Classics Now and Forever: Interview with Quintessence Theatre’s Alexander Burns

Quintessence Theatre Group is wrapping up its inaugural season at the Sedgwick Theater in Mount Airy with The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, which is running now through May 22nd. We caught up with artistic director Alexander Burns and asked him some questions about his classical rep company, their first year, and bringing professional theatre to Northwest Philly.

Alexander Burns Quintessence Theatre Philadelphia
Alexander Burns studies a script

Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority: What’s your age?

Alexander Burns: 29.

PPAA: Did you grow up in Philly?

AB: I grew up in Mount Airy. Right next to the Mount Airy train station.

PPAA: You are almost through Quintessence’s first full season, how’s it going, and have you had anytime to think about what you’ve accomplished so far?

AB: I am very proud of what we have achieved over the past twelve months. During an economic downtown we have built the foundation for a non-profit institution in a large, unused venue, in an area outside the center of the city, dedicated to classical theater.  In our first year we have presented two Shakespeares, Molière, Plato, and Wilde, [and] we have performed to over three thousand people.

Quintessence is a classical theatre company, and we know that the classical part is both our greatest asset and our greatest liability. Our challenge is to prove that classical theatre is accessible, not elitist and not an intellectual endeavor. The plays we present transcend the time and place of their origin because they are quintessential works of drama and comedy that remain necessary reflections of human nature. We must deprogram years of traumatic English classes and the alienating affect caused by reading and studying dramatic texts which are inherently meant to be performed.

PPAA: What made you choose Mount Airy and Sedgwick Theater as Quintessence’s home?

AB: I was in middle school and still living in Mount Airy when David and Betty Ann Fellner bought the Sedgwick Theater and began the Sedgwick Cultural Center [in 1995]. I remember attending a jazz concert and an arts fair in the building, and the memory of the grand lobbies always stayed with me.

The Sedgwick was built as a movie palace, and the palatial grandeur, though now in a state of decay, is the perfect space to present epic works of classical theatre. Each of the plays we chose in some way explores the question of what it is to be human, and examines the highs and lows of the human experience. When you walk into the Sedgwick you are quickly disconnected from the immediate reality of Germantown Avenue and you are swept back in time.  I believe this helps our audience prepare for the poetically heightened, visceral experience that we strive to create.

PPAA: Can you give me a little background on the formation of Quintessence, how you came to decide on classical play rep as your focus, and the name of the company?

AB: Pamela Reichen, production manager and associate artistic director at Quintessence, and I met while working at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.  A conversation began about what we hoped our generation’s role would be in the future of the American Theatre, the importance of classical theatre for America as it moved into the twenty first century, and the essential nature of repertory theatre in America. We launched Quintessence Theatre in New York as a company devoted to the adaptation of classical plays for the contemporary stage. The possibility of making the Sedgwick Theater a home for the company, and building a new regional classical repertory theater, made the risks of moving “home” seem not only worthwhile, but an obvious next step.

My first exposure to the word “Quintessence” comes from Hamlet: What is this quintessence of dust? In its most general definition quintessence means the perfect embodiment of something. In its Elizabethan meaning, it is the fifth element, the substance of the heavens. Both definitions are at the heart of what we do. We strip the great masterpieces down to their pure essence, which is the power of the actor and language, and we work to nurture, explore, and sustain moments of sublime human beauty, a beauty that exists most purely in the artifice of the live theatrical event.

PPAA: You choice of plays represents an interesting variety, all in the sphere of the “canon,” but not your typical line up either. What was the thinking behind your choices?

AB: There are certain works of dramatic literature that I believe speak to the human condition beyond the limitations of time, place, nation, etc. We worked very hard to put together a collection of four works that crossed all of these boundaries.

The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably the wittiest play ever written and the first modern comedy. With each production we have reinvented the physical space in which we work. Henry V and Apology were in the round, Don Juan in the thrust, and now Earnest in proscenium. Like the physical presentation, the style of each of the plays is vastly different. If you are able to dismiss or dislike all the following—Shakespeare, a philosophical dialogue, a French sex comedy, and a high British farce—then I am not sure there is any theatrical event you will find pleasure in.

PPAA: Comedy is very hard, especially when there may be so many “of the time” references. What’s the trick to getting the audience to buy in? And specifically forEarnest, which I notice you’ve set in 1960s?

AB: Comedy is very hard, especially social comedy, especially Oscar Wilde. The rhythms of Oscar Wilde’s dialogue is painfully specific, and a missed stress, or a misplaced breath can result in the deflation of a line. The timing of Wilde’s wit is a great challenge to any actor, and especially to American actors who prefer to explore character through emotion or action.

While some of the references may be lost, almost every line of Wilde is still capable of inducing at least a chuckle; and the fact that you feel like many of the lines could have been written in 1895, 1962 or even in 2011 is a testament to his genius and his understanding of the English language, the human condition, and comedy.

I chose 1962, in the moments before the cultural revolution of the sixties, because it was the last moment in British history were the social order in England was still clearly defined, and the aristocracy maintained some power. I didn’t want to present a production of Wilde in which the humanity of the characters got lost in the cravats and corsets of the 1890s.

PPAA: What’s the most stressful thing about being an artistic director?

AB: Anything to do with finances. It is infinitely easier to create art in a vacuum devoid of fiscal responsibility. When everyone must get paid at the end of the day and you can see every choice as both a creative one and one which will positively or negatively effect the fiscal well being or survival of the institution, freeing yourself to follow artistic impulses becomes a real challenge.

PPAA: Do you have any opening night rituals? What about closing night?

AB: I always insist on doing a toast with the entire cast and production team on opening night. Closing night is usually a more fun event and includes an endless evening of revelry.

PPAA: What are you going to do between seasons?

AB: Sleep. Read. Write a play. Play as much tennis as possible. Raise funds for next season. We are also going to use the summer to continue to build relationships with individuals and institutions in the Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill area and work to convince them that a professional classical theatre at the Sedgwick will only add to the vibrant community.

PPAA: Thanks Alex!

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority.

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