By Brian Robin
An Artist of Many Acts
Diana Burbano is a busy woman. If she’s not serving as a multi-character understudy for SCR’s recently concluded run of A Christmas Carol, she’s heading to San Antonio for the regional premiere opening of her new play, Fabulous Monsters. And if she’s not going to San Antonio, Burbano is headed to her native Colombia to finish research for a commissioned play on climate change for the Hero Theatre.
And if she’s not headed to Colombia, because “it feels like something I need to do and something I have to do,” she’s bringing her talents to a new arena in the Adult Conservatory, where Burbano will teach Act III: Advanced Scene Study and Characterization.
Oh, and yes, Burbano is once again teaching her popular playwriting class.
All of which brings us to the conclusion that if there’s one thing Burbano epitomizes more than “busy,” it’s “talented.” Earlier this year, she played an engaging dual mother/daughter character during a NewSCRipts in Schools reading of Benjamin Benne’s Fantasma at Cal State Fullerton. She seamlessly filled in for Elyse Mirto as Mrs. Cratchit during several performances of A Christmas Carol.
And the first act of her play on climate change has already graced the New York Stage and Film Festival.
It’s this multi-level portfolio of talent that makes Burbano a natural to teach Act III, the capstone acting class in the Adult Conservatory. She has a multi-level curriculum already planned for her students.
“I’m hoping to build on the fundamentals from the other classes,” she said. “We’re going to work intensely on scenes from a longer period of time, working on the minutiae of bringing realism to performances. I’m definitely going to push them and do things out of their comfort zone.
“A lot of people want to do TV and don’t think they should have a theatre background, but it’s an excellent foundation to build all sorts of acting skills. One great way to do that is to tackle the classics. We won’t go further back than the 1940s, but if they’re game, I’d like to take them to higher text work.”
One of the things Burbano wants to do with Act III is to get students to not only escape their comfort zones, but to shatter the eggshell mentality along the way. By that, she means learning how to act through uncomfortable moments, to tread on eggshells without fear. Tackling those uncomfortable scenes successfully provides acting students that breakthrough moment that can help their careers.
Burbano brought up Tennessee Williams as an example of a playwright many young actors avoid like Ebola. And in her next breath, she pointed out how resistance to one of America’s greatest playwrights—for whatever reason—hurts actors in the long run.
“One of the things you have to do is learn how to do other people,” she said. You can’t just say ‘I can play anything,’ then say you can’t do Tennessee Williams. If you can’t do Tennessee Williams and step into Stella’s shoes because you can’t see yourself as someone who has been abused like that, I question how you’ll be able to do anything else.
“There are scenes where you think, ‘I can’t act that, that’s not me.’ I myself am uncomfortable taking on certain parts because it’s not who I am. We have to parse that and work through it. We’re in a moment where we ask ‘How do we become actors who can do everything we can possibly do?’ When I was in conservatory, I was thrown into all kinds of parts that weren’t for Latina actors. That’s a moment we’re going to have to tackle together and figure out how to move forward with kindness and trusting each other.”
After students conquer their fear of the acting unknown, Burbano wants them to embrace the texts of the pieces they’re using as material. She wants her students to trust the path the playwright or scriptwriter puts them on.
“Being an actor myself, I know dangerous situations on stage. I have a knowledge how scary it can be,” she said. “But the bravery in acting comes in the text. A really good writer will tell you what’s going on with what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. You can learn a lot about what’s going on in a scene or a play by listening hard. A writer like Tom Stoppard is all verbal. Everything’s in the text, how they are addressing each other and how they’re acting.”
Speaking of text, Burbano’s second trip to the Amazon for play research comes with its own eggshell moments. She is there doing research in the most biodiverse, Spanish-speaking country in the world, one trailing only neighbor Brazil for biodiversity in climate. But Burbano treads carefully with her research for a very sensitive and proper reason.
“One of the things I feel is important is I don’t steal anyone’s stories. I listen, I glean and I build something while letting people have their stories,” she said. “I learned that on my first trip to the Amazon. There’s a tribe there that says, ‘Don’t take our picture, don’t take our stories. That’s all we have.’ That’s all they have to trade.
“That stuck with me. It emphasized how important storytelling is and important it is to be heard.”