Commencement 2013: URI actor Andrew Burnap off to Yale School of Drama to pursue his dream

KINGSTON, R.I. — April 1, 2013 — Andrew Burnap was sitting in a human sexuality class at the University of Rhode Island when his cell phone rang. It was an Ivy university, with some good news.

“I’m calling to invite you to the Yale School of Drama,” said Ron Van Lieu, chair of the acting program.

Burnap, a South Kingstown resident who will graduate from URI this spring with a bachelor’s in fine arts in acting, was so stunned he was incredulous: “Are you serious?” he replied. Not only was Yale serious, it was generous and promised to pay most of his bill for tuition and room-and-board.

He’s still amazed that he was one of 16 students selected from a pool of about 1,300 for Yale’s intensive three-year master’s in fine arts program, which some consider the most prestigious in the country. He’s also the first actor at URI to attend the Yale program.

“I knew acting was what I was meant to do and that I was good at it, but I never imagined I’d go to graduate school and that I’d go to Yale,” said Burnap. “It’s incredible.”

Only 22, he’s already a legend at URI, where he sings, dances and acts with equal ease in both dramatic and comedic roles, although he calls himself “an actor who sings.” He’s played all kinds of characters, from Don Lockwood (the Gene Kelly lead) in “Singin’ in the Rain” to the young romantic Valère in “Tartuffe,” to the playwright Konstantin in “The Seagull.”

His talents have not gone unnoticed. Last year, he won the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship Competition at the American College Theatre Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., beating out 250 fellow actors from 55 New England schools and becoming one of 16 finalists. He didn’t win the national contest, but was thrilled to get as far as he did.

“I met 15 other students who were far better than I was and who had incredible talent,” he said. “It was great getting to know them.”

Burnap, lanky with piercing blue eyes and blond hair, first stepped on stage when he was 8 years old playing a suffering child in Westerly’s annual Twelfth Night production. “I loved being the center of attention and I loved being in the limelight,” he said. “My favorite part of the show was always the bow, as self-indulgent as that sounds.”

He dabbled in theater at South Kingstown High School and started to take acting seriously his senior year. The next stop was URI’s theater program. He felt at home right away and soon bonded with department chair Paula McGlasson, whom he credits with teaching him the craft of acting.

“His evolution over the years has been incredible,” she said. “He has worked at every role with such passion it’s been my pleasure to collaborate with him. He’s challenging and curious and multi-talented. He expects the best from you as a teacher and that’s part of the joy of working with him. He’s amazing.”

His favorite role at URI was the zany corset-wearing Frank-N-Furter in the Rocky Horror Show. “I was wearing six-inch heels, fishnet stockings, a wig, and seven pounds of makeup,” he said. “We all looked like supermodels. You have to be open to anything if you play that role.”

Jean Paul Marat in “Marat/Sade,” set during the French Revolution, was his most challenging role. He played a troubled patient in an insane asylum. “I went with my gut,” he said. “I allowed it to kind of just happen and not force anything. I don’t know if I was entirely successful, but it was certainly a great learning experience.”

Over the years, family and friends have provided inspiration and support. His parents, Tim and Allison Burnap, of Wakefield, and his grandmother, Molly Burnap, of Westerly, attend all his performances, usually several times. “Every time I do a show,” said Burnap, “I think of them.”

Besides McGlasson, he considers longtime Trinity Repertory Company actor and director Fred Sullivan, Jr. and Tony Estrella, artistic director of the Sandra-Feinstein Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, as mentors, helping him navigate the ups and downs of the acting life.

At Yale, Burnap will belong to a select group of graduates, including actors Meryl Streep, Liev Schreibe, Sigourney Weaver, and Paul Giamatti. Burnap wants to make his own mark – and probably will.

Why acting? “I think the best way to describe it would be that it just makes me happy,” said Burnap. “It makes me know I’m alive. I love the feeling it gives me.”

This summer, he plans to take a short break from acting before heading to Yale in the fall. He might teach tennis – he has a wicked forehand – work in construction or wait tables. He wants to relax, off stage, before he hits the big time.