Skip to main content
Skip to navigation
University of Missouri

Acting Outside the Box

Suzanne Burgoyne sets the stage for life-changing drama.

Burgoyne tearing box

Susanne Burgoyne

On March 9, 2015, Suzanne Burgoyne stepped onto the Rhynsburger Theatre stage and announced she was making a $1 million estate pledge to fund MU’s Center for Applied Theatre and Drama Research, which she founded and directs. MU administrators and attendees celebrated her generosity with laudatory speeches. But that’s not why she did it. Burgoyne has been a theater professor for more than 35 years. She is passionate about drama. When she talks about her work, her eyes light up, and she speaks with the conviction and enthusiasm of someone who doesn’t worry about what you think of her. To emphasize key points, she leans forward and drops her voice to a whisper. Ask why she pledged $1 million to start an interactive-theater center, and she tells a story. It starts in 1980 on a different stage, at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Burgoyne, who’d already earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in theater, stumbled onto an acting exercise that forced her to reconsider everything she thought she knew about drama. She leans forward. “No one had ever said to me, ‘Be careful what you do with actors,’ ” she says. Then she whispers. “ ‘Because this stuff is incredibly powerful.’ ”

gold_divider_web

Yvonne Ball sat alone in her hospital gown, fidgeting on the papered hospital bed. The doctor entered the white-walled room and yanked her chart from its hook. He wasted no time. “You have an aggressive, malignant tumor in your breast,” he told her. Then he informed her, without discussion, of the treatments he planned to perform.

Ball was reeling. I’m going to die, she thought.

The doctor set down the chart and grabbed under Ball’s armpit to feel for swollen lymph nodes, but her muscles were too clenched. “Can you relax?” he said.

That’s the line that sticks with her now, more than 12 years later. “How could I relax when you’ve just given me horrifying news?” Ball says. After the appointment, Ball retreated to her car, called her oldest daughter and sobbed. “It crushed me,” she says.

A decade later, Ball sat in the audience for a performance of Breast Cancer Dialogues, a new interactive-theater play Burgoyne was directing. Ball had told her story to the play’s author, Heather Carver, associate professor and chair of theater, but did not know until that moment it had become part of the script.

Ball thought the hurt from her doctor’s compassionless announcement was long forgotten, but when she saw the moment re-enacted on stage, her old feelings of anger rushed back. Her face flushed, and her chest tightened.

Interactive theater works by involving the audience in the drama. Actors perform a short scene based on real situations and dialogue drawn from extensive interviews. The play presents a conflict without resolving it. Many topics could work: race, religion, sexism or, in this case, bedside manner for doctors giving cancer diagnoses. After the scene, audience members interview the characters, delving into their motivations. Then the actors repeat the scene, but this time audience members can jump in, take the place of an actor and attempt to resolve the conflict. The goal is not so much to find a solution but, rather, to launch a conversation that exposes participants to multiple points of view.

So, years after Ball’s hurtful experience, she finally got to ask “her doctor” why he spoke so matter-of-factly.

“It did me good,” she says. “I saw his side of it, that he was trying to get information to me. I still don’t agree with it, and it still made me angry, but I did see a little bit of what he was saying.”

That interactive theater could prompt such a statement is a marvel. The quest for such a tool — one that allows audiences to engage with serious subjects and walk away different from when they arrived — has defined Burgoyne’s professional life. It is the vision she has chased since she first came to love the theater.

Acting & Activism
“I’m a child of the ’60s,” Burgoyne says, in case her flowing gray curls and tie-dyed sundress didn’t give it away. The professor of directing, script analysis and Theatre of the Oppressed at MU graduated from high school in 1964, mere months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the same year students started burning their Vietnam draft cards and a trio of civil rights volunteers were killed in Mississippi. “We thought our parents had betrayed us,” she says. “The world was broken, and we had to save it.”

But Burgoyne was also a child of the theater. Her mother performed songs from musical comedies for ladies’ clubs, and Burgoyne, a shy child, found release on the stage. Safe behind the mask of a character, she felt free to express herself.

Her family encouraged her pursuit of acting — but only as a hobby. Her father, a drug store owner, youth basketball coach and school administrator, was a man of authority. He expected her to make her career in another field.

Burgoyne calls her relationship with her late father “problematic.” He was a good man. He was also rigid in his ideas and expectations of others. To cope, Burgoyne hid behind a “good girl” mask rather than reveal her true self and risk his wrath.

Her dad wasn’t the only one who disliked her theater ambitions. Burgoyne’s college friends also disapproved, wanting her to choose an activist path.

