Hidden Room Theatre’s Beth Burns on Why She Loves a Plague Play

“Be grateful for the moment,” says Burns whose latest production was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic

By Kristen O’Brien
Photographs courtesy of Hidden Room Theatre
Hidden Room Theatre

It could be considered ironic that Beth Burns’ favorite Shakespeare play is Twelfth Night, given that it’s a romantic comedy comparing love to the plague, and thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burns’ own production of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi has been postponed from appearing at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London next month. But Burns sees the positive, viewing Twelfth Night as Shakespeare’s most perfect play. “It celebrates life in the time of plague. It encourages everyone to be grateful for the moment they are living in,” she says. “And ultimately it has to do with finding the other half of yourself.”

Hidden Room Theatre’s Beth Burns has been fascinated by Elizabethan theater since childhood. Photo by Darla Teagarden.

Burns, whose official title is Master of Company and Theatrical Deviser, has been running Austin’s Hidden Room Theatre, which specializes in early modern, renaissance to Jacobean productions, since 2010. Her company prides itself on scholarship-driven theater and creating productions in the style in which they were intended to be performed. Sometimes with a twist. For example, in their 2019 production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, the company incorporated 1670’s restoration gesture into the staging. But then in a salute to Martha Coolidge’s “Valley Girl,” the costumes and music screamed 1983, creating a mash-up of “Restoration meets New Romantic proto-feminist sexploitation, complete with swashbuckling sword fights, forbidden romance, masked revelers, and bitchen live music,” according to the Hidden Room site. Not your grandmother’s restoration play.  

Childhood dreams and aspirations generally do not revolve around 16th century Elizabethan theater. However, Burns says that as a child she dreamt of, “going back [in time] to the early modern period to see a Shakespeare play.”

The amazing costumes and cast from the theatre’s production of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi.

The fascination stuck, and at the University of Houston, the native Texan studied acting and then playwriting with Pulitzer-winning playwright Edward Albee. She won a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a collection of her short plays. And in 1998 she found herself teaching and performing at the world-famous Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles where she “learned presence … that trusting is a tenant of improvisation [and I] learned that you can’t be afraid to fail in theater. If you are going to fail, fail big.”  

Burns says she also developed the art of listening and making choices in theater based on the tiniest bit of information, which holds true for Shakespeare, she says, as “you don’t get much in way of stage descriptions or character development. You need to infer from the sounds of the words, or rhythm of the verse.”

Actors Liz Beckham and Brock England as the Duchess and Antonio.

The Hidden Room productions, which are generally performed at the Mason Chapter of the York Rite Temple of Austin, have played at Shakespeare’s Globe, Oxford University, the Shakespeare Institute, and the American Shakespeare Center. But the newest programming at the theater brings Shakespeare into the classroom with the Hidden (Class)Room Educational Program whereby performers offer workshops and performances free of charge to elementary through college kids. Students learn to express themselves, build confidence and empathy all through Shakespeare.

“There is a notion that scholarship driven theater is for someone smarter than me, someone brought up on this,” Burns says. “But theater is for everybody. Shakespeare has a connotation of being for most erudite and elite of people, but it becomes a great equalizer.”

Despite the sidelining of their latest production, Hidden Room is still contributing theater to the Austin community. “The education program is already back up and running. We’ve adjusted the program to best support educators in this time of teleconferenced classes. I’ve been dropping in to do workshops and lectures via Zoom,” Burns says. “We’ve been opening up our vaults to grant access to some of our shows, along with dramaturgical notes from our scholars. We’re currently working on a new facet to our education program through a Hidden Room podcast where we’ll be recording significant plays and including additional guidance from the standpoints of a scholar, a director, and an actor to get a deeper sense of different approaches to the work.”

Photo by Darla Teagarden

Although Hidden Room is not planning live events with an audience for some time, citing concerns for the health and safety of audiences and the theater staff and cast members, the team is getting creative during the pandemic, as you might expect. “We are thrilled about a digital solution for performance called ‘Walking Adventure’ that will allow audience to enjoy a personal, immersive, radio play-style experience. The show will be delivered via app, and is intended keep the listener company, engage their imagination, and reward them for physical activity through classic stories in which they play the main character,” Burns explains. “Hidden Room actors and musicians are performing, and I’m adapting and directing. We’re already having such a great time with it. We’re working hard to have the first one out for playing this fall.”

Check the Hidden Room site at hiddenroomtheatre.com for news on upcoming productions and programming.


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