An Eye for Art: Theater educator, author enjoys ‘creating magic,’ sharing her techniques

Jean Burgess is pictured holding her book titled “Collaborative Stage Directing: A Guide to Creating and Managing a Positive Theater Environment,” published by Routledge/Francis and Taylor Publishing in June 2019.
Jean Burgess is pictured holding her book titled “Collaborative Stage Directing: A Guide to Creating and Managing a Positive Theater Environment,” published by Routledge/Francis and Taylor Publishing in June 2019. (Lyndi McNulty)

Jean Burgess is a theater educator, director, published author and resident of Westminster. As a child, Burgess did not go to kindergarten. Instead, she attended creative arts classes at The School of Fine Arts in Willoughby, Ohio where she grew up. That is where she was exposed to the arts.

“I am forever grateful to my mother for enrolling me in these classes. I went three mornings a week,” Burgess said. The school focused on music, art and creative movement.


That is where her love for arts and theater began. Burgess participated in theater in high school. “They did one show a year but it was not enough for me, so I participated in musicals at the local community theaters while continuing to take classes The School of Fine Arts.”

Burgess majored in theater at Ursuline College in Cleveland, Ohio. It was great for her because it was a small liberal arts college and she was able to do a lot of independent projects, including directing shows for children and, as a result, learning the craft of directing.


After Burgess graduated from college, she toured the United States as a singer and dancer with a big band called “The Buddy Young Show.” That experience led Burgess to acting and directing in the dinner theater circuit and summer stock in both Ohio and New England.

In the early 1980s, Burgess moved to New York City to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for more acting and voice training. She worked at Radio City Music Hall as a receptionist to support herself. “Living in New York was tough,” she said.

Burgess decided to change directions and applied to graduate school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. where she received her master’s degree in theater. Her goal was to teach theater.

In 1990, Burgess moved to Westminster and was an adjunct instructor in theater and speech at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), Carroll Community College, Baltimore City Community College and Catonsville Community College.

Also, during that time, Burgess taught creative drama classes to school children for after school programs in Carroll County, including the Carroll Arts Center.

In the mid-1990s, Burgess became the Director of Theater for the Visual and Performing Arts program at Governor Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick. She directed and designed all aspects of a student touring company. “That is where my interest in costume and set design kicked in,” Burgess said.

Burgess also enrolled into a doctoral program in Education Theater at New York University. She attended school at NYU on the weekends during the academic year and was in residence during the summer. Her thesis was titled “The History of the Young People’s Theater at Center Stage in Baltimore, Maryland form 1963-1984.” She received a Doctorate in Educational Theater in 2002.

Burgess continued to teach both at Carroll Community College and McDaniel College, focusing both on theater and speech communication. However, after 23 years of teaching, Burgess shifted direction and went into marketing, pulling from her knowledge of teaching and theater.

Even though she was in marketing, Burgess kept one foot in theater by writing short plays as well as working on a book. Burgess accomplished this by isolating herself every single Monday to provide time and focus to write.  Her book titled “Collaborative Stage Directing: A Guide to Creating and Managing a Positive Theater Environment,” was published by Routledge/Francis and Taylor Publishing in June 2019.

“A lot of people outside theater think that the theater world exists in a bubble, but it is truly a collaborative art,” Burgess said. “The theater is made up of lighting designers, costume designers, set designers and others who all excel in their individual arts. And the director must be able to collaborate and communicate with each of these,” she said.

The book is filled with stories from Burgess’s own career in directing as well as examples she has pulled from interviews with seven professional and academic directors from across the United States. Several of them are former students of hers. It is a guide for young directors on how to use communication and leadership skills, filling a need that many directing books do not address.

“One of my favorite set designs was for the opening of the Scott Center at Carroll Community College in 2003 for their first production,” Burgess said. She directed and designed a play titled “A Thousand Cranes.” The set design had suggestions of Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater styles. “The coolest thing was that above the stage were five huge paper lanterns and a fabulous 16-foot mural of a crane gazing into a pool of water. I was lucky enough to have gotten a grant for an artist named David Gofreed to design and paint it,” Burgess said.


Burgess got a second grant to cover a mask-making workshop for local artist Howard Riopelle to teach the college students to make Noh-style masks that were used both on the set and by the actors.  “I love the idea of collaborating with visual artists to design the set as well as to provide income to fine artists,” she said.

In 2006, Burgess directed and designed a Holocaust play at Winters Mill High School called “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” The students built the set and the scene painting was supervised by art teachers Sharon Schaeffer and Leah Spencer. “Those kids worked from a pencil sketch and they did a fantastic job bringing the set to life. It was all about communicating and collaborating,” she said.

“What I like about the theater is the collaboration and the sharing. Starting with a blank stage, creating magic and then sharing it with an audience. As a theater educator, I enjoy sharing techniques on how to do that with young people,” Burgess said.

Currently, Burgess is writing another book, a fiction based on her experiences traveling with “The Buddy Young Show.”

Burgess’s book can be purchased at amazon.com and routledge.com. She can be contacted at linkedin.com.

Lyndi McNulty is the owner of Gizmo’s Art in Westminster. Her column appears regularly in Life & Times.

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