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Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Brandon Burditt as Cymbeline  

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Oct 15, 2021 at 04:06 AM in Project News
Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Brandon Burditt as Cymbeline  

Continuing our series of interviews with actors in this summer's Montana Shakespeare in the Parks' Cymbeline, we talked to Brandon Burditt, who played Cymbeline.  

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene Thanks very much for joining me to talk about your work in Cymbeline, Brandon. The Montana Shakespeare in the Parks program stated this was your professional debut, so I wonder if we could start with you telling me a little bit how you came to MSIP, and about your background.

Brandon Burditt  I didn't start acting until undergrad. I went to Morehouse College, a historically black college and university. My mentor there was the director of [Alliance Theatre’s New Black Fest] Hands Up, which is a nice like little reunion that we're having here [in Atlanta]. Most of our training was in the work of black playwrights. So we did August Wilson, we did Qatari Hall, we did The Colored Museum by George C. Wolf. We never really had the opportunity to explore Shakespeare, because in our program one of their goals was to introduce a lot of these students to works of black playwrights -- which I completely understand and promote.

So my first real exposure to Shakespeare was when I went to the University of Illinois for grad school. I graduated Morehouse College in 2018, and went immediately into the University of Illinois, and I was able to work with Dan Sullivan, a Tony Award winning director. I attribute to him most of my knowledge about Shakespeare. We did two semesters together. I did some scene work, and we talked about the basics. I've always been a lover of language, and I've always been fascinated by Shakespeare. But the one thing that would always make me hesitant about Shakespeare was, I always felt that I had to be insanely focused on watching and paying attention to what’s going on. But what I discovered in breaking down the language with Dan Sullivan is that a lot of it is very clear and I didn't need to know every word to follow the story. He broke the illusion of how difficult the text was.

CA Very important!

BB Yeah. And while in Illinois the biggest thing we did with Shakespeare was an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, in which all ten of the grad graduate students each took turns playing Kate and Petruchio. Other than that, I really didn't have any deep Shakespeare experience. [Montana] was the first time I did a full production that wasn’t heavily readjusted, and was true to the story.

CA And now you have huge experience, because it was a triumphant season. I wonder if you could tell me how you auditioned and how you prepared. Because other than playing the Frenchman [in the wager scenes in Rome 1.4., 2.4], you were playing only Cymbeline. So we'll concentrate on that role.

BB Sure. Before I came to Montana I was finishing up my third year of grad school. That's the graduating year, so everything was wrapping up, and I didn't actually have a lot of time to prepare before  reaching Montana. But one thing that I did while in the rehearsal process, ironically enough, was watch Game of Thrones. And the reason I wanted to do that is because, one, it’s in slightly heightened language, although not anything close to Shakespeare; and, two, I also wanted to look at several different versions of power. Because Cymbeline could be looked at in a lot of different ways. He could be played as oblivious, just playing dumb, or a puppet. But I wanted to find the positive reasons he could be this distracted, surprised person at the end of the play. How could he miss all of these things? And in watching Game of Thrones and their different leaders, I saw, it's usually because they were either stressed about war, stressed about their own stature, or stressed about somebody who's going to usurp them eventually. Talking with [MSIP dramaturge] Gretchen [Minton] was amazing about this. All the things Cymbeline is doing outside of the script. Because you only get these very small clips of him throughout the show.

And so: [Cymbeline] understanding that Posthumus marrying Imogen, how terrible that looks for him, in the world of the court; understanding that a more powerful Roman army is here to take over and defeat them; understanding that his Queen is power-driven and -hungry and he just wants to appease her. I could see all these different levels of distractions. So when you get to the final scene, it is not necessarily that [Cymbeline]'s dumb or oblivious, it’s just that he's just focused on so many things (that the audience isn’t necessarily focusing on because it's not in script). I really had to search for his background. And me, [Artistic Director] Kevin Asselin, and Mikey [Gray who played Imogen], we worked a lot on what these relationships were outside of the page.

