Character Study

Mikael Burke

Watching with Exquisite Attention

Mikael Burke is a Chicago-based theatre director and educator. In the summer of 2019 he directed The Story's production of At The Wake of a Dead Drag Queen, written by Story Ensemble member Terry Guest.

I sat down with Mikael in his colorfully composed Rogers Park apartment to hear his thoughts on the Chicago theatre movement. Mikael generously spoke with me about dismantling theatre's elistist model, recontextualizing the role of the director, and the importance of play. I left our conversation energized by Mikael's passion for his work, and a deeper understanding of theatre's potential as a revolutionary force.

MB: On the community end of things, a handful of different threads are being pulled and pressure points are being applied that are pushing our scene slowly but surely into some distinct and definitive directions.

I’ve been in Chicago coming up on 8 years. And around 2015 or 2016, early in my time in Chicago, was when the Profiles scandal emerged. That really lit the flame. It ignited a push toward actively interrogating the power dynamics in our field that have, for decades—centuries even—been accepted as unchangeable. That these people who look like this, and have these types of experiences, and these types of credits—these are the people in power, and the rest of us are subservient to them. And we’re lucky to be here and we should sacrifice our blood, sweat, and tears in order to do the thing, no matter how harmful that thing may be to us. Historically that is how our field has operated for a really, really long time. And a lot of us were brought up to think that was the only way.

We do not have to accept, or affirm, or perpetuate these systems and power dynamics that don’t serve us. Because none of this can happen without us. We have the power to demand action, and demand change, and demand a shift. I do think we were one of the first major theatre ecosystems to realize this.

Our field was finally being called out for all of these things many of us had been sitting with and sitting on, and feeling disenfranchised to speak up to. And that has radically altered the ethnographic makeup of who we see on stage and who we see behind the scenes.

The other thing that happened during the pandemic was that we all paused for the first time in five-thousand-million years and were like, 'Wait a minute, nothing is worth killing myself for.' And we all came out the other side with a renewed and rejuvenated sense of self-worth and self-ownership, and an extreme disinterest in sacrificing ourselves for any work.

We’re really interrogating and reinventing the theatre making process on all fronts. We’re seeing stories about people, and bodies, and identities that we have not historically seen before.

Inside the rooms making these stories happen, we are challenging old power dynamics and investigating new ways to create the work that are sustainable, healthy, and exciting. Those rooms are being led by, and filled with, the artists who have historically been disenfranchised from those rooms and experiences.

We are in a major period of reshaping that I don’t think we’re through yet. I’m excited to know what our scene is going to look like in five years even, because there are so many things that are new, and exciting, and untested that we’re still learning about and wrestling with. The question of what is good theatre, what is bad theatre, what is valuable theatre—all of those questions get complicated because everything is in flux. I think it’s a really great time to be making theatre because literally anything is possible.

I’m a beneficiary of all the growing pains of theaters waking up and seeing what the hell is going on, and how negatively impactful they’ve been on their communities of color. I’m a very good director. I paid enough money and I studied long enough. I’m good at what I do. And also it is undeniable that I am working as regularly as I am right now because I happen to be one of a very small sub-sect of directors of color with these experiences that these people would deem quality enough to bring into their theater and hire.

All of these theaters are trying to hire people like me. But none of the theaters want to do the work—the investment of time and money—to create more people like me. There should be so many more of me out here. But there aren’t. So I am absolutely a beneficiary of white guilt in that way. And I’ll take it. Keep giving me that money and those contracts. I love that I get to work, and I get to keep practicing, and I get to challenge perspectives. But it shouldn’t just be me.

Do you feel tokenized? Is it patronizing?

Yes and no. 99% of the places I have worked have in no way intentionally tokenized. Everyone is trying their best to learn and adapt and change. But I had an artistic director say to me one time, 'You know Mikael, there just aren’t a lot of people like you out here. And we just need more Mikaels.' And on the one hand I’m like, 'You’re absolutely correct.' But why is that? 'Have you taken the moment, artistic director of this theater, to look back at your own legacy and see how you have or haven’t aided in the fact that there are not that many me’s out here?' In that moment I felt particularly prickly. I don’t necessarily feel tokenized. But there is an unspoken truth that these people are reaching out to me because they want to get a black director and there just aren’t many of us out here.

