A Director’s Journey (or You’re An Artist of Color) with Mikael Burke

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by Bri Schwartz

Photo by Michael Brosilow

In my three years here at The Theatre School at DePaul University, I have worked on shows about topics as broad as trauma and heartache and as niche as beastiality and basketball. Never have I worked on something that talks about something as close to me as race. That is until this past fall, when I began my work as the dramaturg on Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son which was directed by Mikael Burke, an MFA 3 director at The Theatre School at DePaul University.

Way before Native Son was on our list for the 2017/2018 season, Mikael made one of the most exciting pitches for a show in a season announcement I have ever heard with Frankenstein, his original thesis proposal. Prior to this announcement, it didn’t seem like those on the season planning committee were engaging with race in quite the same way. This caused me to knock down my advisor’s door and demanded she put me on this show as the dramaturg.

Although things did not go the way we planned, the premise of Native Son, a story about a villainized black boy on the south side of Chicago matched Mikael’s pitch for Frankenstein to a tee, and the excitement was just as strong. The rest is history.

Following the closing of Native Son, I sat down with Mikael four months before his graduation to get a larger look at his past, present and future as a director at The Theatre School and in Chicago as whole. Mikael discussed his background prior to his admittance to TTS, his first year here, and his production history.

Bri: Can you talk about your theatrical background prior to your admittance at The Theatre School at DePaul University?

Mikael: My undergrad was in Indiana at a little school called Butler University. At the time, the head of that department was super into internationally-based devised, site specific and image based theatre. That’s most of what I did in undergrad and when I graduated, that’s the kind of mantle that my theatre company [No Exit] flew. “We’re the company that does crazy, beautiful devised stuff that always looks great and is always a crazy experience!” But after a few years of working in that mode, I started to notice that I was more interested in stories than just experiences. And so with my theatre company, No Exit, I started to do more scripted things that had a more clearer story structure.

Bri: Why did you decide to get an MFA?

Mikael: What people kept saying about my work at that time was “It was visually striking but I don’t always know why or why I should care.” And I was like, “That’s a problem. I know why you should care, but if that’s not coming across, I’m not doing something right.” I knew I wanted to go to grad school the moment I left undergrad, and so my whole brain focus in those 6 years between was “Everything you are doing is to get into grad school.”

Bri: Why The Theatre School at DePaul University?

Mikael: I had a realization about my storytelling. The thing that I was missing which was “How I actually tell a story with actors?” “That’s what I don’t know how to do. I know how to do the design and aesthetics, but I don’t know how to work with the actors or tell a story or understand my ‘why’. When I got into DePaul, they said “Hey, I see you. You’re an artist of color. You’re going to have a very different trajectory than other people. We’re going to help you with that. We are also going to show you how to tell a story with an actor.” All of those boxes are things that I didn’t have and wanted. If I’m going to pay a bunch of money, that’s what I’m going to school for.

Bri: Fast forward through your admittance to your first year. How did that first year look for you?

Mikael: It was truthfully very difficult for me. I was being forced to think about creating theatre in different ways and modes that I’ve never worked in. “I don’t know what an event is. I don’t know what dramatic structure is.” I had an internal clock and an instinct, but I didn’t really know. You can’t do whatever you want with a script. You have to figure out how to use the script to get what you want and not just cut it to pieces to make the thing you want. Those were all big challenges for me.

Bri: You mentioned DePaul pointing out that you are an artist of color. Can you talk a bit about what your mentors told you that would look like versus the trajectory of that in real time?

Mikael: It was the first time, I’m not kidding, the first time ever in my life that someone, a theatre artist in a position of power looked at me and said, “You are an artist of color. The world behaves differently for you and I recognize that.” It was the first time in my life that anyone had ever even articulated that to me. For me, that was a hugely influential and important moment in my personal growth. It was the first time that I felt seen as a person in addition to an artist. Part of it was because I wanted it that way, but so often people would just see me as artist and wouldn’t acknowledge the person that is making the art. This particular school, and I’m so thankful for it, is very much of the mindset that those two things cannot be separated and in fact benefit one another when they are both working in tandem. You can see that through the trajectory of things I’ve done here.

Bri: I’m interested to hear about the work you’ve created here at The Theatre School, most of which have been adaptations of some sort. Is that something that you did on purpose or it just worked out that way?

Mikael: It just worked out that way, but even in my work before school, I have always been big on adapting something from another source. I just find it really fun and fascinating to go: “This is canotical for a reason. Why? How can we translate that reason to now?” Also, I think I’m drawn to big stories. Plays where everything exists in one room just don’t appeal to me. I like building worlds. I like stories that make you question, “How can all of these things be contained in one thing?” And that’s absolutely something you can see in everything i’ve done. So I started with Crime and Punishment which has a weird timeline/structure. That’s one throughline you start to follow with me.

Then I did Eurydice which is the first play where you start to get my personal politics mixed into my art making. I was really interested in what would happen when you have two black lovers in a white world that is trying to keep them apart. Also, timeline is weird and there’s also a bunch of scenes that are big and looming.

Then I did Hedda [Hedda Gabbler], which was the thing that happened because of the muscles I needed to work more than me following my bliss. Even in that, Hedda is about a woman that is stuck in a system that wants her to behave one way and she refuses to play along with the rules. There, you start to see this thread of people navigating systems that are not designed for them.

So from Hedda, I went to this play called Still. Most significantly It’s about a baby who doesn’t belong in the real world trying to figure out how to live in the real world when, ultimately, it cannot and should not. Again it’s that thread of: “This world is not for me, how do I move through it?” It did move between weird supernatural space and talking dead baby to weird pumpkin reality, so you start to see that I don’t like things that happen in one room. I don’t really like things that happen that play well with reality.

