As Andromache in The Trojan Women at CTC (2018). Photo: CTC
Interview by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
Heather Burns is the Outreach Director at Commonwealth Theatre Center, where she oversees programming, including the design and development of new projects. Heather has led the development of 6 new scripts for Blue Apple audiences. In 2014, the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood invited her to be a plenary speaker at the Ready Kids Conference, where she also co-presented a session on process drama in the early childhood classroom with Dr. Kathryn Whitmore, Director of the University of Louisville Early Childhood Research Center. In 2009, Heather joined Walden Theatre as a director for summer academies, including Grimm Tales, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Law & Order: Fairy Tale Unit, The SeussOdyssey, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She was proud to appear as Hypatia in Misalliance and as the Grocer’s Wife in Rhinoceros.
1. Because of the pandemic, Commonwealth Theatre Center was forced to cancel/postpone several important productions. How much was lost for the company both in fulfilling the curriculum and financially?
Our Business office has stated that it is anticipating something like $120,000 in lost revenue. That number is difficult to pinpoint exactly, because there are so many unknowns right now. And that number could go up depending on how long the shutdown lasts and what new restrictions may be in place when we return.
Underneath those numbers, is the story of people. There are so many students who are in our hearts and minds right now.
Our Conservatory students look forward to coming to class each week to see friends and they were working hard towards their final showcase. Right before the shutdown, I sat in on a rehearsal for the Studio class. I keep thinking of those faces in the classroom acting out A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They would be performing on the stage right now. Spring is typically a very bittersweet time for our seniors. Each year, I see them realize that they are rehearsing their final show with us, they take on a new maturity as people and soak in the experience. They become leaders in the rehearsal room and they shine. I’m sure they are missing it and we are missing them. Most students are a part of the conservatory for years, so it’s truly a chosen family.
In Outreach, we have less time to get to know students and they aren’t necessarily with us for years. So, our presence can feel magical to young people. They know our teaching artists come to their school to work with them. There are students who were mid-way through or almost finished with a residency experience, and we want to finish that work to bring them closure. Arts education changes students both academically and emotionally, and we want to continue to be there for the school community. We know teachers are all stepping up and making huge changes, and we want to be a partner to them at this time. One huge question that hangs in the balance is whether we’ll be able to finish our touring production of On the Trail of Daniel Boone. Experiencing live theatre is entirely unique. Nothing can replace the experience of sitting with an audience while a group of actors unfold a story in front of you. We may explore virtual options as a substitute for the time being, but we will return to live theatre as soon as it is safe to do so.
2. How has CTC been keeping in touch with students?
We’ve been in touch with students in a number of ways. The CTC Facebook page has been posting videos with our Artistic Director, Chats with Charlie (Sexton). And there will likely be some Hang with Heather videos coming soon. I have been working on some content videos that I’ve shared with the Arts & Cultural Alliance, and will also start sharing some through the CTC social media, as well. There are also some live video chat meetings happening with students. Of course, CTC is also sending email communications to the entire CTC community of stakeholders.
3. Is there a possibility that the canceled productions will be rescheduled as a part of the 2020-21 season?
So far, we’ve only officially canceled our student showcases. All productions are postponed until further notice. There are multiple contingency plans being considered about how those productions could be rescheduled at various times, pending updates from Governor Beshear and the CDC guidelines. Charlie was just about to announce our 20-21 season, but now that may be redesigned. This is a highly creative time in a very different way.
4. When did you first know you wanted to be in theatre?
High School. Throughout my childhood, I was a daydreamer and enjoyed dramatic play but I was fairly shy. In middle school, I started to want the opportunity to perform in plays, but I really wasn’t very successful at auditioning. So I turned my attention to creative writing, where I was getting more attention and making more progress. I was enjoying drama class, but exploring the idea of going to college for creative writing. Then, I decided to audition for the drama class at Governor’s School for the Arts and I got in. That experience changed my life. It was a deep dive into theatre and I loved every minute. After that, I knew I wanted to go to college for theatre and I had more tools to make it happen. (I didn’t know about Walden Theatre Conservatory when I was growing up here in the Louisville area).