What’s the solution then? Do schools need more diversity? Do companies need to give opportunities to people with less experience?

This is a soapbox of mine. Truthfully, I think the schoolification of theater training has royally fucked our industry. It has created a world where you cannot legitimize yourself as a practitioner without having a masters degree. And that’s a huge expense. Now, I'm a proud graduate of the Theatre School at DePaul, and my MFA has been absolutely invaluable to my career and artistry, and I know many of my peers feel similarly about the many other incredible degree programs out there. But I really feel we lost something when we decided that the only way to learn our field is by leaving it, rather than letting people learn on the job.

I do think that’s one of the ways we could radically shift the paradigm. Enfranchising people by taking the training out of the hands of undergraduate institutions and putting it back in the hands of the theaters.

I think every institution has a responsibility. There are so many mission statements about, 'We serve our community by blah, blah, blah…' If you are purporting to serve your community with the theatre that you do, you have to enact that in a conscious, deliberate way. And doing a show isn’t that. You’re entertaining the community—and that’s great. But what are you actually serving? What opportunities are you providing for the community to participate in the creation of that show? I think if every theatre company out there involved their community more actively in the work—not just expecting them to show up as an audience—we’d have a totally different field.

These theaters go, 'Oh, we need to diversify.' So they program shows about different identities than they have before. And that’s where it stops. They market them the same way. They reach out to the same people. And then they get upset when people don’t come. And now they’re frustrated because they’re like, 'We did the work! We did the work for them and they didn’t show up!' And it’s like—actually, no, you didn’t do any work for them. You did the same thing you always do and you just put a different face on it. You’ve got to do the work!

It’s a huge investment in time, a huge investment in money, but if you’re actually talking about dismantling centuries of disenfranchisement and the theater’s elitist model, it’s gonna take just as many years of complex solution-making to rectify and turn that ship.

I’m directing a show in Indianapolis next month. Full cast of actors of color. And my cast is primarily people who have not been on stage before. They’ve done a play or two, but largely don’t have a real embodied grasp on the work of the actor or the actual practice of this craft. So now it becomes my job to not just direct this play, but also teach these people how to be professionals.

That sounds like a really smart solution to the problem you describe. You’re actually using this production as a vehicle to serve that community.

Absolutely. And to their credit, they really wanted to cast it local. And I totally buy that. But let’s not pretend like that’s not what’s happening. Let’s lean in to it. We all understand the difference between a collegiate production and a professional production. We have a totally different set of expectations. And I think we owe ourselves that same understanding and willingness to buy in.

And as an audience member, shifting your thinking away from the critique of the production, and toward a celebration of the growth and learning and fun that is happening.

Totally. But theaters are scared to do that kind of work. They don’t want to use their shows as training grounds. They have to answer to their donors and subsidiaries and committees and whatever, whatever. The money thing is really fucking things up. [Laughs]

But what I like about this idea is that the actor is being paid to learn. As opposed to the student who is paying to learn. Why do we keep demanding that people have to pay to learn things? Any of us thrive when we can learn something or gain experience and also have financial support while that’s happening.

I want to ask you a bit more about the process. You mention rehearsal rooms now being filled with different kinds of people than in the past. In what ways is the environment of the rehearsal room improved by the inclusion of new voices?

There used to be this idea that it’s the director’s vision and everybody just needs to do what the director wants. But I think we’re seeing less of the top-down, 'Here are your marching orders. Do what I want!' and more of the rise-o-matic, 'Here’s what I think. What do you think? How can we make this thing that’s actually bigger than all of us?' And I do think that's partly because we have shaken up who is in the seat of power. Women, queer people, gender nonconforming individuals, people of color—all of these groups of people who have been marginalized or asked to contort themselves to fit a mold—are now moving into these positions and going, 'That’s not who I am. That’s not who most of us are. Who else can we be?' And it’s led to rooms that are so much more open and collaborative, rooms that are less toxic, rooms that are just more joyous in general. And that joy has profound impact on the work because you feel it in the ensemble. You feel the love that an ensemble has for one another. You feel it wafting off the stage. The same way you do when the opposite is true. You can feel when an ensemble has been micromanaged and manhandled within an inch of their lives and no one is having fun. That comes through just as clear.

