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Former professor works to bring edgy theater to Columbus 20 years after retirement

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Stephen Woosley, Nick Lingnofski, Colleen Dunne and Geoffrey Nelson rehearse for their performance of Harold Pinter's "The Collection." Credit: Courtesy of Julia Stonerook

Stephen Woosley, Nick Lingnofski, Colleen Dunne and Geoffrey Nelson rehearse for their performance of Harold Pinter’s “The Collection.”
Credit: Courtesy of Julia Stonerook

Katherine Burkman is not only the kind of woman who offers you tea after coming in from the cold — she also offers you a plate of homemade biscotti.

Burkman retired from Ohio State’s English department as a professor emerita 20 years ago. Despite her bright white hair and soft voice, she’s also the driving force in bringing edgy and absurdist theater to Columbus. After receiving her Ph.D. from the OSU theater department in 1968, Burkman taught classes on absurdist theater, highlights irrationality, in OSU’s Department of English up until her retirement.

A year before she retired, Burkman founded theater group Women at Play, a group of women who met in each others’ homes to put on plays and staged readings around Columbus. Over time, Women at Play developed into writing group Wild Women Writing.

“On the Edge,” directed by Burkman, is the latest collaborative production from Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage theater company, featuring four short plays from modern absurdist playwrights Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

“She is one of the world’s leading authorities on the playwrights Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett,” said Rick Gore, executive producer of the Short North Stage.

“On the Edge” features “works with a significant intellectual content to them,” Gore said. “And (we) like the idea that we can bring something theatrical and important that audience don’t usually get a chance to see.”

The plays featured in “On the Edge” include “The Collection,” “Victoria Station,” and “Night, all by Harold Pinter, as well as “Rockaby” by Samuel Beckett.

David Fawcett, one of the actors in “On the Edge,” has been working with Burkman since 1994, and sees “On the Edge” as an opportunity for audiences to sample a variety of works rarely performed live in Columbus theater.

Burkman, the director and creative spearhead of 'On The Edge,' poses in her office. Credit: McKenzie Merriman / Lantern reporter

Katherine Burkman, the director and creative spearhead of ‘On The Edge,’ poses in her office.
Credit: McKenzie Merriman / Lantern reporter

As with all theater, it is meant to be seen, and live is best,” Fawcett said. “(That’s) particularly important in absurd theater, which communicates obliquely, like poetry, (rather) than in a more straightforward way, like prose.”

In addition to her role as director, Burkman is also performing as the sole character in “Rockaby.” She portrays an elderly lady, sitting in a rocking chair, thinking aloud to herself about time.

“(The character) is rocking herself to death,” Burkman explained with a giggle. “That sounds like a downer, but to me it isn’t because in Beckett, there are strange positives that I see.”

Burkman is drawn to the questions being asked by Pinter and Beckett — the things that make these writers “on the edge.”

“How do we deal with nothingness? Some people say in ‘Waiting for Godot,’ nothing happens twice. My theory about Beckett is that nothing happens,” Burkman said. “Life today may look like it makes sense, but for these playwrights … you’re living in a more senseless universe.”

Despite niche content, Gore doesn’t see the show as one for a niche audience.

“You don’t have to be a bookworm to enjoy these shows, because if they’re done properly — which they will be — it will be moving and stimulating to any audience,” he said.

Audiences will experience “On the Edge” in one of Short North Stage’s venues in Garden Theatre, called The Green Room.

“It’s always a wonderful feeling to see a great building like the old Garden Theater get a new life,” Fawcett said. “(The Short North Stage) is really open and sensitive to the community and to local performers and groups. There is a real excitement about the place.”

“On the Edge” will run from Thursday to March 15 at 8 p.m. with additional 2 p.m. showings on Sundays. After each production, there will be a discussion with the cast to discuss questions and observations that audiences want to bring up.

Tickets are $20, but Burkman said students can get $12 tickets by using the code “StudentEdge” when buying tickets from the Short North Stage website.

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