The play All My Sons is full of characters, while coming from the same community, color the play in a variety of different ways. Burke McLain is not originally from our community, but he’s definitely giving color to our stage and our community in his Warehouse debut. We doubt it will be the last time we see him on our stage and we were fortunate enough to sit down with this newcomer and talk about his journey and the thrill of working on All My Sons.
WHT: Since you are making your Warehouse debut with this show, where are you from originally?
Burke: I was born and raised in the Heartland. Omaha, NE. Home of the College World Series, steaks people seem to enjoy, and some rich guy named Warren. There’s nothing like moving away that really seems to make you appreciate the play you once called home. Omaha really was a great city to learn, grow, and cut my teeth. It’s great now, when I get to travel back for work, and see friends and family, too.
WHT: Where has work taken you so far?
Burke: Well, existentially to many places. That has been one helluva of a lesson, and continues to be. But physically, all over the place. I’ve been very fortunate to get to see a lot of the country, while on this path. I get to do a lot of film work as well, and that has been great for travel. Especially since it’s only a few days at a time, and then I can stick around and have my own exploring, if I so choose. Some of the states I’ve visited for work are: California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, South Dakota, New Mexico, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and now South Carolina!
WHT: Now that you are on the verge of opening, what’s been the greatest challenge of working on this script or play?
Burke: I think what has been, and really still is, a great challenge with working on a play like this is trying not to make too many assumptions. What I mean is, I really like to dig into a script. It’s one of my favorite things about the process. Then when I think I get some clever ideas about what I’ve found, I either want to stick with that or make it so. But the truth is that when someone is sitting there and watching what I think I’ve brought to life, they are really projecting a part of themselves up on that stage. And that’s the final touch. They are going to see what they can. Through their lens of life and experience. It’s part of the reason why eyewitnesses are so unreliable, in court. Pretty much everything is subject to our own experience of it. What I don’t want to do is to over intellectualize something and basically “show or tell” someone what to think or feel about what they are seeing. I think that happens when we make too many assumptions about our characters or the piece, in general. Yes, as an artist, I want to bring my unique interpretation and ideas. But I also want to be a canvas for the audience to project themselves on. I think the challenge is finding the balance between the two. And with such a behemoth script/play as this, it can be a very acute balancing act. At the end, though, you’ve just gotta let it go and be.
WHT: From the beginning of rehearsal until now, what’s been the biggest shift in playing George Deever?
Burke: This thing changes, pretty much every time I pick the script up, again. It’s been a great ride, so far. Getting to know “George” has involved a lot of vacillating from what I think he’s going through, and the kind of person he is. Coming to communion with him, has really taken a ritual of coming into communion with myself, first. For that, I had to find what was important to me. Thinking about who I was doing this for, and falling in love with “George” and this work. It’s a new love, for every project. Something that I had to come to terms with was realizing that it’s an unconditional love, and for it to work, you can’t be too attached to your work. I think the biggest shift has come from what I thought I knew about him, to finding a way to better serve the story and production, as a whole. Another one was finding the truth between what he’s feeling during the course of the play, and it runs the gamut from anger, guilt, shame, sadness, delight, nostalgia, and more. Definitely one of the roles of a lifetime.
WHT: What was the single biggest influence upon the way you approached your All My Sons character?
Burke: I always seem to be in the middle of reading several books and going back to review old notes. So I steal inspiration from a lot of places. Sometimes it’s even from just observing others and the world around me. In addition to that, I have my own life and experience that I get to mine and utilize. Last but definitely not least, there’s the research. And I’m so lucky to get to have a passion that allows me to immerse myself, especially in a play like this, in a different time and place. I don’t know that I could honestly pick something that stands alone. But if there is something that I’ve seen written over and over in my notebook for this production, it would probably be “trust yourself.” I think that can really relate to what George is going through, too. He has to trust that he’s doing the right thing. That he’s where he should be. And that he’ll be ‘ok.’ I think that’s something we can all relate to.
WHT: Was there anything in the scenic, lighting, or costume design that affected your choices on stage?
Burke: Hahaha! Yeah, there was. Probably a few. I get to wear a hat, and there’s something about wearing a hat that changes you. Sometimes it can be a security blanket to hide behind, and at others it’s quite the opposite. I used to say that when you wear a hat, you’re also wearing the confidence to wear a hat. This hat, happens to be George’s father’s. So it has a special meaning to him. What I’ve had to do is balance that with also knowing that the brim of a hat does a great job of hiding your face. So, as simple as it sounds, it’s something to pay attention to. There were a few others, but I don’t want to turn this interview into a lecture.
WHT: What was one thing director Blake White said to you or the cast that really had an impact on your work?
