Mike Burnett: The Magic of Theatre
April 17, 2012
An assistant professor of theatre and the assistant director of ASU University Theatre, Burnett boosts audiences’ imaginations with an array of designer resources.
“I love the job because I get to make models and play with power tools,” he said. “I get to fly actors across the stage, and this summer I’m teaching a class on special effects, so we get to blow stuff up.”
Both classical and contemporary music are also tools Burnett employs for drama productions. In the spring 2012 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he underscored the play’s iconic storm with Giuseppe Verde’s “Requiem.”
The theatre, however, was not Burnett’s first love. He was first a musician, playing trumpet in the Midland Lee High School Marching Band and Jazz Band. He then became a music composition major at Midland College and, later, at Texas Tech University. The theatre caught his attention when he started dating a drama student.
“I remember sitting in a rehearsal watching her,” Burnett said, “and hearing the sounds of construction and rock music coming from the back part of the building. I started exploring and found the scene shop, which I didn’t know existed. I assumed that magic just happened, and the theatre was created. I found this place where I could combine all the things I like to do tangentially into this art form of theatre.”
“There is that human condition story that theatre can do better than any of the other arts.”
His time spent working at his grandfather’s lumberyard in Plains had already honed the skills Burnett needed for set design, and he had learned artistic techniques from his grandmother, who was an avid sketcher and painter. Once he became enthralled with the theatre, he transferred to Sul Ross State University in Alpine to finish his undergraduate degree in that discipline. He then went on to graduate school at the University of Mississippi, where he completed two internships in design. One of those led to a job as resident designer and technical director at the Seven Stages Theatre in Atlanta.
At Seven Stages, Burnett worked with theatre companies from England and the Netherlands. He also brought in artists in from around the world, including Yugoslavs who came under threats from their government for participating in plays that opposed the political regime.
“That’s when I started putting into perspective what the power of theatre can be,” Burnett said. “There is that human condition story that theatre can do better than any of the other arts. That’s when it kind of germinated for me.”
More valuable experience came for Burnett when he took a job as facilities manager at North Carolina Wesleyan University’s Dunn Center for the Performing Arts.
“It had a massive roadhouse,” he said. “In three years, I probably did 500 productions of different road shows coming in, shows we produced and different concert events. We had a Broadway package with a lot of national Broadway road tours coming through. We also had a concert series of mainly country acts, like Kathy Mattea and Riders in the Sky.”
Burnett’s stint at the Dunn Center was followed by time as chair of the Theatre Department at Huntington University in Indiana, and teaching and designing for the graduate program at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. He and his wife, Ella, then moved to San Angelo with their two children, Conner and Jude, to be near family.
Soon after their arrival, Burnett and Ella, who has an M.F.A. degree in design, began volunteering for sound, lighting and design duties for Sunday services at Glen Meadows Baptist Church.
“We have always made these skill sets available to the churches where we have lived,” Burnett said, “and they always say the same thing—‘We can’t pay you.’ We don’t want them to pay us because we feel we’ve been gifted with these abilities and we want to give back.”
They also offer their design and technical abilities to area schools and theatre companies because they believe that also helps ASU’s drama endeavors.
“If it makes them better,” Burnett said, “it makes us better.”