'Mid-Strut' rehearsals energize playwright Eric Burns

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Eric Burns would have you believe that he's not a social person, that collaboration is against his nature, and that a change has come over him in a few weeks of putting on a show in Pittsburgh.

The Ambridge native and graduate of Westminster College started his career at WQED, became a newsman for NBC and was host of "Fox News Watch," a roundtable for media critiques, while finding time to write eight books. Starting Thursday, The REP, the professional company of Point Park University, will debut "Mid-Strut," his first play to get a full-on regional production.

These days, Mr. Burns can be found at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland, spending long hours in the company of the cast, crew and director Rob Lindblom, and he finds himself being agreeable when an actor suggests a change in a line or even a switch of chunks of dialogue.


Where: Pittsburgh Playhouse's Studio Theatre, Oakland.

When: Friday through Feb. 19 (Thursday preview): 8 p.m. Thurs.-Fri.; 2 and 8 p.m. Sat.; and 2 p.m. Sun. Post-show discussion Feb. 10.

Tickets: $24-$27, students $7-$8 (pay what you will Feb. 4 matinee, subject to availability). pittsburghplayhouse.com or 412-392-8000.

After saying he had difficulty putting the experience into words, Mr. Burns used his way with words to say, "I'm an errand boy, and a happy errand boy. The errand is, Can we make this scene a little tighter? Do we need this line? Do we need another line to make this clear? And I go run the errand."

Much to his surprise, he does it with a smile.

He said writing the play was the hardest thing he's ever done, and the most pleasurable, and the pleasure of the experience has spread to the process of prepping a production.

"I seriously have a certain amount of sociability each day that my body will permit me to exhibit," he says, sitting in the empty lounge area of the Playhouse, a TV blaring news but no remote control around to turn it off or turn down the volume. "And once I reach that limit, I have to go off by myself somewhere. Even when I did 'Fox News Watch,' that was only a half-hour show, [but] I had to be so up and attentive and try to make sure that the lefties and the righties got equal time -- someone at Fox tried to do that, by the way, and I was he -- I just for about an hour or two [afterward] didn't want to talk. ... The only thing I can do for a fairly long time that involves other people, apparently, is work on a play."

The author and newsman was let go by Fox in 2008 after hosting "News Watch" for nearly a decade. "It was a good show, it was a fair show, and Burns made it an entertaining show," Keith Olbermann said at the time.

Before that, Mr. Burns' other brush with theater in his hometown was a 2005 reading of his "The Whim of Events" for a series at Pittsburgh Public Theater. It was Toby Burns, Eric's actor son and a Harvard graduate, who first suggested that his dad try his hand at becoming a playwright. Eric Burns knew he had a way with dialogue after all of his years writing news scripts.

It was the notion of journalistic truths vs. truths achieved through the writer's characterizations that also proved enticing.

"You watch newscasts, you find out what happened that day. You watch a good play or read a good novel, you find out something profound about human beings, something that makes you think, makes you talk."

After eight books of what he called "social journalism" and countless news scripts, "I just developed an overwhelming urge to start lying. ... So nothing that happens in 'Mid-Strut' has happened to anyone else, as far as I know."

The lead male character of "Mid-Strut," Jack Allison, is as close as you'll find to a real person, in that he shares Mr. Burns' infatuation with majorettes. Jack has been blindsided by a fatal diagnosis and decides to spend some of his final days pursuing Wendy, a high school majorette he pined for 30 years earlier. Wendy, meanwhile, has just learned that her husband has been cheating on her.

This is a situation that 99 percent of the time would not work, the playwright said, "because you'd go back and see him or her, because he or she would be fat, boring or of no conceivable interest to you. As unkind as that sounds, I think that would be much more common than revisiting an old flame and feeling the sparks."

He decided to concentrate on the 1 percent situation when passion is rekindled. It was also an opportunity for Jack to express the writers' views on baton-twirling beauties. "He explains why majorettes are important to the future of Western Civilization, and why Western Civilization could cease as we know it today if majorettes don't continue to thrive," Mr. Burns said.

"Mid-Strut" was the winner of the Eudora Welty Emerging Playwrights' Award in 2010 and has had a community theater production in Darien, Conn., but it is much changed over the course of it's time with the REP company.

The script first arrived at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in 2010, accompanied by a letter from Mr. Burns, who bypassed the usual route through his agent and sent it to several local theater companies. He was coming from his home in Westport, Conn., to see a Steelers game, and he said he'd be here in two weeks, if anyone would want to talk about his play.

"For some reason unknown to me, Ron got the play, read the play, loved the play, emailed me, and said let's meet when you're in Pittsburgh. ... I spent three or four hours with him before the Steelers lost horribly to the Patriots, and did not take the loss hard at all because I had met Rod Lindblom and he said next season, we're going to do 'Mid-Strut.' "

Now he counts the REP's artistic director as a friend, one who has opened up the world of theater to guy who didn't know he had it in him to collaborate.

After a few weeks in a Pittsburgh theater, there's no turning back. Mr. Burns has another play in the works because he can't imagine not having an experience like this again.

"I'm told that a lot of time playwrights are not allowed to enter this world," he said. "Ron and I have developed a friendship -- he's the only friend I have in my life who wears a beret and will continue to be that -- but he thinks A., I can learn a lot from it, and B., I won't be a pain in the ass. A., I have learned a lot from it, and B., I have been a pain in the ass remarkably little."

He has discovered how hard it is to be true to human nature in creating dialogue, as actors have stopped in mid-sentence to say, "Is this what she'd say here? This doesn't seem right." And the errand boy recasts the line. He does expect to be true to his own nature, though, as he sits with his family and nervously watches "Mid-Strut" on opening night.

"I won't be charming company," he said.

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published February 1, 2012 5:00 AM


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