CA Yes.

BB Once we got to that, that made the language clearer. Because I could see why Cymbeline needs to say these things at this certain time. If Shakespeare is only going to write them for these certain scenes, then what he needs to say has to be said, especially. And then I will say I'm good with language, and I'm good with wants and needs. I feel like I'm a very empathetic person and can understand why someone would be driven to do something. So having all the background information, the scene work with Kevin, Gretchen's brilliant mind, it made the process smooth.

CA That sounds wonderful, and what a great process to experience. What did you find was the hardest scene to get your head around, or body around -- oh, and before that, just let me first mention something I was going to say thing about Game of Thrones. Certainly the Montana audience was thinking of Game of Thrones. When I was in Missoula, I heard an audience member next to me, when he turned to one of his friends, he said, “Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones.”

BB Ha, ha!

CA So you were you were channeling that! That’s really interesting. Anyway, back to, what did you find was the hardest scene in the play?

BB I think the speech he talks to Pisanio [in, 4.3] was the toughest scene. What was always difficult was the quick shifts in that scene that are all internal. Scene [1.5] is easy because everything is external; I am reacting to what I'm listening to. Like the last scene of the show [5.4], I'm just reacting to everything, everything is internal, and I have to generate it from a more personal place. And honestly, depending on the day, depending on the setup, depending on the weather, it's harder to generate those shifts as sharply for me. And [in 4.3] Cymbeline goes from hearing the information that the Queen is about to die, to not hearing any more information about where Imogen or Cloten are, to all of a sudden being ready to go into battle. And it was always a tricky thing of, where is this inspiration to fight coming from? Because, personally as Brandon, I would need more language from Pisanio to get to that place. But Shakespeare didn't allow it, it was just always so quick, and I wish there was a little more dialogue for that scene. So that was always the toughest one.

CA That's really interesting. It leads me back to your comments about things being internal or external. What did you feel about Cymbeline’s attitudes towards Britain, as a king, politically, or in other kinds of ways? And what did you think he thought he was representing in terms of Britain, especially in break with Rome?

BB That's interesting. I never really thought about that. But I think he saw Britain as not necessarily like a burgeoning state -- because Britain’s already pretty powerful. It’s like something compared to Canada and USA. Canada is a different kind of superpower than America is. I think he looks at the Roman Empire like America, and we [Britain] are like Canada: we're fine, but we're not at the same level either for military reasons, for money, or for whatever (I'm not super clear on the history, I'll admit). But I would also say Cymbeline’s vision of the state changes once the Queen gets involved. I feel whenever they were alone – as Rachel [Cendrick] and I tried to show in our scenes -- the Queen had her ideas of what she wanted Britain to be, or how she wanted to control Britain. And I think Cymbeline was at odds with her view of breaking with Rome. He had a more positive view, he wanted the country to be better, whereas the Queen just wanted a powerful state to rule over.

CA Yes.

BB So, I think he wanted to be a good leader. He was just keenly aware of all the flaws that are happening. I think also that reputation and appearance was a big deal to him. Like in the first scene with Imogen: “he [Posthumus] would have made my throne a seat for baseness.” That's the appearance of it, that's the look of it, because he raised Posthumus, he knows how great a man he is, but he's also aware of the look of someone like Posthumus being in the royal family and being accepted by society. So I think he wanted the best for Britain, but he also wanted to look a certain way.

CA Right. It's got to do with prestige and cultural capital. And that was visible in your costume, which is very flamboyant. Appearances are extremely important to Cymbeline. It is grandeur and pride from head to toe.