5. Where did you train?
Northern Kentucky University. It was a positive experience for me. There were some wonderful professors there when I attended and I was lucky to be cast well and often. Classes are great but there is a learning that happens in rehearsal and on stage that doesn’t (and can’t) exist in the classroom. Also, the students made such a huge impact on me, personally. I admire them so much, and I’m so proud to know them.
I also have to acknowledge the Missoula Children’s Theatre, which was my first job after I graduated. They taught me a foundation of skills in educational theatre that are a cornerstone in my career as an artist-educator.
6. You teach, act, and direct? How would you rank them in your life?
I don’t know how to rank them. I am teaching more frequently than I am directing or acting. But it is my acting that led me to teaching and directing.
7. Do you have a bucket list for roles you haven’t yet tackled?
Yes, although, I currently have a personal goal to reread plays with a fresh eye and reconsider what an updated bucket list would be for myself. But my longtime wishes have centered around Noel Coward, Chekhov, and Shakespeare. My most current wish is to be cast in a play with all the amazing female instructors at CTC. There is a powerhouse of women at CTC, but you usually only see one or two of us on stage at one time. Meg Caudill and I have been dreaming about a production of Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson. I’m also on the lookout for a shield-maiden or warrior-princess character type that I’ve been longing to play. It’s a rare character type for the stage. I appeared as the character in Bill Brymer’s recent photo exhibit, and a couple of friends saw my photo and recommended something for me to read.
8. And what shows do you long to direct?
I feel as though I have had a steady stream of wonderful directing experiences, due in large part to great casts/crew and scripts. And it’s been such great variety, Richard III, Blue Stockings, She Kills Monsters. I enjoy bouncing around different periods and styles. I’ve been so happy with it that I’m not quite sure what I want to direct next. And there is no shortage of artistic opportunities at CTC. I recently choreographed some dances for the production of Pride and Prejudice and that was very fulfilling too. I’m on the hunt for the next thing that stretches me and inspires me. I’m reading. I’ll find it. Or it’ll find me.
9. What has been your most difficult performance?
I have no idea how to answer this. Every play is a process that requires so much effort and offers a lot of pleasure at the same time. Playing Hypatia in Misalliance required an extraordinary amount of time and learning to create a correct, period hairdo (and if you look at me on a regular day, you’ll see I spend very little time on hair) and I found the nimble lines harder to memorize. Andromache in The Trojan Women was emotionally brutal but the words fell together poetically and it was only one scene. Even the joyously silly Le Petomane characters were a huge undertaking in devising them all the way to the stage. There were a few years that I did some acting work at the Frazier Museum, and I will say that those one-actor historical performances were an entirely new learning experience for me. Learning a 10-minute monologue and looking the audience in the eye when you do it requires a skill set that isn’t typically practiced in theatre education.
10. Besides Louisville, what other places have you worked?
With Missoula Children’s Theatre, I traveled all over the United States. Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the East Coast. It was fascinating to work in so many different kinds of places. That was intense travel for a year, and then I came back to Louisville. Since then, my career has been concentrated here.
11. What music have you been listening to?
With my child, I listen to uplifting and dance-able music. “Brave“ by Sara Bareilles, “Try Everything” by Shakira, “Stars to Your Beautiful” by Alessia Cara. That sort of thing. I like to find youtube videos of the lyrics so that we can both read, sing and dance together. I also like to show him things like the Wintergatan youtube videos. It’s like a giant music box using marbles, where you can see this man’s artistic and mechanical skills inventing a music machine.
Tony (my spouse) usually chooses the music in our house. Right now, he’s listening to a lot of Max Richter while he works from home.
One of the things that really helps me feel grounded right now is to go outside and listen to some of my favorite sounds. On my own porch, I can hear church bells, wind chimes, birdsong and the knocking of a woodpecker throughout the day. I have been able to go for a few hikes early in the morning, and then I get to hear the sound of a running stream, a breeze moving the trees and the rustle of leaves or sticks under my boots. On my last hike, I even heard a turkey and an owl. I know it’s not technically “music”. But they are sounds I actively look forward to listening to. It makes me feel like I’m in this world and it makes me smile.
12. What book is on your bedside table now?
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Bookbinding Handbook by Sue Doggett
But I’m most actively reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick to my son. I’ve been holding on to it for years for him and now seems the perfect time.
Harry Potter is on deck.
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.