Community engagement and projects of the ‘heart’ earned UND’s Gaye Burgess the 2015 Stone Soup Public Scholar Award
Gaye Burgess sees most things in life as opportunities.
The 63-year-old associate professor in the University of North Dakota Department of Theatre Arts says even her lifelong career in theater came as an opportunity in disguise. When she was only 4, she was hit by a car and sustained life-threatening injuries and damage to her legs. While recovering, doctors told her mom Burgess needed to be in an activity that would work her legs. Her mother signed her up for dance, and in turn provided Burgess with her introduction to the arts.
“(Theater) picked me,” Burgess said. “I didn’t pick it. Unexpected things happen in our lives, and we must follow where they lead. Rather than go, ‘Oh, poor me,’ we need to ask ‘Why is this happening?’ If we can figure out the why, we can turn something into a plus in our lives — we can turn it into a gift.”
A native of Canada, Burgess says she knew theater was her passion when her mom took her to a performance of “My Fair Lady” when she was in her early teens. She went on to earn a degree in theater and speech from Minnesota State University Moorhead before studying classical acting at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and eventually earning a master’s degree in directing from York University.
In between earning her degrees, Burgess worked in acting and directing, served as a resident artist, and a working professional actress in Toronto. After earning her master’s degree, it was a love of teaching that brought her to academe and ultimately to UND in 2001. In her classes, Burgess tries to help students realize the gifts and opportunities in their own lives.
“One thing we want to do with higher education is to set the world on fire with each and every student,” Burgess said. “And send them out to the world a better citizen, a better human being realizing that they are a part of the solution — that they have a contribution to make.”
Outside of the classroom, Burgess is active in projects she hopes will raise awareness about key issues facing communities today. Recently, her projects and community engagement have earned her the Stone Soup Public Scholar Award from the UND Center for Community Engagement.
Burgess says the projects she’s working on now are “heart projects,” projects that speak deeply to her belief in the people she loves, and the social issues she cares about. Burgess believes theater is a wonderful jumping off place for talking about social issues. She does this through theater for social justice, which she describes as “doing theater in order to raise the consciousness of the community and together celebrate our humanity.”
“Theater actually shines the light back on us always,” Burgess said.”(It) teaches us something about who we are as human beings and what we’re going through.
“Theater gives the issues a vehicle.”
One of Burgess’ many projects is “The Joan Phipps Story,” the story of Canadian thoroughbred jockey Joan Phipps, a trailblazer for the sport and the first woman to ride against men in New Zealand. Phipps success on the track was cut short by injuries, leading her down a long, difficult path following her retirement from the sport.
“(Joan is) my dearest friend in the whole world,” Burgess said. “So part of me is doing this for her and the fact that she has struggled for so long. To see what happened in her life was difficult for me. To watch someone you love and care for, live on the verge of homelessness was tough. The truth is that there but for the grace of God go you or I. And it’s a humbling experience because we know It can happen to anyone.
“I am so proud of the life she has led, and the faith she has and her unbelievable tenacity and ability to continue to give to those around her regardless of her circumstances. She inspires me to want to be a better person. I feel blessed to have her in my life. I feel like the lucky one.”
“This project isn’t about me, it’s about Joan and the fact that her story deserves to be told.”
Burgess is working on a biography of Phipps, along with a movie of her life story. Yet, the project would have never come about without a chance meeting between the two, when they were living on different floors of the same complex almost 30 years ago.
“We come from such different backgrounds,” Burgess said. “She’s a daring horsewoman who lives life on the edge, and I am this creative artist who tells other people’s stories, but secretly leads a 'safe' life. I’ve always thought, ‘Why are we friends? We have nothing in common.’ And I said to her just a couple of years ago, ‘This is why Joan — this is why we met — to make this (project) happen.’”
Now, as she begins to prepare to retire in a few years, Burgess says she’s thankful for all the opportunities she’s had along the way.
“We either turn things into wins for ourselves, or we let them destroy us. The choice is ours.” Burgess said. “I don’t believe we are born to be small — I believe we are born to be bigger than we can ever imagine.”
University & Public Affairs student writer