BB And that's why I wanted to play with his love of dress in different scenes. Because to me he understood the image so well that, when he was with just the family or with just Pisanio, he didn't have to wear all that because that wasn't the time for it. I feel like he understood his power well enough, but he also cares so much about appearance that he knew when to relax and when to really really put on a show. A great example is when Caius Lucius appeared for the first time, and it's the scene with the Queen and Cloten as well [3.5]. What I love about that scene is that Cymbeline goes into it thinking there's a perfect way we can do all of this. I played with this idea, that in my perfect world I can appease the queen, I can get Caius Lucius on my side, and we can be on our merry way. And what I love about what Rachel and Riley [O’Toole, playing Cloten] do, is that they play these instigators so well that I can't help but try to stop it, but the Queen already has her ideas and she's really controlling me that point.

CA Yes, absolutely, that came across very clearly in that scene, how you were basically oppressed by the Queen, and even to some extent Cloten, and by the whole discourse they're forcing on you, which you were almost ventriloquizing.

I love your comparison of Canada and the US! And it leads me back to the question about what Cymbeline represents in terms of Britain, and what is his idea of the country. Is there any kind of environmental or ecological aspect to that? When you think of Canada and the United States, a lot of the relationship has to do with questions of shared geographical environments and natural resources, and who owns what, control of water, etc. Was there any of that going through your mind?

BB I think Cymbeline isn’t the biggest environmentalist. I point to, one, the style of dress. I don't think any of that is recyclable! It is very gaudy, expensive, it's very in your face. And, two, Imogen refers to, a couple of times, not knowing anything outside of the court world. So when she meets Belaria and Cadwal – and you can hear it in Cloten’s dialogue as well, “vultures” and “savages” and similar things (whereas Belaria and Cadwal are people who make the best out of the environment and value nature) – all these things are in opposition to Cymbeline. I say the line in the last scene, “How of nature / As good as we?” [5.4.309-10], talking about [Belaria’s] dress and how she represents herself. It would be great for Cymbeline to be an environmentalist, but our production doesn’t really present that.

CA No, absolutely. And that makes perfect sense in terms of the costumes. The court is a closed place. It's very cut off from the rest of the country. [See also Denise Massman’s comments on the environmental symbolism of her costumes.]

BB That's true.

CA And in the way Cymbeline and the Queen interact with everybody below them. The court is also an overconsuming place, that comes through in the costumes. You feel they’ll be thrown away tomorrow.  That makes that makes perfect sense in being juxtaposed with the scenes in Wales. And Innogen is the link between those two worlds; and you’re right, she's not as arrogant as Cloten when he arrives in Wales – you’re all rustic mountaineers and savages, he says – but she learns from what she experiences on her journey. Her ideas are changed significantly from the closed court world that she's been living in.

I wonder if we can pivot to the actual performances. I saw the last two ones in Belgrade and Missoula, and they were different environments in each place. Can we talk about how you, in going around to the places in Montana and surrounding states, how you worked with some of those environments on a show-by-show basis. Here I'm thinking about the both the human environments and the non human environments, the physical surroundings. What was your journey through that experience like?

BB Honestly, coming from only doing academic theatres, they are very controlled environments. So you get used to the certain theatrical things, like no cell phones, you don't see the audience, you go backstage, you leave, and you only see people you invited at the end of the show. So, coming into the first shows at the duck pond at Montana State [University], I realized just how this show isn't to make money, it isn't for me as an actor. Like, I remember the first performances we did, and hearing the audiences saying, “thank you for coming again,” and I’ve never experienced that before. That was the first thing I had to readjust to: this is a service, it isn’t a regular performance or like a date-night type of thing! This is something that really is helpful for people.

And to the actual performance in terms of the challenges and the obstacles, you start to understand what the white noise is going to be for each town, in terms of, okay, this town is going to have a constant amount of wind; this town is going to have a playground, so you're going to have kids; you're going to have trains every 20 minutes or so, and you know how long that's going to be. You start to realize what the base level of ambient sound is, and we had an unbelievable sound team who always knew where to set the mic so we could be over that ambient noise. So you can you can project without pushing. So just from a vocal perspective, you start to unconsciously know where you had to start speaking. The days we went inside and in actual theatres, we didn't have to push at all. And then the other thing was, when you have different crowds, every crowd had its favorite characters.

