Actor, director and UVA Drama professor Kate Burke is on a mission to change American theater.
“I’m very aware of how the American tradition has been influenced by Method acting,” Burke said in a recent interview. “There are some good things about it, but in distorted form it focuses on emotions and neuroses of both the characters in a play and in the actor himself. That’s what Stanislavski called loving yourself in art rather than loving art in yourself. I’m on my own campaign to mitigate that with theater that is larger than any one person’s first world problems. Those can be overwhelming, but most of us live like kings and queens even if we are living paycheck to paycheck.”
Burke, who born in southern Indiana and received her MFA in acting from Ohio University, described working for a small Haitian village without plumbing or running water. “I remember seeing a little girl standing outside a group of children, and she was sucking on a piece of sugarcane,” she said. “It was four in the afternoon, so I asked her, ‘Have you eaten anything yet?’ And she said, ‘No.’ When I came home, I felt sick from the bright lights, the choice, the colors, the overwhelming mechanization of the grocery store.”
Burke said she views theater as a powerful force for good, especially when it focuses on non-traditional subjects (i.e. something other than “white males with beautiful wives or supportive girlfriends”).
“I’m really interested in doing plays that address issues,” she said, in no small part because they “give people an outlet for telling their stories.”
Her latest production, 9 Parts of Desire, does exactly that.
Written and originally performed by award-winning playwright Heather Raffo, the play features monologues by nine Iraqi and Iraqi-American women and spans the time between the first and second Gulf Wars and occupation. Derived from the true stories of women from various walks of life, the characters share unique desires and struggles that seem to address one another.
Raffo, who spent months loving and living, eating and communicating with the Iraqi women on whom her characters are based, wrote on her website that “I had the right mix: I was half Iraqi so they opened up to me immediately, but I was also Western so they felt they could express fears or secrets that might otherwise be judged more harshly by someone from their culture. And most importantly, I had to share as much of myself with them as they were sharing with me.”
9 Parts of Desire dives into cross-cultural themes of longing, womanhood and identity. “I intended to write a piece about the Iraqi psyche, something that would inform and enlighten the images we see on TV,” Raffo wrote. “However, the play is equally about the American psyche. It is a dialogue between east and west.”
For Burke, these extended stories invited student performers to develop empathic voices as well as intellects.
“I teach speaking, voice and text work, and most students are trapped in a youth speak. There’s an uptick at the end of a sentence that makes it sound like a question or else the voice falls down and everything loses energy. This is a chance for me to do a lot of intensive voice work with the cast members.”
She said that speech training requires her students to tune into the potential needs of their listeners.
“I spent a sabbatical in Stratford-on-Avon and saw how they prepare actors to speak Shakespeare,” Burke said. “They trained us through speaking out loud and repeating, chanting, call and response.”
Now she uses these same methods to train groups of cast members at UVA and around the country. “Words are such powerful reflections of minds and hearts,” she said. Spoken with commensurate power, those words can bring change to life.
9 Parts of Desire will give local audiences a chance to be part of that change. During the week of performances, Raffo will hold residency and give talkbacks following the show, and on the final Saturday, she will participate in an hour-long panel discussion, “Staging Trauma,” alongside a member of the UVA Middle Eastern Studies faculty, Burke and Hanan Hameed, a young Iraqi woman and UVA student. (Hameed, who lived through the second Iraq War and came to Charlottesville with her family through the IRC, started a successful Change.org petition to protest and demand an apology for Zeta Psi Fraternity’s recent “Bombs Over Baghdad” party.)
On a smaller scale, the show has already opened eyes. “We invited an Iraqi woman from the local community, a refugee through the IRC, to one of our rehearsals and we had a tea party,” Burke said.
Having explained to the cast that they, like Raffo, had to earn the right to hear her story, they went around the circle and each told a deeply personal story. Their guest then told a story about a violent gunning down she witnessed from her apartment.
“The man who was shot looked up and locked eyes with her for what felt like minutes before four bullets ripped into his body,” said Burke. “She said she felt that she was alone with him at the end of his life, and it seemed like a heavy responsibility and so painful. She told it so simply and calmly, with tears running down her cheeks.”
Burke said that afterward, her actresses told her how moving and powerful her story was, how she didn’t need lights or a costume because the words were the most important thing. “This is how a real story from the trenches is told,” she said. “It wasn’t how an actor could tell it. She didn’t want to feel it, she wanted the audience to feel it.”
9 Parts of Desire is at UVA’s Helms Theater through March 29.