Susanna Burney’s Acting Life

Susanna Burney

by Doug Fahl on September 1, 2011

I first met Susanna Burney almost 20 years ago when we both performed in the booming fringe theater community in Seattle – primarily at Annex Theater. I was impressed by her intelligence, her easy manner and her ability to juggle so many different facets of her career.

Over the years, she’s been a dedicated and busy theater professional wearing multiple hats from actress to teacher to director to artistic director/co-founder of Our American Theater Company and now to marketing director of ArtsWest. Additionally, her major role in John Carpenter’s latest movie “The Ward” and her notable voice-over work have brought her national recognition. I’ve always found her to be a motivating spirit in my friendship, so I was curious to talk to her about how she motivates herself and about the highlights in her career.

AP: You work simultaneously as an actress, a director, an instructor, an artistic director, and now marketing director. What are the rewards of these different career paths? What do you get out of pursuing so many creative outlets?

SB: To me it comes down to a life in the theater. I’ve been doing this since I was 14 – first working back stage, then training as an actress, and eventually getting more involved with directing and the producing end of things. (I come from a long line of salesmen – immigrants from Eastern Europe and Ireland, who would do anything to make a buck.)

When I started directing, it was partly because I was feeling the powerlessness of being a mere actress, always at the whim of others to let me work – and then tell me how to do it. Directing gave me an independence and ownership that opened my mind up about the whole process. I got into teaching artist work first as an intern fresh out of college, and later, as another way to make a living.

I had been enjoying some success doing voice over work, but right when I started building my house, the economy tanked (this was the post-dot-com, post-9/11 tank), and I realized I needed to figure something out or I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage. And that’s when I fully grasped the concept of diversification. The more skills you have, the more ways you can use your skills, the more potential income streams you have.

AP: What keeps you focused and motivated?

SB: Paying my mortgage, no doubt. But also, my undying passion for the work. I love acting, directing, doing voice overs, seeing a project through, collaborating with others, sharing theater with new audiences.

It’s all about kneeling at the alter of the art of acting, and how the power of theater can change lives. It can get a little schitzoid some times – this lifestyle [is] not for everybody – but I enjoy the challenge of keeping all the balls in the air. And I do yoga every morning; meditation if I can make the time.

AP: You have a major role in “The Ward”, directed by John Carpenter. How does this project compare with other major acting roles you’ve had in the past?

SB: I was so honored to be selected to play this major role working with a legend like John Carpenter. It’s funny, though, about success, it feels surreal when it’s happening. I would think, “I’m going to spend five weeks on the set of a feature film, directed by someone I’ve admired all my adult life, and getting paid a nice chunk of money to do it.” But it all seemed intellectual to me – like it couldn’t really be happening. It’s like traveling: you don’t really get what the journey was till much later.

While we were filming, I really felt grateful for the skills I’d developed over the years. I knew how to prepare, I knew how to direct myself. In movies, the major direction comes in the casting – they cast you because they see you can do the role. After that, it’s mostly up to you. There may be some rehearsal, but “rehearsal” on the set is really rehearsal for the camera. It’s blocking, not character discussion.

I knew how to stay calm and focused. It’s a lot of pressure, to be in your trailer for hours sometimes, until finally they come and call you to the set, and then you walk into a world that the crew and director and d.p. [director of photography] have spent hours lighting and preparing. They need you to do your job – know your lines, hit your marks, etc., because all that film in the can and everyone’s time is money money money.

AP: What are some of the differences between working on a feature film and performing in the theater?

SB: Adjusting to camera, is much smaller and subtler than stage; a different technique in many ways. You’re still working your character’s truth, you’re still playing intentions and all that. But you’re doing it with your eyes – with your internal monologue – you can never “show” like you might on stage with a gesture. And it’s very quiet. The camera is like a microscope and it picks up everything, magnifying it to 20 feet – when a scene is being shot, you can barely hear what the actors are saying. Even a big action scene is contained and kept within strict boundaries for the camera. It’s really like performing an elaborate magic trick.

AP: How do you prepare yourself for the level of exposure a film like this might bring you?

SB: Well, nothing’s happened yet. The film wasn’t pushed very aggressively, and sadly, it hasn’t seemed to make much of an impression. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a pretty good movie and deserves as much attention as anything else out there. There are a lot worse films that are getting way more attention than they deserve. That said, I try not to give fantasies of fame and fortune too much focus – in the end I think that’s pretty much a mind-fuck.

AP: In a climate where many theater organizations are struggling to keep operating, what motivated you to organize Our American Theater Company? What sets O.A.T. apart from other theater companies you’ve been involved with in the past?

SB: I created Our American Theater Company back in 2005, because I got very excited about the concept of a theater dedicated to American scripts, as thousands of Shakespeare companies around the country are dedicated to 400 year old plays written in England. Why not celebrate OUR tradition? OUR genius? And the huge influence American theater has had on acting and staging styles around the world, especially since the mid-20th Century.

And, yeah, the economy has been a challenge. That and just the rigors of working on a shoestring and doing most of it myself. I do enjoy producing and watching a project coming together, seeing an audiences respond. But ultimately, being that committed, day and night, with little to show for it financially, made me rethink my commitment to do it.

Now that I’ve taken on the role of Marketing Director at ArtsWest, a more established company with a lovely facility just a quarter mile from my house, I feel like it’s the right level of commitment – still very satisfying, but it’s an actual paying job.

AP: Working as hard as you do in the arts and juggling so many roles, there must be times when you have difficult choices to make. How do you deal with big career decisions?

SB: About 15 years ago, after I quit my last day job as a word-processor to work as a full-time freelance actress and voice over artist, I realized that the key was to say “yes” to everything, and let the details unfold. I still think that is generally true. You do have to be careful not to over commit, and that’s where the struggle comes in.

I just came up against that when I took this Marketing position at ArtsWest. It’s part-time for now, but there’s an ongoing commitment to getting the work done pretty much on a daily basis. Seattle Shakespeare Company had just invited me to come back and do their spring educational tour again, which would mean performing Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet from February to May, all around the state. It’s a great gig, and I had a blast doing it last spring, but I had to make the grown up decision, that while I could probably juggle both about 80 percent of the time, there would be some moments where I would be apologizing to everybody and making people adjust their expectations around my scheduling needs. In the end it felt like I was handing off a delicious piece of cake to some other deserving person, so I could enjoy the pie and ice cream I already had in front of me.

Finally, if you’re in this business for any length of time, you begin to realize the cosmic order of things can work out in ways you never could have imagined. I can’t tell you how many times “a door closes so a window can open” has come to mind over the years. So I try not to sweat it too much.

AP: Aside from the performing arts, what inspires you? What charges you up when you’re exhausted? What sparks you during lulls in your career?

SB: I love nature. I love going to the ocean, and walking in beautiful places, like the Arboretum or Discovery Park. I love to garden; wish I had more time to devote to it. I never read as much as I’d like just for fun, but when I do, I’m always grateful for great literature. I also love to cook.

And it’s funny how I’ll finish a huge project and wonder how I’ll survive not doing that show anymore, or playing that role, and the next day I’ll find myself in the kitchen, cooking up a storm – baking bread, making pies, soups, trying new recipes. And I’ll catch myself and go, huh, I guess this is my post-partum therapy.

Check out Susanna’s IMDB page and visit Our American Theater Company and ArtsWest for more…

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