Gail Burns Part Three

Community Service in Addition to Theatre

By: - Jan 09, 2012


Charles Giuliano Your stamina and energy for GailSez as well as a seemingly insatiable appetite for theatre are truly remarkable. During high season in addition to theatre we also covering music and dance for Berkshire Fine Arts. That means we are out on average five nights a week. Because of conflicts and a tight schedule we confine ourselves to the four major companies: Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Shakespeare & Company and Williamstown Theatre Festival. Even then we don’t manage to see every production. During the off season we get to New York and Boston now and then where we see theatre. We have also done weeks of London theatre which is just fabulous. I have been wanting to do a week in Dublin and one in London. That almost happened this fall. Astrid was in Germany with her family for three weeks. One of those weeks I went solo in New York and saw shows every day as well as museums and galleries.

You see a lot of regional and non equity theatre year round. That seems admirable but also entails a lot of marginal theatre. That doesn’t particularly interest me. How do you draw the line? Is it a matter of a driving radius and gas? Also you have a family and I have yet to meet your husband. How does he feel about your being away all the time? Do you have time for a private life? Or is theatre your life?

Since moving to the Berkshires our website has been a 24/ 7 commitment. In addition to my own daily writing there are a number of contributors. These range from very active to occasional. I try to edit everything that is posted. This means a lot of time and work with new contributors. By now we are in sync. It results in an amazing critical mass of new material. Because of the locations and interests of the writers that gives us national and global coverage. We post much more than the Berkshire Eagle, or even The Globe. The length and depth of articles such as this are like what one expects of The New Yorker.

These extended dialogues are an important part of our mandate. You have articulated your comprehensive vision for GailSez. Similarly, we have developed a style and identity for our site. Reviews are just an aspect of the mix. We also post press releases but most of what we present is original material and opinion.

This touches on a point that you have brought up. How do we relate to the demise of print media and the seemingly limitless expansion of on line sites and social media? If you read criticism in print media it is assumed that the critic is deserving of professional status. On line it’s a jungle out there.

Everyone with a cell phone is busy tweeting  “reviews.”  Barrington Stage set up a lobby booth to facilitate on line posting. Last summer the twenty something PR staff of WTF had a video camera in the lobby. They shot, edited and posted audience reviews on their site. It seems that theatres are embracing the “voice of the people” which often drowns out the views of established critics.

By the time Jeffrey Borak posts reviews in the Eagle the word is out. After opening night, by noon the next day, Peter Bergman, Larry Murray and I have posted on line. It is a habit I formed while filing overnight for the daily Boston Herald Traveler. At midnight there were a bunch of us meeting deadlines in the arts office. It seems the Eagle is shooting itself in the foot with reviews that appear several days after theatre openings and performances.

You have been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association for many years. This past year I was pleased to be accepted as a member. In June, Astrid and I plan to attend the annual convention in Chicago. For many years I have been a member of the art critics organization AICA.

It is nice to have that professional recognition but I tend to have a Groucho Marx response to joining clubs. Membership may mean a level of peer recognition but it doesn’t make you a better writer.

I’m glad you bring up the issue of research that goes into the review of a play. It is always amazing to me how much depth you and Peter bring to a production. Larry Murray also has many years of theatre, ballet and opera to draw upon. I have been seeing theatre since high school but have only functioned as a first string critic for the past seven years. Prior to that I had occasional second string assignments from the daily Patriot Ledger. Mostly I have covered fine arts, jazz and rock.

So there is a steep learning curve which is why I pursue so many interviews with producers, directors, playwrights and actors. They are my mentors.  I have had a particularly intense dialogue for the past few years with the actor John Douglas Thompson. Right now I have been researching Louis Armstrong and discussing him with John who will present a new one man play “Satchmo” at Shakespeare & Company. I am now working on posting a series on that discussion.

There is a video documentary on John Cage which I always shared with students in my avant-garde seminar at Boston University. I showed it during the first meeting of the semester and it always resulted in a firestorm of debate about just what is art. Usually it was a me against them brawl. The more they fought and argued the better I liked it.

There was a line by Cage that I really loved. “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” Isn’t that what this is all about?

Gail Burns Actors Equity is a trade union, not a standard of talent or ability. Obviously equitable pay, insurance benefits, safety standards, and other things AE guarantees it members are VERY important. There are socio-economic reasons, particularly in the current economic climate, why belonging to Equity is not a viable alternative for many actors. Taking their Equity card qualifies them for all those important benefits, but literally makes them too expensive for most theatres to hire. In other words they get paid more when they do work, but they will work less. If you asked me to list my favorite regional performers there would be Equity and non-Equity actors on the list

The majority of theatres here are not Equity houses. In my coverage area I think only the BTF*, WTF, Oldcastle, Weston, Capital Rep, New Century, and Stageworks/Hudson are full Equity houses. Barrington Stage and Shakespeare & Company aren’t which proves my point immediately: Equity does not equal excellence.

