By Nick Hawks
Although this is her first year as a professor at Cleveland State University, Christine McBurney is no stranger to teaching acting. Having taught theatre and film at Shaker Heights High School for 16 years, and college acting since the 1990s, McBurney has experienced all facets of the profession and shared some of her experiences with us.
What brings you to Cleveland State?
I’m an actor and director who makes her living teaching. I teach at Baldwin Wallace, I teach privately, and now I’m at CSU. That’s how I get to be an artist, I teach.
So we’re on week five or week six of the semester, something like that.
How’s it been going so far? Because I know everything’s a little weird right now with COVID. You’re an Intro to Screen Performance professor, correct?
Right, yeah. We’re meeting face-to-face. And I have to say, it’s challenging teaching acting when everybody has masks on. I’ve been encouraging students to get the masks with the clear plastic windows, but so far, nobody has. So yeah, it’s been challenging.
I don’t know what would be harder, doing an acting class on Zoom where you can see the mouth but it’s through technology, or doing it in-person where you can’t see the mouth.
Yeah, they both have their limitations.
You taught high school theatre and film at high school for 16 years, what are some of the differences between teaching in high school and teaching in college?
There’s not a difference in how I approach it because I always have really high expectations. The hours are better in college, it’s not 8-4 daily. You get to walk outside, maybe to change buildings, so that’s nice. But the expectation is the same. I always gave my kids really challenging work and I didn’t make it simple. It’s just that they were a little bit younger.
What are some of the differences in teaching acting between teaching acting for film and teaching acting for theatre?
It’s basically the same set of skills, it’s just on a different scale. Because the camera picks up everything, it’s more intimate in film… I know as an actor, I always have to calibrate on my audition, like ‘Am I auditioning for a play? A film? A commercial?’ Because they’re going to require me to adjust the size of my performance based on the medium.
Switching gears a little bit, you’ve got a long range of acting experience from film, theatre, voiceover work, appearing in podcasts, and obviously teaching. Is it important to be a jack-of-all-trades to make a living as an actor or actress?
Well, maybe not all trades, but there are various media that an actor can work in, from film, to television, to commercial, voiceovers, audio books to animation, private parties, Bourbon Street Theatre Company. You have to be your own business is what you have to be as an actor in this country. We don’t have subsidized theaters like they do in Europe. So you really have to be a corporation, you know? It is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, but it all goes back to storytelling.
The reason I ask that is it’s of particular relevance to CSU with our new film school. There’s a lot of students that want to make a career out of film here, more than ever before probably. There’s no one path to take, I suppose.
No, it’s not like you get your MBA and go work in finance, it’s not that simple. What’s wonderful about theatre and film is it’s handmade arts that are passed down and you learn through doing it, you can’t really read it in a book. It’s like an apprenticeship, it’s really old fashioned that way. It’s handmade, and that’s really dying in our culture, but not in the film industry.
What advice would you give to our film students trying to make a profession out of this industry?
Work on as many small films as you can to really see how the machine works. Learn from everybody and find your people, because this year’s class of freshmen, they could all be hiring each other in five or ten years. Make your connection with people now and help each other along the way.