I was in Chicago earlier this month and while there I looked up Mikael Burke who is a director, deviser, and educator, currently pursuing his MFA in Directing at The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago. I reviewed several shows Burke had directed while he was Indy and was thoroughly impressed with his work. Before he left Indy for Chicago in 2015 I promised I would stay in touch and eventually write a story about him so it was finally time for me to keep my word.
Burke still serves as creative director of Young Actors Theatre (YAT) in Indianapolis, IN, and previously served as associate artistic director of Indianapolis’ NoExit Performance. He received his B.A. in Theatre from Butler University in Indianapolis. His directing credits include: “Still; Hedda Gabler”; “Eurydice”,” “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea”; “Middletown”; “Medea”; “Macbeth”; “I Am Peter Pan”; and “The Pillowman.”).
A recipient of the 2012 Robert D. Beckmann Emerging Artist Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, Burke recently won the Princess Grace Award in Theatre. It just so happened that he received word that he had won the award on July 7, the very day I interviewed him. He waited till the end of the interview to tell me that the Princess Grace Foundation had contacted him but asked me not to share the news until it was officially announced.
Continuing the legacy of Princess Grace (Kelly) of Monaco, an iconic theater and film actor, the Foundation is awarding $1 million to artists in theatre, dance and film. Burke will travel to California. where he will accept his award at a gala held at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills on October 25. In attendance will be the Prince and The Princess of Monaco.
Burke and I met up at a coffee shop in in Evanston, Ill. near the Northwestern University Campus, for a far ranging chat about the award, his summer gig at Northwestern, and his graduate studies at DePaul.
What does winning the award mean to you? Does it validate your work as an artist?
It’s so hard in this business to believe in yourself. We spend so much energy seeking outside love and approval, and are so often met with rejection and indifference, it’s easy to let doubt creep in. But we keep going. We strive to keep the dream alive. For me, this award is about that: keeping the dream alive. I am incredibly grateful to be welcomed into the amazing network of artists that is the Princess Grace family. This award is more than the amazing career opportunities it will inspire, or the pride of being a winner. It’s about those darker moments, those times when self-doubt stops me in my tracks. There’s now a huge family standing with me saying, “Yes. You matter. Keep going.
What will you do with the grant you are receiving?
My grant is a tuition scholarship that covers my final year of study toward my MFA Directing.
Will the award help your career?
In two major ways: one, the relief of some of the financial burden of graduate school. Having a few less years of the student loan companies hounding me is a few more years of substantial art making. But secondly, and arguably more important, the networking opportunities that I’ll be afforded are invaluable. Many of the field’s biggest movers and shakers are Princess Grace Award winners. Additionally being an award winner affords me the opportunity to apply for works-in-progress and special projects grants through the foundation in the future.
What do you know about Princess Grace?
Aside from the basics, personally I know that Grace Kelly was in some of my favorite Hitchcock films like Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. There’s also a great song that I love by Mika inspired by Grace Kelly.
What feedback have you received from your family and friends in Indy and in Chicago?
I’ve received an outpouring of love and support from my friends and family. Everyone is very proud and I am super thankful.
Tell me about your summer job?
It is the National Theatre Institute or “Cherubs” as they are colloquially known. Basically, it’s a program for rising high school seniors from all over the country. And so, they’ll get hundreds of students applying to do this thing and about 130 get to participate. They come to Northwestern for 5 weeks. Their days are like 14 hours long and they have acting, voice and movement classes in the morning and they have elective courses in the afternoon that range anywhere from directing in site specific to how to work as an actor or a teaching artist or auditioning or how to do monologues or things like that and so for five weeks it is like theatre boot camp and they get an experience of essentially what it’s like to be a theatre major at the university level so they live in the dorm, they eat all the dorm food and that’s great. So, what I do in the program is I teach a text analysis course which is core and a directing class which is an elective. I am directing “Stupid Fucking Bird” with the students. They all do a show.
What is the name of the show?
“Stupid Fucking Bird” by Aaron Posner and is his riff on Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull.” It is essentially, the same plot as “The Seagull” but he contemporizes it. He kind of condenses some of the small roles into less people but the whole play is just like “The Seagull” because it about unrequited love and validation and how dangerous it is for us to seek happiness in something that is other than ourselves. They are all terrible people and all of them suffer terribly because they can’t find contentment with what they have. It’s a beautiful play and I thought that if we are looking at a room of 16 and 17-year old dreamers that are going out and trying to be artists, it is such a good thing to wrestle with—knowing that you are entering a field where there is so much of yourself is going to be dictated by other people, you got to be able to find that in yourself if you are going to keep playing the game.
Where and when will it presented?
It will be on Northwestern’s campus at the Josephine Lewis Theatre in the performing arts center and goes up in late July (the show was presented on July 25 & 27). I think it is like 250 seats. All the students that come do crew. They help build and do all the technician stuff but there are 8 design tech specific chairs that are not interested in acting as much as they are in costume design and all that stuff but they have a slightly different track and those guys act as the stage managers for all the shows.
How did you hear about his gig?