There’s such a greater sense of mutual respect for everyone in the room, and a recognition and acknowledgment and encouragement that we’re all making this thing together and we all have beautiful, valid ideas. And my job as a director is not to dictate my idea, but to observe, offer, and synthesize so that we can reach the most clear, useful idea no matter where that comes from.

It’s just so much more playful. We do these things called plays and they’re so serious sometimes. So we need to figure out how to play in the playing. Finding joy in the work is greater than needing the work to sell tickets or whatever. And that’s a huge paradigm shift. I don’t know that the institutions would agree with that. But I am so much more interested in making a good room and having a good time. Because if we’re not having fun, it’s not fucking worth it.

And when we are having fun—when we are playing, when we are feeling safe enough to be open and vulnerable and honest with one another—we end up making work that is profoundly more compelling. That feels really important to me.

I have a high standard and a really low bullshit meter in terms of what I consider quality work on stage. That has not changed just because I decided that I would be more interested in having a room that is joyous. And it still happens. We still reach it. And in fact, we reach it easier and better because no one is working under the pressure. We’re here. We’re gonna make this space our own. We’re gonna have a good time. And fuck it. We’re gonna make a good fucking thing and it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.

I like the idea that an artwork is just a remnant of the experience and state of being during the process. That the experience is actually the art.

I totally get that. The actual art of it is what’s happening in the room. That playing. I totally agree. I say this to my students all the time. We’re constantly playing and making. And the students are just so playful and smart and fun. But then they do these profoundly beautiful little things. And they’re incredible! And only 9 people in the entire universe will ever get to see that little bit of pure magic. That’s where the art lives. In the making, not in the product.

In your view, where is that work happening? Is it in the rehearsal room? Is it in the private conversations that happen during a water break? Where is that magic sparking?

I try to create a room where magic is happening everywhere constantly. The play is constant and continuous. And play takes different forms. Letting go of the idea that any of us have to have all the right answers right now is just a gift. It makes the work so much more fun.

I’m a big proponent of rehearsal as research. This is our time together to play and explore and see what emerges. We can’t make the thing without playing first, figuring out what our ingredients are, what feels valuable, what feels useful.

As a director, I have found that it is much more exciting to observe something happening in front of me and offer feedback to it. There is this pervasive idea that a director is supposed to have a vision. And actually I think that vision is something that happens to us when we are open to it.

I’m reading this script not to see what I want to do to it, but to pay attention to what it is doing to me.

Then I take that information to the designers and I say, 'This is the vision that has come to me from this script.' And they go, 'Great, that brings up this for me, and this, and this.' Awesome!

I’m interested in re-contextualizing that idea of director’s vision. It shouldn’t be my job to have it all figured out. It just needs to be my job to be the receptacle.

That’s such a beautiful idea. I so resonate with that feeling. Reading a script, not thinking about what you can do to it, but what it can do to you. That’s incredible.

I’m a nerd for script analysis. A phrase I was taught by Lisa Portes that stays with me is, 'Going on dates with the play.' When I’m doing my best work, I date my plays. I sit down and we hang out together, and I’m like—Who are you? What do you like? What makes you tick? What do you not like? Oh, that’s interesting. You are really obsessed with this particular thing. What does that mean? Where’s that coming from? Why is that? Every script is just as different and unique as every person, because every script is written by a person. So there’s something really fun and fascinating to me about trying to figure out—who is this person? And then how can I create the most authentic version of this story, and manifest that in front of us in three dimensional time and space?

The craft of directing is really veiled in mystery. It is not an extremely well understood craft.

What a director does is an act of translation. How do I turn this two dimensional piece of literature into three dimensional experience?

