Editor’s note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
Alex Burkart is a theater artist who grew up in Janesville and now resides in Los Angeles. He holds an Master of Fine Arts degree in Performance Pedagogy from Virginia Commonwealth University and is currently a visiting assistant professor of theater at Beloit College this fall.
Burkart has authored three full-length plays: “Atlas Pit” (which received a world premiere in 2016 with the Los Angeles New Court Theatre), “El Ciclope” (which was a finalist for the 2018 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference and was a top-eight finalist among 1,200 submissions in the 2018 Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle Hart New Play Initiative), and his latest effort, “Stone Point.”
Burkart’s acting and directing work has been seen across the country at numerous professional and equity stages, and he has taught classes and workshops in performance at Virginia Commonwealth University, Adams State University, SETC, Beloit College and Zak Barnett Studios in Hollywood, California.
To learn more, visit AlexBurkart.com.
1. You’re a twin (Burkart’s brother, Nathan, is executive director at the Janesville Performing Arts Center). Share a situation where being a twin is beneficial and one where it’s not. Besides being able to use each other’s IDs to get into a bar when the other has forgotten his (it’s worked several times in Los Angeles), the twin-ship has opened some amazing doors creatively. Ultimately, doors in the entertainment world are easier to open if you have something about you that is … well, different. Mine just so happened to be wired-in since birth. This has been a double-edged sword, however. It took me a while to identify who I was apart from being a twin (artistically), as I’ve often struggled to find my own individual voice, opinion, poetics, etc. I became quite used to thinking of us (me and Nathan) as a team rather than as individual persons. I think that was a unique challenge to overcome that proved to be enlightening.
2. You’ve been living in California for some time. Do you miss Wisconsin, or have you gotten used to year-round sunshine? I love the “magic” in California’s air. It’s easy to believe you’re constantly on the cusp of something life-changing. That said, it does tend to be misleading, and I often miss the humbleness and friendliness of Wisconsin. I miss the change in seasons, and I miss my family and roots. Perhaps that’s why I tend to visit a fictional Wisconsin so often in my plays. My creative child constantly drives my imagination back home. Maybe one day I’ll come back for good.
3. Your second play, “El Ciclope,” has received a lot of attention. What’s it about? The play takes place in the same world and in a parallel time frame as “Atlas Pit” (my first full-length play). “El Ciclope” centers on a homecoming queen (Courtney) who is failing Spanish, so her teacher sets her up with a tutor: a teenage, first-generation, Mexican-American foster child (Mateo) who teaches by giving her stories written in Spanish that she has to decode. The stories depict horrific and tragic events in Mateo’s life, and Courtney comes to discover the stories are true. The process ultimately leads to an astonishing transformation of a one-time homecoming queen into her now unrecognizable self. It’s about “otherness” and how embracing our differences can be liberating. I dig it.
4. You’re back this summer to teach theater at Beloit College. How did that opportunity come about, and what do you hope to gain from it? I hold an MFA in performance pedagogy, which is a fancy way of saying I teach performance (acting and directing) for colleges and universities. I’ve been teaching at an acting school in L.A. for the last two years, but I’ve been itching to get back into a collegiate setting. I learned one of my past mentors, Amy Sarno, was actually taking a sabbatical last December, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I’m lucky they picked me. I’m ultimately looking to gain more experience working in the liberal arts college setting, working with a diverse group of students, learning from their stories and hoping they learn a little bit from my experiences as well.
5. What first drew you to a life in theater? My impulse is to say my mother made me do it (letting me, as an 8-year-old, audition for shows with SpotLight on Kids), and I just happened to be relatively good at it, so I figured why not. I used to only be an actor, but that’s changed a lot since I left and found my own voice. Looking back, the real answer is probably that I always gravitated towards telling stories. I used to draw and write comic books with my mom and dad growing up, and I always loved using my imagination. I eventually found a way to put it to good use and be productive with it.
