Actor seeks ways to relate to characters

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Carol Sorgen

Actor Gregory Burgess will play Scrooge in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol. Burgess is appearing in four of the theater’s productions this season, including Shakespeare’s rarely performed Titus Andronicus, now on stage.
Photo by Teresa Castracane

Like many actors, Gregory Burgess got “the bug” when he was a youngster. In his case, that was in Richmond, Va., where he participated first in church productions, then in junior high and high school shows. In fact, one of his all-time favorite roles was as Tevye in his high school production of Fiddler on the Roof.

After moving to Washington to attend Howard University, Burgess continued appearing on stage both in college and then in community theaters in the DC area.

In 2007, Baltimore’s Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC) approached him to appear with them. Now, eight years later, the 55-year-old Burgess is a CSC resident acting company member (who works by day with machinery as a key operator).

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company was founded in 2002 in Baltimore. Its first production was a showcase of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, performed for about 100 patrons. Soon afterward, the theater company made its home in historic Ellicott City, where it built a stage each summer in the stabilized ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, a 19th-century school for girls.

Audiences followed CSC to winter shows in a variety of rented performance spaces in Howard County. In September 2014, CSC returned to Baltimore to open its own indoor theater and cultural center at 7 South Calvert St., though the company continues to perform each summer in Ellicott City.

A man of many roles

Burgess is appearing this season in several of the company’s productions. Coming up soon, he’ll play the role of Aaron in Shakespeare’s challenging and relatively rarely performed Titus Andronicus — a play of unrelenting malice, sexual violence and racial stereotypes.

Then, in December, he’ll play Scrooge in the company’s version of A Christmas Carol — with a Baltimore twist.

“The role of Aaron in Titus is a challenge,” Burgess acknowledged, “because he is a character with no conscience at all and no desire for redemption. It’s not something most of us can imagine, and I’ve never played a character like that before, so it’s taken some work to find characteristics in him that we can all relate to.”

Burgess recalled that his love of Shakespeare’s works began during the rehearsals for CSC’s production of The Tempest in 2008, directed by Patrick Kilpatrick. “Patrick allowed me the freedom to talk about my scenes and my approach, and that gave me a better understanding and insight into Shakespeare’s words,” Burgess said.

What makes Shakespeare so great? That’s a question they frequently discuss at CSC, he said.

“For me, it is that Shakespeare plays are about being human,” Burgess said. “They’re about jealousy, ambition, love, loyalty, etc. — all of the things that make up what we are.

“I think that there is not a character trait in Shakespeare’s plays that we as human beings cannot identify with, and in performing his plays, it gives me the opportunity to communicate that to an audience.

”There is an atmosphere at CSC that allows me the freedom to explore those avenues of communication; it gives me and the other actors there a sense of ownership of the production.”

Less scripted plays

When it comes to performing in an original adaptation — such as the company’s Victorian Baltimore-themed version of A Christmas Carol — Burgess observed that such a performance gives an actor the opportunity to rework or rewrite something if it doesn’t seem to fit.  

“You can try quite a number of things without worrying about adhering to an absolute script,” he explained. “What helps me to make any character my own, let alone Scrooge — and Scrooge is pretty difficult given the number of times it has been interpreted —  is in finding the humanity in that character and presenting that on stage.”

Titus Andronicus opens at CSC on Oct. 23 and runs through Nov. 15. A Christmas Carol will run from Dec. 4 to 23. For ticket information, call the box office at (410) 244-8570 or visit www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.