soon to tell. I’m cutting it down… so that it’s not more than two hours. And I’ll sit the class down and we’ll read through it slowly, and we’ll have auditions, and sometime in there they’ll come up with a concept.
You’ve been working with Don, and John, and Sami for a while now. How is everybody?
BB: They’re fabulous. Well, Sami’s too busy. Sami is going to be in Uncle Vanya and Zombies as well as doing the choreography, so we’re happy to see him when we can.
I usually depend on him because I’m not good with huge groups on stage, so I throw them up there and say, “Sami, can you take care of this?” (Laughs.)
(Laughs.) So, Paul had his style, and as anyone who’s ever taken one of his classes or been in his plays knows he was very sexual energy oriented.
BB: Yeah, I’m not as raunchy as Paul.
Gotcha. So other than your style being “tighter” as you described it, what is Betty’s mission with the students?
BB: Well, getting the students up there to do it, and teaching them about the process, and teaching them how to analyze the script. Because Paul didn’t do that. So I sit down and ask them questions like, “Who is this person?” “Why is this scene important to them?” “What do you want in this scene?”
Because [Paul] was such an excellent stager, he would get up there and create these fabulous images, and I really rely on Sami to do that. So I’m a little more into the acting, I think, than he was as far as creating the show.
I know you mentioned doing Shakespeare. Any other styles or genres of plays you’re interested in staging?
BB: I’m not going to be doing any more Mary Zimmermans. I understand why [Paul] was so attracted to Mary Zimmerman because she has large, good-sized casts. But I would be happy with twenty people on stage.
I want to be able to continue to use Sami and to use John, and so for that you need a certain type of show. I chose a tragedy last year and I have a fantasy this year, so maybe I’ll go more serious next year.
Are you more drawn to the classics or modern or…?
BB: I’m drawn to the classics but I have mixed feelings about doing them. Oedipus, I thought, was an excellent show last year with what we put together, but we had no audience. Part of that was APEC coming to town and causing traffic problems.
That’s terrible. Gear switch: The last thing you directed in the community was…
BB: Dividing the Estate at Manoa Valley Theatre. Got a Po‘okela for it. I still don’t have it in my hands but I got one for it.
Great! The last time you acted…
BB: Two years ago, Les Liaisons Dangereuses [at Hawaii Pacific Univeristy]. So that’s been almost two years and that’s too long for me. I’m hoping to act in the summer. I’ll probably go out for Shakespeare if I don’t get into Bloody Murder [at Manoa Valley Theatre].
Well you certainly have a lot of things to look forward to, Betty. Cheers to your future at LCC, and thanks for talking with us!