6. When I’m not busy working on my career, I really enjoy: Reading Stephen King novels (I’m a junkie). I used to be crazy about “Goosebumps” growing up. R.L. Stine was my jam, and I was always the one to have the first copy out of all my friends in elementary school. With my love for horror, it didn’t take me long to gravitate towards King. His incredible character development didn’t hurt either. I also love the gym. I go into this zone there where the world is on pause. It’s kind of relieving with all of the hustle and bustle that is going on in L.A.
7. If you could meet anyone living or dead, who would it be? My future children. I’d love to see what a mess I made of them.
8. When it comes to acting, do you prefer doing it yourself or do you get more out of teaching? I get so much more out of teaching. It was weird; I developed this over self-consciousness with my acting work where I started to beat myself up about every little thing. My process became a selfish one, and I became concerned with my ability to break through and climb to the top of this seemingly endless Hollywood career ladder. Teaching however, is completely different. It is never about me in that classroom; it is always about my students, in the most positive sense. And instead of wallowing in my own failures, I’m celebrating theirs. I’m giving them keys that help them unlock doorways into understanding themselves, others, and this world. It is amazing, and I’m really into it.
9. Ever been star struck? I nearly threw up once when I walked around a corner in Macy’s and saw Steve Carell trying on a jacket. I’m such a fan of his work. It can be funny, tragic, and everything else all at once. His performances are incredibly human. I’m insanely jealous.
10. Everyone knows struggling actors have to start out waiting tables. How did you pay the bills early in your career? I waited tables. Just as you said: “Everyone knows struggling actors have to start out waiting tables.” It’s so very true. It’s flexible, pays good money, and you talk to a lot of people.
11. What is your dream project? I’d love to work on a play of mine in New York City. I write mostly for the voices of people I know, so the cast and director would all be my usual suspects. Of course, there are the ongoing politics that help give a play more traction in a city like that, but honestly, dream-wise, I like to work with artists I respect and trust.
12. What is the screensaver on your cell phone right now? It’s a picture of my wife and me on my wedding day. It’s there because she’d probably change it back if it was anything else.
13. In your opinion, what is the single greatest asset most successful playwrights share? Honesty. If a playwright can be honest with himself or herself, the voices of the characters and the worlds they live in will be successful. It doesn’t matter what type of play you write as long as it is honest.
14. Share something “California” that Wisconsinites wouldn’t understand, and vice versa. I had a job once where one day it took me three hours to go 20 miles. The traffic is real. One day, my air conditioner went out in my car. I figured that must be what hell is like: sitting on the 101 in a black car without air conditioning for three hours. California people never understand cheese curds. Deep-fried balls of cheese aren’t really in their diet plans.
15. Ever sung karaoke? I met my wife at a karaoke bar. I sang “Mack the Knife” (I’m a sucker for that older stuff), and the rest was history.
16. Your plays seem to carry very heavy subject matter (drugs, sexuality, death). Why no comedy? I just write what comes out. There are always moments that have humor in my plays, but I don’t write for genre. I write about what I notice in life. Perhaps one more funny than the others will pop out eventually, but none yet.
17. Do you believe in karma? Sure. I mostly believe in it because I want it to be true. Those who give out good vibes should be rewarded for that, and vice-versa for the opposite people in this world.
18. Share the best piece of advice about theater you’ve ever received. I had a teacher who once told me my acting work was a really good coat, and that the only problem was my coat was turned inside-out and I was showing people all of my seams. That teacher said my choices ultimately looked like choices rather than coming out of truth and honesty. It was the best constructive criticism I’ve ever received. We as performers have a mission to give our audiences experiences, and we should never expect them to see our processes. It’s a part of the magic.
19. Has there ever been a time when you almost walked away from acting/directing? After a terrible audition for “Modern Family” where I forgot all my lines, I fell apart crying at the steering wheel of my car (so much happens in cars in Los Angeles!). I decided to drive straight to the beach, where I sat with my now wife and told her I was giving up. I decided to go back and get my MFA instead. It was there I wrote “Atlas Pit,” and I realized my audition catastrophe was all for a reason.
20. Who inspires you? Those who are free. Those who aren’t. Those who fight. Those who love. Those who hate. Those who dream.