He’s acted with Vanessa Redgrave in London’s hottest play, The Inheritance. The New York Times says he’s an actor to watch. And Broadway.com gushes that he “burns with a bulb-shattering voltage.” For Andrew Burnap ’13, though, real success is seeing an audience moved by a story well-told.
Scene: Much Ado About Nothing. URI’s Robert E. Will Theatre, 2013. Andrew Burnap ’13 as Benedick. Olivia Khoshatefeh ’13 as Beatrice. Offstage, Burnap’s nose is bleeding. Onstage, Olivia shoots him an I-am-so-not-going-to-kiss-your-bloody-face look.
It was the pivotal moment in Much Ado About Nothing: Bickering leads Beatrice and Benedick to share their first kiss. But this night, Shakespeare’s comedy was careening toward tragedy. “His whole face was bloody,” Khoshatefeh recalls. She watched as Burnap tried in vain to stop the blood flow, which only made more of a mess. Time was up.
“He came onstage, put his hand over my mouth, and kissed his hand. It went with the show because Beatrice and Benedick spend the whole play bickering. It was such a great moment: beautiful and kind of perfect,” Khoshatefeh says. “It showed how well he knew his character.”
“I had to do something,” Burnap says. “There’s no improvising Shakespeare. And when something is undeniably real, it sparks new life into the story. The audience is participating in the magic of live performance. I panicked for a moment, but for everyone else, it was a beautiful mess.”
At 27, Andrew Burnap has had more than a few beautiful moments: a stellar undergraduate career at URI, graduating first in his class from Yale School of Drama, making his professional debut as Troilus in Troilus and Cressida in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. He was one of the youngest actors in Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance at the Noël Coward Theatre in London after a sold-out, critically acclaimed run at the Young Vic.
Tony Award-winner Stephen Daldry directed this epic, seven-hour play about gay men living in New York City a generation after the AIDS crisis. Burnap played Toby Darling. Burnap’s friend Sam Gross, who saw him in The Inheritance, has an awed-but-not-surprised response to his success. “The Inheritance is one of the most emotional things I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “People were crying. People were stunned at intermission. It’s incredible seeing him in the roles he plays and to think that’s the same guy I grew up with. He fills every stage,” Gross says. “He’s outstanding in every setting.”
Burnap appreciates accolades but has his own ideas about success. “To me making it is when others in your field come to see your work,” he says. “My goal is to tell the stories I want to tell, to be with the people I want to be with, to have a life and a family and to walk down the street unnoticed. Theater gives me the opportunity to understand what it means to be human—flawed, a walking contradiction,” Burnap says. “I get to celebrate the beauty and the horrors of this life. And I’ve learned that love is the greatest thing life has to offer.”
Scene: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. URI’s J Studio, 2010. Burnap as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in black leather corset, fishnet stockings, and 6-inch heels belting out “Sweet Transvestite.”
Allison Burnap will tell you her son started performing early.
“We’d play this mishmash of Christmas songs and, all of a sudden, he’d stop in his tracks and this thing took over: He’d go into a trance,” she recalls, laughing. He was 5, maybe 6. “That Christmas he asked for a top hat and cane.”
Things got serious his sophomore year at URI, Burnap’s parents say, with Rocky Horror. “It was the start of feeling like I could do this,” Burnap says. “Dr. Frank-N-Furter came to me surprisingly naturally. It opened up a whole new world within my own person.”
Best friend and neighbor Austin Madden remembers the day his mother called to say she’d seen Burnap walking their South Kingstown, Rhode Island, neighborhood in 6-inch heels, practicing for the role. While amusing, it wasn’t surprising. “He’d always be in the basement playing piano or practicing accents,” Madden recalls. “I saw him in Rocky Horror. To see him in these big roles. Oh, my God. That’s my best friend playing a transvestite, playing a drag queen. He’s amazing.”
Rocky Horror required Lady Gaga-esque command of platform heels. Singin’ in the Rain called for dancing on a slick stage. Burnap did not come by either skill naturally. Hard work underpinned those seamless performances. “You can practice walking in heels or tap dancing six hours a day. That’s muscle memory. By the time you’re on stage, it doesn’t feel like effort,” Burnap says. “In Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly’s dancing is gorgeous because it’s effortless. It’s transcendent, and you can feel it.”