It was notified about it through DePaul. They were very specifically looking for directors— younger directors that have seasoned experience and ideally a director of color and between my work in Indy at Young Actors Theatre and all the work I’ve done at school this was the perfect opportunity. So, I applied and did my interview and got in.
How far along are you in the program?
It went so fast. I am about to enter my third year in the directing program at DePaul and it has been a wild and crazy ride but indescribably beneficial to my art. The first year of the program you spend a lot of time learning how to “talk the talk” so it is almost all reading and writing and analysis and you just figure out what is a play? How does it work? How do you break it down? How do you figure out what is going on? So that when you go to stage it you know what you are trying to stage. There was a time in Indy where I was in tech every other week for about four months. And it was like “Man, I can’t imagine doing more work than this right now.” And then I came to school. It was indescribable. But, great.
Is graduate school everything you thought it would be?
It really, really is. I came to DePaul because I knew it would challenge me and my artistry. So much of my work before coming here was visual and physical based. I rarely worked with a script by a living playwright. I am going to go to this school because I know that that is what their bread and butter is and it going to force me to stretch some muscles. This has been a fun challenge. I want to flex some other muscles and so some other things and that is why I came. The first year was hard because it was all about how do you look at a play that already exists already without cutting it to pieces and adding a bunch of stuff and just see what is on the page. It was so challenging for me at first because it was so different from how my brain works.
Did you have to break any bad habits?
One bad habit that I had and I still struggle with is a lack of clarity and communication. When talking to actors my feedback was never particularly clear. That is one thing I have been working on. How to give specific and clear feedback so the actors know when they were doing something that is working in the right direction and when we need to steer differently. That was the important thing.
Tell me about the directing program.
The first year is all analysis. The second year is all practice so we direct student actors in class and then we also direct shows in the evening We work mainly with the second-year undergrad actors. We are directing all the time in the second year which is just as exhausting as doing analysis all year but in the third year the class load lightens a bit. We do our season productions and that is where we take everything we have learned and combine it with everything we brought in before we got here and say…hello world. This is the artist I am and this what I want to be and what I want to put out there.
What will you be directing?
I am doing Nambi E. Kelly’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” which is a beautiful play. It’s super fun and super complicated but incredibly relevant to right now as far as Black Lives Matter and America’s complicated relationship with race, especially now. It is a good play to wrestle with right now. It checks off some of my favorite boxes It is an adaptation of a novel. I have always been interested in taking something that is in one form that I am trying to make into something else. It is just a beautiful script and it is going to be a great challenge for me to amalgamize everything I learned in school. It will go up in February. We run the 9th through the 17th. We audition for 1 in September. There are 11 actors. Six AA actors and 5 white actors.
Is the undergrad program diverse?
Very diverse. One of the most diverse programs in the city at least in my experience and that is one thing that is so great for me as an artist because there isn’t at least in my experience in Indy, there wasn’t as much diversity going on and coming to school this is really the first time in life that in an among and alongside artists that also look like me. There are a lot of African Americans, a lot of Latinos and fair number of Southeast Asians but they are still trying to bolster the numbers which are lower than they would prefer. All the faculty is really on board with continuing not only to diversify the students but also diversify the stories that are being told.
What will you do after you receive your degree?
When I get done my hope is to start splitting time between Indy and Chicago because Indy will always have a huge place in my heart and there is more diverse work in Indy and if I can help bring that.
Where will you live?
My plan right now is still tentative but my plan right now to see if I can find a roommate in Indy and a roommate in Chicago and between the two rents…adding up to what I would be would be playing living alone in Chicago. I live in a studio now which is great but I am going to have to give that up.
Were you born in Chicago?
I was born in Hyde Park but I grew up in Nashville Tennessee but at this point I don’t have any family that lives here anymore. My mom moved to Orlando. Anytime I want to go to Disney World I have a place to stay. I love this city. It is great. One of the things is the diversity of the population specifically is one thing especially in certain pockets of Chicago. It is like stepping into another world quite literally.
Did you feel like the other Indy?
Yes, quite regularly but I guess in my experience I was so used to it. I don’t know that it is something I never understood anything but being the other I guess and so coming here and finding a community of African American artists interested in the same kind of art that I am, it has been eye-opening and fascinating for me. This has been a big part of school for me. Recognizing that a lot of the work I did before I came to school was me hiding. I was using spectacle and visual to hide behind instead of putting myself forward in the word. I don’t know if I would have even recognized that without coming here. I feel self-actualized. I thought I was coming to learn my craft but I learned who I was. My art is still more connected to me now. Everything that I do. Everything that I propose and interested in is coming from a place of recognition which is incredibly valuable.
Would you consider mentoring African American artists?
That would be awesome. It was so rare for me to see artists that looked like me doing the kind of art I wanted to do. If there is one thing I want to do with my life is make sure that another kid doesn’t have that same experience.
Do you have an interest in writing plays?
Some. I’ve done a little some with YAT. I am working on an adaptation of “Frankenstein.” I’m looking at it from the perspective of how white America created the kind of demonization of the black male that we see in media and using the myth of Frankenstein as kind of the framework to explore that story. I am excited about that but that is in very beginning stages.
Any message for your indy peeps?
I can’t wait to come back and make art with you! I’m only where I am because of all of you.