Passionate about both theater and activism, Burgoyne committed herself to changing the world through theater. She studied artists who pursued the same goal. But even after college, as a tenure-track professor at Creighton, she was still searching for the key to the transformative power of theater.

Then she found a rehearsal exercise and a cardboard box.

Burgoyne teaching theater students

Jennie Pardoe, left, a doctoral student in theater from Southlake, Texas, rehearses for the interactive play Breast Cancer Dialogues with fellow Interactive Theatre Troupe member Dylan Bainter, a senior theater major from Quincy, Illinois. Within broad boundaries, theater Professor Suzanne Burgoyne, center, lets her actors develop their own backstories for their characters.

Destroying the Box
Burgoyne stood on the dimly lit stage of a black-box theater with 20 of her undergraduate students. They all held brown cardboard boxes as props for a seemingly simple, if dark, acting exercise: Imagine the box is someone you hate. Then rip it apart.

Burgoyne took the exercise seriously. She envisioned the box as her rigid and demanding father. She ripped her box apart. Tears fell unexpectedly from her eyes. “You wouldn’t let me be me!” she sobbed. “You wouldn’t let me be me!”

Burgoyne had discovered the exercise in a workshop. It was one of several rehearsal techniques she used to help her actors explore the emotionally intense material in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The play is set during the Salem witch trials in a town given over to fear, betrayal and greed.

Once the play opened, something striking happened. “The actors were amazing,” she says, giving performances remarkable for undergraduates. In one scene, young women pretend to be bewitched as they watch an imaginary yellow bird walk across the ceiling to peck out their eyes. It’s difficult to portray convincingly, but her students carried it off flawlessly. “It was fabulous as theater, but for the performers as people, there was some fallout.”

Periodically during the course of the play, students approached Burgoyne and admitted to having nightmares. One confessed he didn’t want to go onstage during the trance scene — it was too disturbing.

Burgoyne asked a former theater colleague and Jesuit priest about these happenings, mentioning the box exercise. “Well, if you start the ritual that way,” he told her, “you have to have the person you tore up say, ‘I understand. I forgive you.’ ”

The strength of that word — ritual — struck her.

“Nobody had ever told me this kind of thing could happen, that acting exercises could have such an impact,” she says.

More than 30 years later, she still regrets putting her students through an exercise they weren’t ready for. But the experience triggered a paradigm shift in her thinking. As a director, she always looks for “truthfulness of emotion” from her actors. “An actor doesn’t just pretend; an actor connects to a role and thereby does a truthful portrayal,” she says. The Crucible led her to see acting as transformational active learning. If participating in an acting exercise can connect her actors so profoundly to the playwright’s understanding of human behavior, what might happen if audience members could take the stage and join a performance? What if plays, rather than addressing social ills thematically, could be used to deal with issues directly in this interactive way?

Theater Meets Psychology
After The Crucible, Burgoyne applied for and won an interdisciplinary leadership development fellowship, which allowed her to explore links between psychology and theater. During the three-year program, she worked with Bill Timpson, an education professor at Colorado State University, who used theater to train teachers. She also trained in psychodrama, a therapeutic method in which participants re-enact painful life experiences. It’s like a support group that acts out scenes, transforming the past and rehearsing the future.

Back on campus at Creighton, Burgoyne drew upon these threads to create an interactive-theater troupe that performed for students. The idea was to harness the transformative power of theater toward a specific end for an audience. It was her first chance to merge her ambitions in theater and social change.

Intervention & Initiative
Burgoyne’s first interactive plays pertained to alcohol and judgment: how to intervene when a friend is abusing alcohol and how to say no to an unwelcome sexual advance. A week after performing the unwelcome-advance play, one of Burgoyne’s actors told her a freshman had confided in him that she recently experienced a similar situation and, because of the play, knew how to handle it. A dorm performance of a different scene led to one audience member confronting another student about his drinking — with the whole audience watching.

Burgoyne was encouraged, but she needed more than anecdotes to prove the form’s power. Consumed by the work of getting tenure — teaching, mentoring, publishing, directing — she put her pursuit of interactive theater on hold. Then a series of developments renewed her ambitions.

The first occurred around 2000 when Burgoyne, by then a tenured professor at MU, brought to campus Brazilian Augusto Boal, founder of an interactive-theater form called Theatre of the Oppressed. His series of lectures inspired theater students and colleagues of Burgoyne’s from across disciplines.

At the same time, she was named a PEW Carnegie Scholar and chose as her project on-campus diversity training using Boal’s techniques. She also began teaching Theatre of the Oppressed.

“This was the turning point,” Burgoyne says. Until then, interactive theater was a side project. But now colleagues were interested in pursuing it, and she moved forward quickly.