CA Ah. You could sense that.  

BB Yes. You could sense it was nothing anybody did wrong or nothing anybody was necessarily playing up, like trying to play to the audience. You could just tell that in more rural areas, they would be really keen on [Cadwal] this nature-loving, fighting person. In some college towns they liked the comedy that I would bring because it spoke to them in a different way. And so knowing that these different towns were going to respond to characters differently, I as an actor can pick up on how my other actors are reacting to this, because, it's human nature that if you are getting responses, then you're going to feel more confident and more comfortable and you're going to deliver the lines in a different way.

CA Sure.

BB And so, reacting to somebody else having the crowd [with them] that night, then that would give me another obstacle to play against, especially as Cymbeline, since almost everybody is the antagonist to me! And so I always had something new to play off of. And it was just great to see. There was a day, Cadwal was explaining in the last scene why she killed Cloten, and the audience cheered, and so she looked to the crowd as if the crowd was going to help her make her point. And so I had to play against her and the crowd at the same time, because that was a crowd that really truly loved what Rachel was doing. And so, you learn that, even though we all have trust in each other and we all know where the story needs to go, there are just certain nuances that, no matter what, you can't be prepared for it, unless you're really paying attention and you just start to learn like what the audience is responding to, how the actors respond to that audience, and how we can help tell the story better.

CA That makes sense. You're saying, to some extent, built into the shifts of surroundings, night by night, as it were, there's a dimension of improv. You're always tuning in, you're listening to the environments. And sometimes like in Belgrade, when that train roared by, it was a really loud train and you had to stop speaking and you grimaced at the train. It was extremely intrusive. But what you're talking about on a less intrusive level is that you're listening to things and adjusting the pitch of your performance and your emotions to the environmental noise of each locale. That's really fascinating – and challenging yet growing, I imagine -- because your character has to constantly evolve in response to the changing environments, which in turn participate in each show.

Were there any other places where the environment especially shaped your performance as Cymbeline?

BB Yeah, I remember the early shows on the tour, because that was the hottest part of the summer.

It was 95F minimum. And it was before we really knew how to build the set. So we would be building for three to four hours in the heat, and then performing the show with those heavy costumes. I actually preferred those days over the milder temperature days, because I was so exhausted, I couldn't overthink. I couldn't think, oh, I need to make this moment blah blah blah. I was truthfully acting and reacting because I had no energy for anything fake. So the shows in Utica, in Malta -- which was so bad we went inside, it was 100 degrees outside -- those shows were very difficult.

I picture Cymbeline is always constantly weighed down by one or two things at a given time; and for Brandon as the actor, sometimes it was the heat, sometimes it was a long setup, sometimes it was not having much to eat that day. And so my 21st-century problems I could correlate into what Cymbeline had to deal with. That necessarily wouldn't be issues within the play, but it gave me a mental background, because I'm constantly thinking about the heat, or eating, or resting, and Cymbeline’s constantly thinking about the war, his wife, and Imogen. Those were the environmental things, especially at the top of the season. Towards the end of the season it became more muscle memory, plus the improv of the different towns. I didn't need as much “real world struggle” to influence the performance. But at the beginning it helped simplify a lot of things.

CA That's really interesting, that idea of the correlation between the actual, and your sense that Cymbeline is fighting all of these things which are not fleshed out very much in the play. And you were making a correlation in the moment of performance on each evening, or day, with Cymbeline’s sense of conflict when you were preparing for and acting the show. Was there ever a smoke issue? Wild-fire smoke?

BB Belgrade was one of the worst days. Our tour manager, Riley [O’Toole] was always proactive, and most of the really smoky days we were able to go inside. But in Whitehall Montana the smoke was

really bad and we had to be outside. But luckily most of the towns have an indoor option, usually for rain, but because the smoke was so bad this year we had to go inside. In Hamilton Montana we had to do a show in an air hangar.