And like any translator, it’s not a one-to-one, word-for-word thing. There is your own sense of artistry and impulse that is filtering through the translation. And it’s based on so many things bigger and broader and deeper than just the synaptic, direct translation. That’s what a director is doing constantly.

If I may connect some dots here, I like this idea of directing a play as a translation from one language into another. And the way you direct that translation reveals the relationship you have developed with the original script.

I think that’s very true. And I love the way you phrased it because the thing you’re seeing really is my relationship to that thing. For better or worse, I’ve been told by many people that they can always tell that they’ve watched a Mikael Burke show. My presence in the work is there.

When people ask about my work, I always talk about realism. This is getting into where I’m a huge nerd and what my fascinations are as a human…

And isn’t art a great vehicle to explore those feelings?

Oh my gosh, absolutely.

I think reality is perception and perception is reality. There actually is no such thing as this third-person omniscient sense of reality, because every person present in that reality experiences it differently. So I’m not interested in trying to create something that looks like the universal compromise. I’m interested in what that thing feels like for that character and their truth of this moment. That’s a constant thread in my work.

Even if I’m doing a play that’s asking for realism, my realism will always be slightly turned. I’m more of an expressionist in that regard. I’m fascinated by the ways that people can perceive the same thing differently.

I guess that’s the thing I’m interested in. I love finding ways to turn perception into reality, and reality into perception. In my theatrical mind I’m like—how do we manifest that emotional experience in concrete staging, so that the audience can physiologically experience the emotional thing the character is experiencing? There’s a million things you could do to make that happen! And it’s rooted in realism. I want my actors to be right here with their partner, and they’re listening, and they’re responding, and they’re present, and there’s objective, and there’s conflict. But I also think that every piece of the puzzle is as dynamic and changing as the actors. And if we are leaving the space unchanged then nothing has happened.

I don’t know. Long rambly answer.

It’s funny to hear your enthusiasm for these ideas alongside the idea that you don’t come in with a prescribed vision. Those almost seem at odds, right? But actually I think there is an artistic balance between the two. You have, maybe not an imposed vision, but a perspective on reality. You're carefully watching what happens in front without trying to force it. Allowing it to translate itself.

I think that’s right because we translate through play. Get on your feet and try it. See what happens. I’m gonna come in with a jumping off point. Sometimes that comes with thought, and imagery, and things that the script has made me consider. I don’t necessarily come in with—it must look like this, it must behave like this—but I do come in with a strong sense of—this play feels like this, it’s asking this of us, it’s trying to say this. How do we make that happen? How do we make those things clear? How do we translate that? I don’t bring the translation to the team. I bring the ignition of it, I suppose. The seeds. But then it translates itself in front of me and I curate the most effective rendition of translation.

I’m really interested in photographing people when there’s something happening in front of me that I can respond to—that isn’t something I’ve directed. I can say 'sit here' because the light’s nice. But then I’m waiting for something unexpected. And it’s that same moment you describe in the rehearsal room when suddenly there’s a magic that happens out of nowhere. I’m just obsessed with that experience. And I want to catch it.

And what’s delightful and wonderful about that is that it’s also true in what we’re doing in rehearsals. The surefire way to guarantee an actor won’t do the thing you want is to tell them to do the thing you want. They’re just going to get in their head about it, and it won’t be the natural thing that just sort of happens. I’m resisting the urge at all times to tell the actor, 'You have to be angry here. I need you to cry here.' I could do it that way but it’ll be awful. Instead I’m like, 'So what do you want? What’s happening in this moment? Oh, great, do that!'

My friend Frankie said this to me yesterday. It’s a Nietzsche quote that I’m going to paraphrase. 'You can promise an action but you can’t promise a feeling.' You’re gonna feel the way you’re feeling, and if I’m trying to dictate how you feel, nothing is ever going to happen. But I can be like, 'What if you need that thing over there so bad that you’re just not going to stop until you get it?' Then suddenly they’re just focussed on the task at hand.

They’re relaxed, and they’re playing, and they’re being a human being, and I can observe it, and ah-ha! That! That right there, that’s what we want!

But then you have to get them to repeat it!

