What sharing a dressing room with Catherine Burns taught me

The Stephen Sondheim song I’M STILL HERE rings in my head often these days. One of the lyrics goes, “I should have gone to an acting school, that seems clear.” The song itself is about an old actress who has seen it all and survived.

I didn’t go to any fancy acting schools. I had to pick up what I learned from observation. Like the actress in the song, I have had ups and downs. But during my first professional gig I hit the trifecta; someone whose approach to her work changed my life and taught me the meaning of the word integrity.

Sharing a Dressing Room with Catherine Burns

Catherine Burns was my dressing room mate at the Guthrie Theater. It was my first union job. I was nervous. I had watched her work onstage and knew that she had been nominated for an Academy Award. She was obviously brilliant and had a reputation for not suffering fools. Aside from hellos and good-byes, I kept my mouth shut the first few weeks. But I watched everything she did.

Her make-up and brushes were meticulously organized. She arrived fifteen minutes before everyone else. She was witty and to the point with her colleagues. She didn’t gossip. Her work was sacrosanct. She brought in a novel to read during the long technical rehearsals. I had read the same book. We talked about it. That led to our shared interested in reading, old movies and our mutual hatred of sentimentality. A friendship blossomed. I never asked about her time in Hollywood; I sensed that was somewhere she didn’t want to go.

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Watching Her Professionalism

For every single performance she took at least forty minutes to do her make-up. She had created a fantastical look for one of her characters in the show, Mrs. Fezziwig in A CHRISTMAS CAROL; it involved painting eyelashes on both upper and lower lids. From the audience, you couldn’t see the individual lashes. But it gave her a perfect kind of zany whimsicality. It took her at least ten minutes per lid for each performance and for matinee days, twice.

I knew how seriously she took everything she did concerning her work. We talked about it often. She never preached about it; she just did it. One matinee day, however, I ventured out on a limb, feeling slightly cavalier. “Why don’t you just skip the eyelashes this afternoon? I mean it’s just a bunch of kids at a matinee.” She put down her brush and put of black crème. She stared at me for what must have been a full minute. One eye was crazy Mrs. Fezziwig and the other was still my friend Catherine. “It’s because I care, kiddo. I commit because I care…or maybe I care because I commit…who knows?” I knew that she didn’t want me to feel like she was lecturing. She finished it of with one of her typical jokes. “Or maybe I should just be committed…yup, that’s probably it.” We both laughed.

I walked out of the dressing room and into the empty hallway. I could hear the voices of other actors chatting in their dressing rooms. I closed my eyes and went over what she had said. It was seared into my brain. I never forgot what she taught me. Commitment to a person, to a project, to a profession means that you do it one hundred per cent of the time; you give it your all, heart and soul, whether it is opening night or a kiddie matinee. You don’t stint and you don’t do it halfway.

Catherine Burns Lessons Changed Me

Catherine taught me by example what it means to have integrity as a professional. We moved to other parts of the country, vowed to keep in touch, and, as things sometimes happen, fell out of communication. I learned from a piece in the Hollywood Reporter that she passed away last year. The article spoke of her unique qualities as an artist; her vulnerability and honesty. It came from the integrity with which she approached her work. The lessons she taught me remain with me, deeply a part of the person and artist I have become. While it may be true that I should have gone to an acting school, I can’t imagine a better mentor than Catherine Burns.

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Kate Fuglei

Kate Fuglei is an actress and singer who divides her time between Studio City and Brooklyn. She has appeared in over forty episodes of television, including most recently in one of the first episodes of STAR TREK/PICARD.  She is a published author with two novels based on the lives of the physicist Enrico Fermi and the educator Maria Montessori. The greatest blessing in her life is her marriage to writer Ken LaZebnik and her two sons, Jack LaZebnik and Ben LaZebnik.  They inspire her every single day.

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