I see wonderful productions in all different kinds of houses...and I see awful productions in all different kinds of houses. This past year I saw two really truly dreadful shows - one at a tiny little community theatre and one at a great big multi-billion dollar state-of-the-art performing arts complex. A show's budget, the presenting company's budget, they mean nothing because we are discussing art.

I saw a really entertaining production of "Cymbeline" presented by students in a graduate-level acting program at Shakespeare & Company last month. "Cymbeline" is one of Shakespeare worst plays and I was amused to see that the audience consisted of parents and friends of the students, other ShakesCo staff members, and about a dozen crazy critics who just HAD to see "Cymbeline" even though it wasn't open for review! We saw each other and just burst out laughing!  Anyway, these were young, ambitious actors who brought a lot of energy to this Jacobean dross. There was one young woman who was a real stand-out. She wasn't the prettiest, she wasn't playing a leading role, but she had that indefinable "it." That's so exciting to see!

I don't consider any of the companies I drive a long distance to see as "marginal" even though some of them are technically community theatres. All of them have standards and clear missions, so my job as a critic is to evaluate whether they have lived up to them or fallen short of the mark. Is this community theatre serving its community? Is this educational theatre providing solid educational opportunities for its participants and audiences? Is this house dedicated to producing musicals or a company focused on the classics doing right by its chosen genre? But the biggest questions are: Is the show worth the price of a ticket - whether that price is $15 or $50, which is pretty much the range regionally - and am I having fun?

I always try to make it clear in my review what the ticket-buyer can expect. I do cover some small companies very close to my home in Williamstown, companies whose work I wouldn't consider driving far to see, but that is part of being a member of a community. I support them because they are my neighbors and part of my local arts economy.

The only downside to seeing and reviewing as many shows as I do is the repetition. Just what can you say in your ninth review of "Carousel" or "Romeo and Juliet" in three years? Oy! Ironically, one of the main reasons I started including future calendar listings on GailSez (I generally go ahead 12-18 months as information becomes available) was to give producers and directors in the area a place where they could see what other companies had planned and avoid duplication. No such luck. I have built it and they don't come. The problem of everyone doing the same show at the same time is worse than ever! One week last year there were four competing productions of "Cabaret" in Albany County! This year everyone is doing "Fiddler..." and the rights have just been released for "Legally Blonde" and I think I have listed auditions for at least four or five different productions in the area.  Sigh!

Yes, I have a husband - we just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary - and we have two sons who are now in their 20s. My family runs Starlight Stage Youth Theatre in Williamstown - this will be our 37th season in the summer of 2012 which makes Starlight the third oldest continuously operating summer theatre in the Berkshires, after the BTF and the WTF. My husband and sons just don't like to go to the theatre five-six nights a week, so I take friends with me instead. My husband can't complain because all of my "dates" are female or gay, or sometimes female and gay. Also he works six days a week during the academic year and has to leave the house by 7 am most mornings, so late nights don't work well for him. My younger son and I actually have a bunch of shows we really enjoy seeing together and share many happy times at the theatre.

I do indeed have a life outside the theatre. I work 30 hours a week as the Office Administrator and Assistant to the Pastor at the First Congregational Church of Williamstown. After Hurricane Irene hit and destroyed 300 homes in Williamstown I was among the first responders and I am proud to say that my work recently became incorporated as a non-profit called Higher Ground dedicated to providing ongoing assistance to the flood victims and working long-term on the crucial need for affordable housing in North County.

If you haven't already, check out my interviews on the topic on WGBY's Connecting Point this public access program about the flood

I assist a friend in running a monthly writing program for the residents of a local nursing home. I do genealogy work. I read a LOT! And I have my dachshunds. If you have dachshunds you really don't need anything else, you know. I also write humorous essays - many of them about dachshunds because they are just naturally hilarious animals, but also about other side-splitting topics like having a hysterectomy or viewing an exhibit of Andy Warhol's early advertising art.

Basically, I am curious about everything and love to find connections between different aspects of the world around me - that is why sometimes a theatre review contains a paragraph about my Auntie Ethel (never had an Aunt Tillie) or my cat.

"I have gotten love all mixed up with art. I have gotten my sentiments for the world all mixed up with art. I am a disaster as an artist because I cannot leave the world alone."
- Claes Oldenburg