Yeah! Your work has to be repeatable. You have to be able to do it like it’s the first time every time. And it goes back to that same thing. You’re never going to be able to control how you feel. But you can repeat action that will probably result in the same feeling if your conviction remains the same. That’s what you’re memorizing. Young actors especially have trouble with this because they just want you to tell them how to say it. But that’s the very last thing I want to tell you. Because that is repeatable, but at the cost of everything else that’s going on.

If you’re just repeating this thing, then you’re actually in a one person show no matter how many other people are on stage with you. And I’m bored out of my mind and I want to die.

I’m such a nerd. I will oftentimes translate theatre concepts into math problems because my brain just likes that. I found myself considering Newton’s Laws of Motion. And I was like—actually, acting is just physics. Because Newton’s first law—an object in motion stays in motion, or an object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by a force—is absolutely acting. Right? Your scene partner is not going to change unless you enact force upon them in some way. Newton’s second law, force is mass times acceleration. Weight times urgency. How profound and deep is your need to get that thing, and how urgently do you need that thing? That is your force with which you can act upon that person to change them. Then every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right? So if I push on you, you have to push back. You can’t disengage. It’s the nerdiest thing in the world but it’s so true! It’s all I want out of a group of actors. Your work is over there, your partner, and just get the thing you want from that person. And react to what’s happening in front of you, and we’ll be fine. It’s physics.

Contained within the art practice are all the dramas of the universe. The same forces that are at work on the planets are at work right here. It’s a perfect analogy.

It works, right?

You’ve answered this question already in other words, but where does your fulfillment come from?

There’s nothing better than experiencing how the thing has come together. There’s just something really profound about—We did that. We made this. Look at what we’ve done.

But then the real thing for me is actually—and this is what I love about previews—I am very particularly interested in audience involvement and participation. And by that I mean imagination. I like to create work that invites that participation, not just spoon-feeds it to you.

What is so undeniably rewarding is watching the audience breathe. Or not breathe. Or sigh, or call out. When I can see how the work is moving us, that is just fountain of youth in terms of its ability to sustain me. I’m a sucker for a good story and I love when I can feel in my blood, bones, and breath that everyone is as wrapped in the thing unfolding as I am.

One of my favorite things is going to talkbacks and hearing the audience, unprompted, reflect back, 'Oh, I really felt this about the show and it made me think about these things.' And they’re actually, unbeknownst to themselves, using specific phrases and metaphors that I brought into the room for us to scaffold on top of. [gestures] Chef’s Kiss. That’s when I know I’ve done my job well. I have actually translated this specific thing to you, through this experience, without ever saying those words. You got the exact translation. That’s great. Nothing better.

That’s beautiful. It’s like the relationship you’ve developed with this story and the way that it’s moved you—you’ve given that feeling to someone else. You've actually planted that feeling in their heart. And so much so that they want to vocalize it back to you.

Absolutely. Without even knowing that’s what they’re doing! It is a really neat feeling. I can forgive all of them that they don’t know what is involved in my craft. It’s moments like that when I know they understand what I do, even if they don’t know it. Because they just said it back to me.

Reviewers talk about the actors, the playwright, the play. And the director will generally get one clause of a sentence. Like 'gratifyingly directed by…' or 'steadfastly directed by…' I would love for there to be a greater appreciation of how much work goes into crafting those actors’ experiences that you just went on for paragraphs about. It doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot of work that goes into making those choices feel correct and invisible. But it’s fine.

To that end, my ambition with this project is to illuminate some of what theatre artists are actually doing. And I don’t know of any other outlet for telling that side of the story.

I don’t either. Not like that.

At its core-of-core, heart-of-hearts, I think the director’s job is just to observe. To watch what is happening with exquisite attention, and then respond to it.

And in those responses, all you’re trying to do is make it clearer what is happening. You’re watching this thing. You know what is supposed to be happening. Is that happening? It’s not happening. How can you make it clearer? That’s the feedback you offer. You do it again. Are we closer? Oh, we’re closer. Awesome. But none of it works if you’re not watching.

The best artist that I can be for myself, as a director, is not the one who’s constantly getting up and inserting himself. It’s the one who is doing the work of being the outside observer so the actors can do their work without being distracted.

