April 6, 2009

Burton Speaks at Wyant Lecture Series

Emmanuel College welcomed Kate Burton, an accomplished actress who has gained recognition for her talent on the stage, in film and on television, as the keynote speaker for the most recent installment of the Wyant Lecture Series on April 1st. Burton discussed her journey to success in the acting business in her lecture titled, "From Hedda Gabler to Dr. Ellis Grey: A Life in the Theater and Beyond."

Burton is a three-time Tony Award-nominee for her work on Broadway in Hedda Gabler, The Elephant Man and The Constant Wife. She received two Emmy nominations for her role as Dr. Ellis Grey in the ABC drama Grey's Anatomy. Her films include Max Payne, Big Trouble in Little China, The Ice Storm, Unfaithful, Celebrity, Sherry Baby and Spooner. She has made appearances in numerous television series including Law & Order, The Practice, The West Wing and Rescue Me, and was cast in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls. Burton has appeared in Boston most recently in The Corn Is Green and The Cherry Orchard at The Huntington Theatre.

Although her lecture was meant to begin with her years playing the role of Hedda Gabler on Broadway, Burton started with a description of her journey from a younger age. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, she moved to New York City with her mother when she was three years old. At the age of five she had a role in her first play and remembers her father, esteemed actor Richard Burton, giving her a hard time about her representation of Shakespeare.

Despite being immersed in the acting business from birth, both of her parents were actors and her father later remarried actress Elizabeth Taylor, Burton did not plan to become an actress herself. It was not until her years as a student at Brown University that she realized acting was what she was meant to do for a living.

"It is a great moment to turn to your parents and say 'I need to pursue this, this is my path'," she said to an audience in the Janet M. Daley Library Lecture Hall.

After deciding to pursue acting seriously, it did not take long for Burton to realize it was what she was meant to do. Just two weeks after graduating from Brown, she auditioned for a play on Broadway. She was offered the part and immediately began her career. Such an instance in her life she remembers fondly as "just like something out of a movie."

"I got into the cab to go to my first rehearsal and the cab driver said, 'Where are you going Miss?'," she said. "I responded, 'I'm going to Broadway'."

Burton reminisced about important roles that have greatly influenced her career. She mentioned first feeling a strong connection with the audience and the entire theater during her role in the play Beauty Queen, a connection that has stayed with her ever since. She also fondly discussed her connection with the city of Boston, having performed numerous times at The Huntington Theatre, one of her favorite theaters to visit.

"There is something extraordinary about doing theater in Boston," she said. "It is almost better than New York City. The Boston audience is full of extremely educated people; extremely educated young people at that."

In her discussion of her role as Hedda Gabler, in the play Hedda Gabler written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, Burton admitted to the fact that she was not eager to act in an Ibsen play as she had always favored Russian playwright Chekhov. However, as she performed she truly enjoyed her character.

Burton continued the discussion by describing her most pivotal Hedda Gabler performance, which took place in Boston. A review columnist from The New York Times attended the production and published a review praising Burton's performance. The show went on to become a Broadway production lasting 17 weeks.

After Hedda Gabler, Burton remained on Broadway, playing the smaller role of Mrs. Kendell in the play The Elephant Man. All within one year, she was nominated for two Tony awards for her work in these plays.

Burton went on to discuss a more recent turn of events in her career, her role as Dr. Ellis Grey on the hit television series "Grey's Anatomy." After auditioning and accepting the role, she was wary of her character, a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The role was tough on her psyche and inspired her to do a great deal of work with various Alzheimer's associations.

Burton closed her lecture by sharing with the audience the projects she is working on today. She is currently teaching at her alma mater, Brown University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in Russian studies and European history before going on to receive an M.F.A. from the School of Drama at Yale University. She is also teaching at the University of Southern California. She is unsure of where her career will take her next but explained to the audience that the uncertainty greatly adheres to her lifestyle of "living on the edge."

"I am looking for the next thing right now," she said. "That's the wonder of my work; I never know what the future will hold."