Then you get to Native Son which takes all of these threads and ties them together into a thicker rope that’s pulling you through the actual experience of what it means to be a black body in this world of what we live in. All of my threads of theatrical interest tied together.

Bri: Can you talk about the rehearsal process for Native Son?

Mikael: Native Son was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, both technically/artistically as well as human/emotionally. On the technical side, the challenge came from the incredible complexity in storytelling structure. How do you stage a play with 65 scenes that move back and forth through location and chronology in a way that is effective, compelling, and also quick and relentless? It was a huge task to solve that puzzle. But the bigger challenge was learning how to navigate a rehearsal process on a play that deals so deeply with lived, present personal trauma. Cuz racism isn’t a past trauma, it’s very real, right now, waiting for us outside the walls of TTS. It was a huge learning experience. It’s about navigating the line between rehearsing the things that you must to ensure the success of the show while also making space to maintain your actors’ safety and comfort so that they can continue opening themselves up to these harsh violent truths. But on both fronts, the difficulty of the work paid off in dividends, and the show demonstrates that.

Bri: What did the reception you received from Native Son look like?

Mikael: One very telling thing for me was after opening. After a play, usually people come up to me and say, “Great job! That was so good!” This time, so many people came up to me and said “Thank you.” In that alone, I knew we had done something. “Thank you.” That was cool to experience, but I think in general, I think we did exactly what we wanted to. It was mostly the white audience members that were the most shook by it. I think they were shook because they actually went on the journey. They experienced it all too. They saw Mary and Jan in the car. In that regard, it works really well and I say that mainly because of the responses I’ve gotten from a friend of mine. This friend is quintessentially a straight white dude and he realized he couldn’t help but see me in the car with him. He had this moment where he realized, “I am so complicit in this thing.” He talked to me about it for hours. It was really exciting to me to have people feed back to me the why that I knew that I entered the piece with. I’ve done the thing I came here to do.

Bri: Did you notice any difference in the way the people in the The Theatre School reacted to Native Son as opposed to outside audience members?

Mikael: I was worried about people in the building’s response to it just knowing how they responded to things of similar content in the past. I found that everyone I spoke to was deeply moved by Native Son in ways that they weren’t by other things and didn’t have the same complaints about the exploitation of black suffering. I think ultimately that comes down to that monologue Bigger has. You go through this whole experience and finally he gets a moment to say that, “Actually, this isn’t my call”. Everyone in the building seemed to be blown away by the tech which is usually what people say. I just don’t think there’s anything for people to complain about and people haven’t. They’ve had questions, but that’s every show. The responses have been, “Thank you,” “I was moved,” and “I have been thinking about it for days.”

Bri: So I know you’re graduating, but moving forward with Native Son in mind, how can we best serve our students of color in the plays that we choose?

Mikael: You know, i’m going to be unpopular for this. I just know I’m of a different opinion than a lot of the undergraduate population. In my experience with the undergrads, they want their theatre to answer “the question”. They want to watch something that says, “This is how the world should work. F*ck you if you think otherwise.” I fundamentally disagree with that. I don’t think theatre should provide answers. I think it’s asking difficult questions and is trying to stir shit up, make you angry, and make you uncomfortable. So I look at things like We Are Proud or The Merchant of Venice which people were so up in arms about because they were so mad about the politics that are present in this world, and I’m like, “That’s the point! The fact that you are mad about it is why we do it! AHHHH!” So I think honestly the best way to serve the students of color is to talk about that. They don’t get enough conversations about that truth because even the kids on Native Son halfway through the process had some serious issues around: “Why are we doing this? Why are we putting on this black trauma for audiences to result in nothing? Why is that the thing we want to do?” It’s because racism still exists. It’s because it’s still out there. I think we did this really well.

So many people left this space and said, “After seeing this, I understood in a way that I never have in any other show just how complicit I am in this system.” All we did was ask the question: “Is he guilty?” You watch this and you tell me. You make people do that and they get up and are moved, are shook, are changed. The only way that can happen is if we do the plays that ask the questions, because I tell you what, if we had done a play that was explicitly saying: “White people, this is your fault.” They don’t care. They say, “That’s not me.” So I think the best thing for students of color in this building is have the conversation with all of the students in their acting classes, in their seminars, everywhere about: “Why do we even do this?” “You are an artist of color.” All that means is that there are stories that only you are able to tell and put on and you have to ask yourself: why? What is this trying to do? What is it trying to serve? How is it doing that?” I would much rather be in an institution that is actively engaging with these questions about, “What does it mean to not be a straight white male?” It will never not be uncomfortable. You have to learn how to weaponize that discomfort to actually go after the thing you actually want which is: to not ever have to feel that discomfort in the first place! We’re not politicians, we are not engineers, we’re not crisis solvers of world hunger, we are artists. Art is how we respond to the world. I’m on a soapbox here.

Bri: No. That was awesome! That answered the question perfectly, and my final question is: You graduate in 4 months. Do you plan on going back to your roots more in devised theatre, what you learned from DePaul, or a fusion of both?

Mikael: The one thing I hope to do post-grad is to continue to tell stories that are explicitly or implicitly investigating complicated questioning otherness. I am fascinated by the need for “other” because “othering” is ultimately a construct by people in the majority. The only way to be in the majority is to articulate a minority that you are not. So I am really interested in coming at that question in as many ways as possible. I have this personal mission to any play that I do from now on: if it is not written into the script that the protagonist be a person of color, I’m doing it anyway unless it is politically something I cannot get behind.

 

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