And you carefully create the space where that can happen most effectively.

Right, totally. And that’s the fun of it for me.

This goes back to that idea of translation, right? The words are 10% of what you’re actually watching at any moment. Maybe even less than 10%. What I’m watching is not what you’re saying. I’m watching what you’re doing while you’re saying it. I’m watching how that thing impacts you.

It’s like, seeing two people who have spent the last 20 minutes standing six feet apart suddenly being within inches of one another. Nothing has to be said for you to feel something about that. Physics.

I’m just fascinated with watching and looking and observing. Thus my place looks like this because I hate blank walls. They stress me out cause I’m not looking at anything.

It makes sense, then, for your directing and your visual composition of space to come from that impulse.

I’m very open and flexible about a lot of things. Where I tend to be the least forgiving is in the composition of the frame. That’s where I’m like, 'You really do have to stand right here.' You can motivate it however you need to, but it has to be here. If you’re 3 inches to the left, everything is wrong! You just gotta hit the mark.

That’s gotta be tough too because the audience perspective is variable.

Yeah. Absolutely. Which is why I like proscenium. I like all of the audience on one side because then I have the most control over the image. Like Magnolia Ballet [by Terry Guest, produced Spring 2021 at About Face Theatre], initially they wanted to do it in the alley and split the seats. And I was like, 'There’s absolutely no way we can do that. The play will not allow to have the audience on two sides, and here’s 85 reasons why that are coming from the text.' I just love the frame. I love composing the image.

Magnolia Ballet, an absolute masterpiece by the way.

Thank you so much.

Such a stunning piece of work. So moving and beautiful. And Terry, obviously his writing is so stunning.

He’s a fucking genius. Asshole. I love him. Save some for the rest of us!

It’s one of the few shows that really sticks with me. The intimacy of it is so powerful. And really had a strong visual voice. It really felt, visually—the color—all very cohesive. It felt kind of cinematic in that way.

Do you want to see the nerdiest thing in the world?


[opens computer]

One of my favorite things in the world, theatrically, is to look at a text that, on the surface, feels impossible. Like—How can this all exist in the same universe? But it does. So what are the rules that enable such a thing to happen? What are the rules of this universe? How does it operate? How does it breathe? I do all of that dating-the-play work to figure that out.

I got a lot of compliments about that show in terms of how well we successfully melded such different styles and impulses in this tapestry. But part of that was because I was really specifically intentional with breaking down these—I call them spectrums—in this play. They’re basically ideas that Terry is wrestling with in the play. There is a fascination with novelty, newness, something you’ve never done before—versus tradition, safety, the way things are and have been. There is also this spectrum of what is real and what is fantasy. And then the third spectrum is what is emotionally healthy and what is emotionally toxic. All three of those are running through the thing constantly.

If you look in this dynamics column, you can see that I’ve gone scene by scene and sort of laid out—this is where this one lives, and this one lives over here.

This enables us to make a system of rules and actionable choices that can ultimately feel cohesive, even as they are disparate. Because they are all actually in relation to one another.

Our choice for what is fantastic is a response to our choice of what is realistic. So it’s all actually dancing on the same spiderweb, so to speak. At first everything feels so different, but it all makes sense because the seed of that thing is actually hiding way over here. It’s fascinating to me.

This tool forces me to get as clear and concise about my thinking as possible so that I can communicate effectively with other people about the task at hand. And it helps a lot.

Thanks for sharing that. That’s amazing.

Yeah, absolutely. That’s kind of how my brain made sense of all of that.

Well thanks, Mikael. This has been a really beautiful conversation.

Yeah! I think this is the longest conversation we, as two human beings, have ever had in the same space.

Yes definitely. I think we’ve both been hiding on the periphery of the same room for a while. So it’s good to have found each other over here.

Totally. I will hide in it for free, and then I will clock a kindred introvert, and my own introversion will be like—well you can’t go talk to them, you don’t know that. It’s so weird. But yeah this is great, thanks for coming to hang out. I hope it turns into something amazing.