Five Questions with William Burke
Editor’s Preamble: We caught up with the extraordinary William Burke, who has teamed up with Modesto “Flako” Jimenez to perform an old play (for Burke) in a new way; this “Spanglish” translation of his 2013 show about a Times Square Elmo is playing at The Bushwick Starr through November 26th. There are free hot dogs. Here are his responses to our five questions.
1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
I grew up in Durango, CO. I went to college in Casper, Wyoming (dropped out and blown apart by the wind and the hate crimes), then to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, then I moved to Sausalito, CA for 9 months then I went to Australia and New Zealand with Julia Sirna-Frest (my wife) and then we came here with backpacks and hope 10 years ago and here I am.
2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?
Drummer Wanted by Richard Maxwell came to On the Boards in Seattle when I was there and I don’t think I’d seen anything like that before. There was a dependency on both the structure of the play and the directing aesthetic that created this kind of echoing and transcendent inner tension. It’s such a simple play on the page but it had such a dangerous and inclusive power as it continued. Also, seeing Pete Simpson and not knowing what a thundering introduction to the power of a downtown performer I was getting gives me a chuckle now and then.
Mabou Mines and Blind Boys of Alabama, The Gospel at Colonus.
Also Buddy Guy.
Also. The Kumite scenes in Bloodsport have a huge influence on my visual and rhythmic aesthetic.
Also. Wu Tang Clan videos.
3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
Aw man. I wish I was a kick ass Trumpet player or something. I have a great envy of truly talented working musicians who seem to be able to just jump in and play whenever with whomever and not miss a beat. I think because theatre has such a tendency to take a while to accumulate to a final performance I crave that instant gratification of flexing your technique as well as your art muscles. Also any kind of horn, when played well, makes me cry. The shape of one always gets a reaction from me since it just a simple mechanism for amplifying or sharing a sound but requires such a great deal of skill. It’s an ultimate sharing instrument.
4. Tell me about the (or “your”) Times Square Experience? First or third person is fine.
I worked at the St James Theater as the crowd control manager for The Grinch who Stole Christmas in 2007. It was right when the Bloomberg Administration had started to eliminate lanes of traffic and add the public “malls” you see today and the costumed characters were just starting to emerge and take up space. There’s a completly different experience available to you to if you stop moving in Times Square. The billboards and screens and people who’s job it is to catch your attention start to seem like they are from a completely different or alternate reality. It doesn’t take much to scratch the surface to see all of the hustle and desperation and truly theatrical sadness that lies beneath.
5. How did the collaboration between you, the Starr, and Modesto “Flako” Jimenez come to be?
I think it started in a completely organic way. We are both artists that have been really supported by The Bushwick Starr and we just started getting opportunities to be around each other and enjoy the other’s work. The collaboration and friendship has been based off of mutual respect and admiration as opposed to some kind of forced matchmaking. I think it was just a casual conversation between Noel and I that became a reality as soon as Flako got excited, because once Flako gets excited it’s hard to stop the machine from barrelling forward. Also the opportunity to translate a piece of my writing into Spanish really got my mind going. I’ve always had a hard time looking back on older writing so this new energy and new language really gave me a chance to geek out on my words in a brand new way.
The Starr is bringing so many disparate artists and ideas together in place so even though we’re one of the first pieces presented at the Starr that’s been generated this way and it certainly won’t be the last.