Colleen Burns in 1994
Beloved local actress Colleen Burns died Friday, June 10 at age 58. Burns caught audiences' attention at the Madison Repertory Theatre beginning in the 1970s, demonstrating comic flair in such plays as Nunsense and A...My Name is Alice. She went on to make significant contributions as a playwright, composer, cofounder of Forward Theater Company, and actress over the next 30-plus years. Friends and colleagues at Forward Theater offered tributes to her memory. The following cover story by Judith Davidoff was published in July 22, 1994, edition of Isthmus.
During dinner at Gino's a few years ago, Colleen Burns and Jack Forbes Wilson noticed that their waitress was acting a little peculiar. Then, at the end of the meal, she leaned over the table and whispered, "I just have to say I saw A…My Name Is Alice five times and I love the potted palm lady."
"It happens all the time," say Burns of such encounters. What so enthralled the waitress was Burns' menacing portrayal of a half-crocked poet in the Madison Repertory Theatre's all-woman musical revue. The poet has been spurned one too many times, and at the end of each poem she screams out the source of her misery: "He did it!"
A 20-year veteran of the Madison Rep and other regional theaters, Burns has appeared in all seven of the Rep's productions of Alice, along with last year's A…My Name Is Still Alice. "I was, and still am, stunned by the response to Alice," she says. "It's a phenomenon and something that most people never experience in their careers."
Beginning July 22, Burns returns to the Isthmus Playhouse in a production she's co-written with Wilson, the Rep's musical director for the past several summers. Consumer Affairs: A Guide to Love in the '90s is "Alice for boys," says Burns. "We set out to have the same flavor, but be more universal in that men have as good a time at it as the women."
An abbreviated version of the play was a big hit earlier this year at the Milwaukee Rep's Stackner Cabaret. The complete production, co-directed by the UW-Madison's John Staniunas and Mandy Rees, will be a Madison premiere.
Consumer Affairs, Wilson's and Burns' first stab at playwrights, opens the Rep's season in its traditionally safe summer moneymaking slot. "It's a very courageous move on the part of the Rep," says Burns, "and it's a wonderful vote of confidence for us."
In writing Consumer Affairs, Mad City was never far from the playwrights' minds. "We conceived it for the Isthmus Playhouse," says burns. "It is Madison born and bred.
Born and bred in Beloit, Burns got a fairly heavy dose of Broadway-style theater when she accompanied her father on his frequent business trips to New York. "I wasn't raised in a family that knew theater," says Burns. "My parents liked plays, and it was something to do in New York."
She didn't really catch the theater bug until she was in fifth grade and saw a high school production of Finian's Rainbow. "I saw people I sort of knew, and I was amazed that people I knew could do it," says Burns. "I wanted to be up there too."
Though she acted in plays throughout school, Burns says she never seriously considered theater a career option. Neither, apparently, did her guidance counselor. "I asked him what I would do if I wanted to be in theater," says Burns. His advice was to major in journalism. The logic: "I don't know," says Burns, through peals of laughter. "They read, they talk."
After spending an unhappy freshman semester away at college, Burns returned home to attend school at UW-Rock County. There she met Felicia Londre, the school's lone faculty member in theater. "She saw something in me and became my mentor for the next two years," says Burns. "She began doing shows for me and really teaching me the craft of acting."
Londre, now a dramaturge for the Missouri Repertory Theater in Kansas City, remembers that Burns was able to play a wide range of roles well. "Her work is very vivid in my mind," she says. "She has a wonderful stage presence -- she commands attention."
It was during her work with Londre that Burns first entertained the idea of being a professional actor. "I've always said if I was in charge of my own career, I would have sabotaged it a long time ago." After two years at Rock County, Burns left for the UW-Madison, eventually earning a degree in theater. During her college years she was cast in faculty productions and her first Rep Play -- when the theater was still housed behind Pres House. When the roles kept coming after her graduation in 1975, Burns finally acknowledged her destiny as an actor.
Her decision coincided with the blossoming of the regional theater movement, in which serious theater groups were establishing themselves in cities outside of New York. "I came at exactly the time when it was no longer absolutely necessary to go to New York upon graduation," she says. "So I stayed here and continued to work in lots of different kinds of theater -- non-Equity, dinner theater." Burns has been working almost continually ever since, whereas some of her friends who left for the Big Apple 19 years ago never found work in the theater.
"I feel fortunate to have made what some people thought was a crazy decision at the time to stay here, and I'm very committed to the regional theater movement," says Burns. "I think it is where the best work is being done."
For the most part, she says, regional theaters choose plays that are "on the cutting edge" and that "allow them to be creative with their audiences." That means giving patrons something that is familiar and enjoyable and then -- when you've earned their trust and attention -- challenging them with something a bit more proactive.
Not that Burns underrates the intelligence of theatergoers. "I believe very strongly that audiences are smart," she says. "I think you have to operate from that premise, and if you do then they will challenge you and you will challenge them.
"Once you start believing that you're smarter than your audience," says Burns, "I think you're lost as an actor, as an artist or as a theater."
From her early exposure to Broadway shows, Burns fell in love with musical theater. For a long time, she says, she didn't know any other kind existed. Then she went to college. "I became a very big theater snob," she says. "I only wanted to do contemporary American and British drama or classical theater."
But real life intruded after graduation. Making money meant doing musicals. "I had to reeducate myself to sing and all the things I had once known how to do," says Burns, "It was a humbling experience to be knocked off my pedestal about what I thought good theater was."