CA Ironically. This is also happening elsewhere. Some outdoor theatre companies in places like California now have to have provisional indoor places. They're being forced indoors because of the intensity of the smoke. Those are new 21st-century acting conditions. This has been on my mind in the review that’s going to be posted on our website. I talked about the intrusiveness of the smoke in Belgrade, the coal trains, and the other kinds of things. In some ways there didn’t have to be anything overtly environmentalist about this performance because the environmentalism came to you; “nature” came to you in terms of adverse conditions.

I never saw the 2017 MSIP shows, but Gretchen Minton has written about the Macbeth that summer, where the actors had to wear masks for some of the performances because the smoke was really bad [Shakespeare Bulletin 36.3 (429-448)]. And at that point they hadn't always provided for an indoor location. But now this is the norm, and of course a health issue for actors not wanting to breathe in all that smoke. And I also connect that with what you were saying earlier about pushing. There's a physical pushing against noise or smoke when you're doing all the performances you're doing, and slogging around that that set to 71 locations in Montana and surrounding states. That's physical, but fortunately you were able to preserve your health.

A wrap-up question is, how did your character and performance grow or evolve over the whole season? What would you say, overall, the journey was?

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks: Brandon Burditt as Cymbeline  

BB I am a lover of authenticity, real emotion. I've never been a big musical guy. And to me, this shows me how to do that. Because if the show is so authentic that it's only for the characters on stage, then the audience, which is the last member of the production, get left out of it. So I think the last scene is a great example of that balance because I have to authentically feel all of the twists and turns that everybody gives me, but I also have to understand that the audience is already way ahead of me. They have to enjoy my revelations. It's not just about me experiencing it, it's about them enjoying me go through this entire mess. And so the slow turn [of wonder towards the audience on hearing that Cadwal is you daughter], that's something that developed. At the beginning of the season I thought they were laughing at something Chelsea [David, playing Belaria] was saying, or something that Rachel [as Cadwal] was doing. And then I realized, oh, they're reacting because they're seeing my face at a certain moment. So it was a question of being aware of when can I be theatrical, and not necessarily theatrical in a way that's fake, but theatrical in a way that serves the story but isn't necessarily something I would “honestly” do, but it's born out of an authentic feeling.

I also gained an incredibly high awareness for my own physical reactions in the sense of, I am able to tell when I'm not saying a line from a real place. And that's why the speeches to Pisanio [in 4.3] were always so tough for me, because those transitions were so sharp. Brandon Burditt would need more time. So that was always a balance between, do I make this a theatrical moment and play it towards the surreal? Or playing it towards the authentic? And it was always tough to find that balance. But for every other scene, I could feel this is truly coming from me. Because I have an “iron man” thing. When I feel intensely about anything, my solar plexus heats up, for lack of a better word. And so, if I'm not speaking from my solar plexus, I'm in an intense scene, and I can't really feel that being activated, I know that's not a truthful situation, I'm speaking from some arbitrary place instead of reacting to what Rachel or Riley are giving me.

And then I also learned, in cast full of hilarious actors, what my specific sense of humour is, and I learned how to use my face. People would talk to me after the shows and say, your expressions were great. And I always used to think that was a small aspect of acting. But I realized, even in a theatre where people are far away, the face can be read and can be used to help sell the story, especially if I don't have dialogue in that moment. So: that balance of authenticity and theatricality, and my own personal sense of humour and using my face, those were some of the biggest things that I learned. And, even more straightforward, just Shakespearian text, because I'm not used to that. And you go from the deceptively simple Midsummer Night’s Dream, because it's all couplets and you have to make that work, into the very complex Cymbeline. I couldn't have asked for a better pairing to be really introduced to Shakespeare.  

CA You've described that journey beautifully today, and given us many valuable insights. Thanks again for the time, especially when you are in rehearsal. I'm really grateful. And break a leg with the Hands Up show in Atlanta!  

BB Thank you.  

Habitable Natures in Two Performances of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cymbeline