Following her fellowship, in 2003, Burgoyne represented MU among a cluster of universities looking at multiculturalism — another Carnegie Foundation initiative — and she founded the Interactive Theatre Troupe (ITT) with fellow theater Professor Clyde Ruffin. In 2006, an interdisciplinary MU team including Burgoyne received a Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues grant, which funded the development and performance of a corpus of ITT’s own plays. With this, Burgoyne’s interactive-theater initiative was fully fledged.

Audience Participation
Whitney Loy, A&S ’07, grew up in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He didn’t come to terms with his sexuality until he came to Mizzou. When he came out as gay, he felt a lot of hurt and frustration toward people who judged him.

The theater major and ITT member took Burgoyne’s Theatre of the Oppressed class, where he collaborated on writing an interactive-theater script exploring homophobia.

ITT plays are seldom performed on stage. Mostly they take place in classrooms of students who are more accustomed to listening to long lectures than interacting with a performance.

Burgoyne starts performances by spending a few minutes explaining what interactive theater is, how it started and how it works. Audiences respond with the usual cacophony of chair squeaks, backpack rustles and covered coughs.

Then Burgoyne moves into demonstration mode. She asks two audience members to grasp their right hands and asks the audience, based on that snapshot, to describe objectively what the two people might be doing. By about the third suggestion, someone offers a subjective interpretation that, say, one of them must feel uncomfortable because her shoulders are hunched. The remark cues Burgoyne’s talk about how human perception is never truly objective but instead is colored by many factors, often including age, race and gender. By now, the audience’s restlessness has died away. Then the actors perform a five-minute script for a fully engaged audience. But what gives interactive theater its power is what happens next, when audience members are invited to question the characters about their behavior.

In Loy’s homophobia script, five undergraduates working on a group project get into an argument fueled by assumptions and stereotypes related to gender and sexuality. Within five minutes, one character leaves in tears, another in a huff and a third in a panic. ITT still performs the script. During his time at Mizzou, Loy played multiple characters, including a homophobic man, which required him to lay his own hurt aside.

“It’s amazing what we did to audiences,” Loy says. “I saw people come in, ask questions and have light bulbs go on. It’s incredible when you’re talking about things like race, gender or sexuality that Suzanne facilitates this safe space to have these conversations. And you don’t have to agree; you feel comfortable even saying things that might sound controversial. When it happens and people listen, it changes people. It’s powerful.

“Some days I wonder, ‘Why am I not devoting my life to this?’ This is the kind of thing that can change the world.”

Watching Breast Cancer Dialogues helped Yvonne Ball, a cancer survivor from Columbia, to understand her oncologist’s behavior at her diagnosis and to appreciate the importance of compassion. Photo by Kevin Mathein.

Watching Breast Cancer Dialogues helped Yvonne Ball, a cancer survivor from Columbia, to understand her oncologist’s behavior at her diagnosis and to appreciate the importance of compassion. Photo by Kevin Mathein.

Compassionate Care
Yvonne Ball, who watched the ITT re-enactment of her cancer diagnosis, retired from University Printing Services three years ago. Now she volunteers at MU Health Care’s Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, where she assists women who are getting mammograms. During those sometimes-difficult moments, she uses the lessons she learned from the interactive play and her experience with cancer.

“Compassion is so important,” Ball says. “I’ve always felt that, but I think it even more so after the stories we heard where there was no compassion. You always want to show that because everybody is fighting some kind of fight. Maybe it’s not breast cancer, but it’s some kind of fight.”

Securing Her Center
Burgoyne’s fight is for funding. Researching, writing and performing the plays costs money — as does proving the effects of her work. Her research shows people retain what they learn from an interactive-theater performance better than from a lecture, but measuring how a play affects behavior is more difficult. It requires following audiences over time — weeks, months, even years — until they face the kind of situation they saw in the play. Unfortunately, longitudinal research is expensive, and grant funding is scarce.

And that is why, at long last, Burgoyne founded an applied theater center, something that will last longer than her tenure at Mizzou and that could more easily attract grants and private donations. Applied theater, broader than interactive theater, is the use of theater as a teaching tool — for instance, she uses theater to teach non-arts majors about creativity and teach scientists how to communicate to the lay public. When Burgoyne discovered she could create a center now with a gift she would give out of her estate, she knew she had to do it.

With the center, Burgoyne hopes to train more students in interactive theater, train faculty who will use the techniques in their classrooms and train graduate students who can carry on the form at other institutions.

And it’s also about freedom, another step toward pursuing her ideas, toward becoming the change-maker she wants to be. Thirty-five years later, she might finally be done tearing up that box.