Center Stage: Kent Burnham on making Shakespeare accessible to students

Kent Burnham started college at Hofstra University in New York majoring in economics and with a passion for sports — hockey, soccer, tennis and golf, to name a few.

Four years later, he graduated with a degree in theater and a newfound passion for the arts that would lead him into a career spent acting, directing and teaching on stages across the country.

Burnham said the life-changing transition wasn't the result of a major revelation or dramatic twist in his interests.

"It started with a class," he said. "As a kid, I had a love of movies — they transported me to another world. The lights would go down and for two hours I'd find myself immersed in a different world. ... I was transfixed by the idea that I could become someone else, and the words were written there for me."

After the first drama class, he took another. And another. Before long, he had switched his major to theater and turned his sights toward the stage.

Now he has made a career out of not only acting but using his skills to direct and teach other performers. Burnham is currently an adjunct professor at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Grand Canyon University and Mesa Community College. He is also the associate artistic director and director of education and outreach at Southwest Shakespeare Company.

He said that for him, teaching has always been a natural extension of the sense of community built in theater.

"For me, teaching is all about building, discovering and enhancing students' sense of empathy," he said. "My desire is for them to understand another person, another culture, another way a person speaks. That's all acting is, and that's all theater is. It's the sense of understanding, and the ability to recognize ourselves in someone else."

Burnham explained that he focuses on Shakespeare in particular because he believes its themes are universal and relevant today.

"My goal is to de-mystify Shakespeare for (my students)," he said. "We all understand love, heartbreak, hope, desire, wanting to have a better life. That's all these characters are saying. Everyone can understand wanting to be with somebody, but parental suggestions don't let that happen; or when you fall in love with someone and you don't know them that well. We all understand that."

He said the appeal of Shakespeare lies in its timelessness.

"All Shakespeare's plays are relevant," Burnham said. "It's just a matter of finding the current relevance in each performance."

That passion for translating classic theater and making it accessible to modern audiences is part of why his past boss Dan Sullivan said he believes Burnham is an excellent teacher.

Sullivan hired Burnham in 2013 to teach drama for a network of Colorado schools. Sullivan said Burnham's experience immediately set him apart from the other candidates, and his gift of teaching made him a great fit for the job.

"He has a wide range of talents — he's a superb actor, a great director and someone who is really giving in terms of dedicating so much of his energy toward teaching students," Sullivan said. "In some ways, even within theater he's a renaissance talent — he can do all aspects of theater."

Shari Watts is a local actress who worked with Burnham when he directed "Doubt" at the Mesa Encore Theatre last June. She said his directing technique is rooted in group collaboration, which was exciting for her as a performer.

"I think when someone gives you freedom, you do the work away from rehearsal," she said. "You bring it to the rehearsal and show the director what you've been working on, so you're bringing your interpretation to him and he molds it and said this works, this doesn't. An actor can't do it by themselves — they need a director. Kent is respectful of the artist's interpretation, not just his own vision. He leaves himself open to the actors' contributions, and that's a good director."

Related links:

David Barker on acting, teaching and the art of being a mime

Bonnie Eckard on diversity in the theater


Reach the reporter at skylar.mason@asu.edu or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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