By Anna Mann
Each issue, Anna interviews a university artist in order to celebrate Sewanee’s myriad of writers, thespians, dancers, composers, and creators of fine art.
Will Burton-Edwards (C’18) reclines on a drooping couch in Stirling’s reading room. He seems completely at home; not because he works at the coffee shop, or in fact regularly frequents this part of it. Instead, he merely seems like the sort of person that makes any place their place.
“My mom came to the production and she cried,” he states gravely. “Yes, I played Red Hen, in the play ‘The Red Hen,’ in first grade. Then, after third grade, I took a hiatus in the theatrical world for about five years. It was really stressing me out, I needed to focus on school, you know how it is.”
Burton-Edwards accompanies this statement by bracing his hands thoughtfully on the couch cushions surrounding his legs. His poker face, despite his quips, sticks around for nearly the entire interview, generating a stage presence for the cozy back room.
He goes on to explain his desire to become an engineer in high school, his involvement in the drama club there, and ultimately his decision to double major in theater and physics. A strange combination, he admits, bringing his hand deliberately to his face; and yet, one that blends surprisingly well in his mind. When Burton-Edwards graduates in May, he will become the first double major in the two opposing fields in Sewanee’s history.
“I never anticipated that these two fields would meld in any way, just because theater people are very different from physics people,” he says, leaning forward with an air of confidentiality. “But while [studying abroad] in London, I learned a lot about myself and about acting. I had a lot of time to think alone in pubs, over a cider. In that time, I realized that the human psyche is much like, what we call in physics, a harmonic oscillation.”
A keen glance not lost behind a pair of thick-rimmed glasses follows this statement as he goes on to explain the importance of rhythm in theater, life, and any chosen profession. An individual’s “beat,” as he calls this phenomenon, is quantifiable and vastly important.
“Everything we do in the theater world, or rather, the world at large,” Burton-Edwards explains, “can be directly tied back to physics, and everything we study in the physics world is done so because our bodies have demanded that we study it. There’s some kind of truth in the universe’s rhythm. I realize now that I may sound doped out; I assure you, I am not.”
After imparting his revelation from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, further explaining the significance of movement between conflicting or agreeing decisions, and drinking a liberal swig from his hot apple cider, Burton-Edwards explains the joining of his two passions at Sewanee. However, he especially reflects upon the impact of theater in teaching him to think on his feet and trust his fellow performers.
He uses the production of The Good Doctor, performed in 2016, as an example of both. The comedy by Neil Simon represents both Burton-Edwards’ largest mistake on stage and his favorite Sewanee production. Burton-Edwards played the part of Peter Semonych, or “the greatest seducer of other men’s wives that he’s ever met,” as his character discloses in the short 11 minute piece.
Burton-Edwards described the opening night of the play when he forgot three out of his five monologues, saying, “Peter got very turned around with his lines and he had no idea where he was. The lights came up and he had no idea what to say, he just started combining pieces of other monologues throughout the piece. Then he went and sat down on the stairs for a while and let the other characters sort out where he went wrong. They improvised and made it work; I don’t think anyone noticed.”
His lack of focus led to a nerve-wracking spiral where instead of problem-solving the situation he focused on his errors, but states that after looking over his lines for the next night, the cast had no further problems. The experience not only led to a greater appreciation for his fellow performers, but helped him realize the importance of level-headedness in his performances. After pulling up his legs to his chin and reminiscing quietly for a bit, Burton-Edwards becomes truly serious for the first time as he describes the effect of theater in his own life and that of his audience.
“My role as an actor is to step aside and allow the story to tell itself through me. Some of the stories you get to tell as an actor are incredibly profound; that’s why theater works so well, there are real people going through real situations in real time, in front of you, in 3D without the glasses,” he grins. “It gives the audience a voyeuristic look into someone else’s life. This work is profound because you get to tell stories and touch people in a way that they will never experience in any other part of their life.”