Burke: This play deals with a lot of intense and potentially dark, draining themes. We were in one of our days of table work and we were all just talking about the play and some of the themes it tackles. Blake got us looking at and talking about these characters and the truth that each of them has, denies, and chooses. The lies we tell ourselves and each other. The lies we choose to live, because it’s easier. Because it hurts less. Looking at this play, through that lens, really opened a lot for me. It has been really great to work with Blake. I tend to most enjoy working with directors that savor getting their hands dirty and are willing to go wherever the project leads them. To not be afraid. I have a lot of respect for that. Blake has that. It’s been such a rewarding experience working with this cast and crew of very generous people giving selflessly of their gifts. Plus, working with and learning from Greenville icons like Chip Egan and Mimi Wyche is a present in itself.
WHT: What was the last role you played? Talk to us about the differences of coming from that character experience into this one?
Burke: The last role I played on stage was Franz/Frank Lafayette in Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate. I haven’t thought about it until now, but there are a lot of similarities between he and George. An aspect in my work that has been changing, or maybe deepening, has been an exercise in looking at each character’s awareness of themselves and to what degree they are self-aware. Each one of us is so unique, and so are the characters we play, I try to give that respect to each of them. With that being said, they do share a some personal wounds and scars. One of the main differences was the research that it took to get a grasp on what George had experienced in his life, up to the point where we meet him. It was a different time, then. Obviously, we still feel all the same emotions, and they likely affect us in ways that haven’t changed too much. But how those were expressed, the events/places/things that cause them are different. So it’s getting to the core of that. But with a script like this and the setting in which it takes place, you could get caught in that part of the work for almost an eternity, if you let yourself. At some point, you’ve just got to trust yourself, trust that you’ve done your work, that you’ve got it in you, and finally to let it all go. And just be present.
WHT: Making a living as an actor means you will probably be on the move a lot and working with new people all the time. For this show, almost everyone was new to you. Tell us a bit about that experience as an actor.
Burke: You never really know what you’re going to be walking into, when it comes to something like this. New dynamics, relationships already established, stuff like that. I can get a little intimidated by it and then I can project my own insecurities on folks, through the anxiety of it. Which is just kinda ludicrous, really. But, it’s something I’m working on. I sometimes just need to keep my mouth shut and before I impulsively speak, think about what my need to speak is. It’s also good to think about that with regards to acting and the characters I get to play. A couple years ago, I was shooting a movie in Colorado. We had just finished and I was making an eight hour drive back home. I obviously had a lot of time to sit and think about what just happened and how I felt about it all. I had this metaphor for a play/film/creative project, as it relates to Summer Camp. You all show up, most times not have known or worked with one another, before. You make these intense, long-lasting and true friendships. Complete with inside jokes, special handshakes, and some of the best hugs you’ll ever have. You get such a limited time together. Then you leave, you go your separate ways. Sometimes never to see each other again. But when you do, oh when you do. It’s incredible. It’s like having gone to war together. Brothers and sisters in arms. So, to get back to this particular experience and your question…it has been simply amazing. I feel like I’ve found a new family, and it’s almost indescribable. A new artistic home, with people who are warm, welcoming, and kind. What more could you ask for? We haven’t even opened yet and I’m thinking about how I can sink my teeth and nails deeper into this theatre and this city. That’s probably a bit aggressive, but it’s true.
WHT: Speaking of the city, what’s been your favorite thing about Greenville thus far?
Burke: The people, the people, the people, and the scenery. Without the people, you’ve got no soul, no culture, no community. These people make Greenville a very special place. And you can’t beat those views…Falls Park, Main Street, the Swamp Rabbit trail, and so many others I have yet to visit.
WHT: Is there someone else’s work that you greatly enjoy? If so, who and why?
Burke: I admire many folks and gather inspiration from just as many. From spiritual writers like Anthony DeMello, Paulo Coelho. Poets like Pablo Neruda or Charles Bukowski. Actors and directors like Scott Cooper, Jean-Marc Valee, Jeff Nichols, Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day-Lewis. But, my mind keeps coming back to one man. Robin Williams. A man who gave, maybe even more than he had to offer, to anyone who was willing to listen. On screen, he never seemed to lie. He made me believe. He changed my life. He might’ve saved it, too.
WHT: What is your next gig after All My Sons closes?
Burke: Well, I guess that’s the million dollar question. I’ve got a movie coming out in May, and I’m currently consulting on a documentary that will be released later this fall. As far as my next stage appearance, I have no idea. But I hope it’s not too long, and if I’m lucky, it’ll be back under this roof.
WHT: Is there a question you didn’t get asked that you’d love to answer?
Burke: No, but I sure as hell like to give some thanks to all of those that support the arts, that buy tickets to shows, that go see their friend’s one-woman plays, that have sons and daughters who want to change the world with art and encourage them to follow their dreams. I wouldn’t be where I am today, if it weren’t for people like that. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Catch Burke McLain as George Deever in the Arthur Miller classic, All My Sons, from March 24th till April 15th.