Burns took voice, dance and movement lessons in college, but singing and music had always been a part of her life. "My father sang and my grandmother was a small-time concert pianist," says Burns. "I always sang." Burns now appreciates being able to pass between straight and musical theater: "At one time I would have said I'm a musical-theater actress waiting to be a straight actress again. I don't say that anymore."
Burns lives with her husband of 20 years in her hometown of Beloit. "That's nothing I would have expected years ago," she says, "but it works for me." She likes both the accessibility to and distance from the hubs of Chicago, Madison, Spring Green and Milwaukee. "It keeps my head on straight. You can be around theater people a little too much, and sometimes you need to go back and remember you're a real person."
Burns strongly dislikes pretension -- especially the kind that runs in some theater circles. "Some actors have what I call 'welcome to my process,'" she says, laughing. "Everything is about their problem, their processes."
Burns doesn't buy it. "I believe that acting is a collaborative art form and you have to make allowances in your process for everyone else."
Even more heretical is her take on the roots of inspiration. "I think it's a bunch of baloney that angst makes a good actor," she says. "My feeling is, nothing beautiful in art comes out of pain -- it comes out of love." It's like creating a child, she says. "You want to be a healthy vessel to produce that life, and I think it's the same thing in art."
Burns also rejects the popular notion that there are no good roles for women actors: "I think that's a sour-grapes attitude, frankly. There are a lot of wonderful roles out there for women." She says she has a responsibility to take on the available roles -- some, she admits, she's inclined to reject outright -- and make them as interesting as she can. The Rep, she says, has a reputation for staging musicals that showcase women. "Madison is a very woman-oriented city, so it pays for them to be savvy about what their audience is."
Outside of Madison and Beloit, Burns has worked in theater in Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Rockford. The last two years she's directed plays at MATC, and this year has a directing stint at Beloit College. She also does workshops for the Wisconsin Theatre Association to spread the word about living the good life in the theater: "I feel like I'm a catalyst for kids who, like me, grow up in Wisconsin and rural areas and may want to do this but don't have any idea of how to begin." In 1988, Burns moved for a short while to Chicago, where she performed in plays at Drury Lane Theatres and also made history: "I am the only woman who has been allowed to play a gangster in a professional production of Guys and Dolls.
Fearful she was being typed as strictly a musical-theater actress, Burns returned to Beloit in 1990. The next year, she was summoned to New York to appear in an original play that had been written by a former Madisonian with Burns in mind. She was not impressed by the operation.
"I was working with a lot of people who were struggling actors in New York," says Burns. "Some were very good, and they were excited about this project. And to me, it was nothing." The production was thrown together, the rehearsal space was inadequate and attendance -- even though the play was being staged at Lincoln Center -- seemed uncertain.
Early on, she began looking forward to returning to Madison to begin rehearsals for the Rep's production of The Importance of Being Earnest. "I thought, my God, I'm going back to a real theater to do a real run of a real play." The New York experience, though, satisfied some nagging doubts about what she may have given up by sticking close to home. "I realized then and there I had made the right choice."
Starring with her in Earnest that season was Stephen Hemming, a standout performer with the Madison Rep an American Players Theatre. He and Burns are close friends and professional associates, going back to the days when both were under the wing of Felicia Londre at UW-Rock County.
"One of the great joys of working with Colleen, " says Hemming, "is the fact that we know each other so well. You start the rehearsal process and can hit the ground running." Something less quantifiable, and more magical, also takes place: "There's a connection, too, that happens on stage," he says. "You make each other better."
Hemming also made a conscious decision to pursue his art near his roots, and like many of Burns' friends, he's able to make a living from acting. "One of the great things about the regional theater movement," says Burns, "is that it has allowed actors to really have lives -- which wasn't the case before."
Still, life as a thespian isn't easy. Actors make "amazing sacrifices" to pursue their art, says Hemming, with unemployment sometimes more lucrative than theater work. "There's a love for it that borders on religion," he says, "and a bonding takes place among us."
That's one of the things that make Burns proud to be an actor. "In many ways [the theater] is a very loving environment, so I'm always very proud of the people I work with and happy that I can be counted among their ranks."
She feels especially warm about the cast for Consumer Affairs, which includes Michael Herold, Marie Barteau and her collaborator Wilson. "It is just a joy," says Burns, noting the absence of large egos. "We are four people that operate on the premise of making art out of joy and love."
Burns met Wilson a couple of years ago when he was the musical director for the Rep's Nunsense. He told her he wanted to write a show and shared the working title. She said, "catchy title." He said, "Why don't you write a song?"
At about 2 that morning, Burns sat down and penned the lyrics to "A Friend Like Her," a touching song about female friendships. Jack loved it and wrote the melody. "Everything we come up with is a fifty-fifty collaboration," says Burns. "The two of us together produce a third voice. It's neither mine nor his."
Hemming remembers excited phone calls from Burns when the show was evolving: "There was a wonderful sense of her discovering herself as a writer." For Burns, who two decades ago published some short stories, playwriting also served as a batter recharge. "I was feeling a little stale," she says. "Consumer Affairs has been a creative outlet for me."
At 41, Burns says she has a certain kind of energy and excitement she didn't feel even when she was 20. "Now I realize how fortunate I am and how exciting the next part of my life can be," says Burns. "And that's a great thing."