“After Rocky Horror and Singin’ in the Rain, I knew that he had the talent to do anything,” says Burnap’s father, Tim.
URI Theatre Professor Paula McGlasson directed him in both shows. “The ‘It Factor.’ He had it,” McGlasson says. “He exuded sincerity, confidence, great comic timing, and that thing you can’t teach: charisma. He was someone you wanted to watch,” she recalls.
URI Theatre Department Chair David Howard was Burnap’s first-year advisor. “It was Rocky Horror that solidified him in people’s minds,” Howard says. “Dr. Frank-N-Furter is the exact opposite of how I perceive Andrew. He completely embraced the whimsy and the depravity of the role. It felt mature and knowing.
“Andrew is incredibly reserved, humble, gracious, and inclined to underplay his place in the world,” Howard continues. “That he can transform into a character who is braggadocious and loud and extravagant shows that he has the ability to plumb the depths of a character.”
Tony Estrella ’93, Burnap’s Shakespeare teacher at URI, smiles to hear of his Much Ado About Nothing mishap. “It is tough to improvise in iambic pentameter,” he notes. “And you don’t want to break the bond with the audience. It’s a testament to his ability, to his investment in the character, and to keeping the story moving forward.”
Estrella is disinclined to take credit for the younger actor’s success. Burnap entered URI already almost fully formed as an actor, Estrella says. “I saw him in Two Gentlemen of Verona, a jukebox musical version; he was playing trumpet live in front of 4,000 people on the Boston Common, and I’m like, ‘Jesus, what else does he have in his toolbox?’”
Scene: Spacious bachelor pad, minutes from the Noël Coward Theatre. London. Sunday, sleeping-in day. Burnap wakes up, has coffee, reads the news. Maybe smiles. Maybe rages. Maybe cries.
“The Inheritance came to me after I’d worked with Matthew Lopez on The Legend of Georgia McBride,” Burnap says. “The Inheritance was a beautiful surprise. Six hundred pages. I started reading it at 9:45 p.m. and read until 3 a.m., weeping through the pages.” The anecdote underscores one of Burnap’s observations: “You have to go to the emotional space where the character has no choice but to be.”
It raises a question: What does it take to enter the interior world of a character? A teacher once told Burnap, “You don’t have to convince us that you are that person, you just have to convince us that you understand the experience.”
As a cisgender man playing a gay man in The Inheritance or a transgender transsexual from Transylvania in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Burnap notes that the characters are signifiers meant to highlight some aspect of a shared human experience. “My job is to show you that I understand the experience,” he says. “I don’t know what it is to be a young, ostracized, gay man grappling with his sexuality, but I do know what it is to be viewed as other, viewed as weird or not normal.
“You have to become a keen observer of life. I was born with this wonderful and cruel capacity to feel,” Burnap says. “Acting makes you want to not only learn more about yourself, but, more importantly, about others. I get to forget my own complications, my own troubles, and step into those of another. And every time I perform, I feel my soul and sense of humanity expanding more and more. Oh, my God, when you’re in the trenches of a thing but then float above yourself and say, ‘Holy shit, this is where I am!’ I am never tired of this, this gift of being able to create.”
He launches into a line from his favorite novel, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Art, literature, music, theater: They reward, sustain, and drive him. To those who would follow a similar path, Burnap offers this advice:
“If someone tells you, ‘No,’ ask, ‘Why not?’ Doubt is a useful thing, but it shouldn’t rule you. It should inform and maybe affect some of your decisions, but it should not be the resounding voice in your soul. Then ask, ‘What else can I do?’ Because this quest isn’t easy, and it is filled with people telling you, ‘No.’ But if, in the smithy of your soul, you feel you cannot do anything other than this, then do it—but know it requires that next level of dedication,” he says.
“And if you can start to understand that those things you didn’t get weren’t supposed to happen for you, you can understand the challenges of this business and go on.”