The two places I feel most fully alive

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 on November 1, 2016

Michael Burgess is the artistic director of Stage Centre Productions in Toronto and is a priest of the diocese.

The Rev. Canon Michael Burgess

I am responsible for choosing the five plays we present each season and involve our audiences in helping choose – I prepare a shortlist of about 12 plays and invite people to rank them in order of preference. I select a director for each play and, in consultation with them, cast the play and put together a backstage team. Usually I direct one play each season myself. I also conduct annual auditions. I write the text for brochures, flyers and press releases, and sit on the board of Stage Centre Productions. Along with the president, I am the public face of the company. I try to be at every performance of every play and thoroughly enjoy interacting with our patrons and getting their feedback.

We have just successfully kicked off our 40th season with the North American premiere of an English comedy, Entertaining Angels, by Richard Everett at the Fairview Library Theatre. Although it is extremely funny, it deals with important issues and provides much food for thought. The Lieutenant Governor of Ontario was our guest of honour on the first night. The second play of the season is The Best Man by Gore Vidal, on stage between Nov. 24 and Dec. 3.

I made my first stage appearance in an amateur production when I was a child, then, bitten by the showbiz bug, went on to do numerous amateur productions in the U.K. before working backstage in the West End theatre, finally graduating to acting on stage. I was lucky to keep in work most of the time, toured the U.K. extensively, and even appeared in three different West End musicals.

While I was at the Chichester Festival Theatre, I got to know some of the students at Chichester Theological College (we drank in the same pub) and soon realized that God was calling me to priesthood, so offered myself and was selected. After training at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, I was ordained in Chelmsford Cathedral and served six years in England, first at St. Margaret’s, Leigh-on-Sea (Diocese of Chelmsford), then at St. Peter in Thanet (Diocese of Canterbury), before coming to Canada as chaplain to what is now Royal St. George’s College (Toronto), Canada’s only Anglican choir school. Since I was also head of drama, I could not have been more fulfilled. During my years as a parish priest, I wasn’t involved on stage − too many potential time conflicts – although I sat on various theatre boards and did some plays and concerts in the various parishes I served. The Stage Centre Productions job more or less fell into my lap soon after I retired.

While I was at Royal St. George’s College, I was an honorary assistant at St. Anne, Gladstone Avenue. A brief interim at the Church of the Advent, West Toronto, followed, and I then served for almost 15 years at the Church of the Epiphany and St. Mark, Parkdale. My final full-time position was six years at the Church of the Transfiguration in Toronto. During this time, I also sat on various diocesan boards and committees. After retirement in 2010, I became an honorary assistant at St. John’s, Norway, and have been interim priest-in-charge there since the beginning of August this year.

I have been blessed in spending most of my life doing a job that I love, in places that I love, among people that I love. And I am doubly blessed because I know that I am blessed. It doesn’t get any better than that! However, although I don’t want to suggest that I have not found parish ministry fulfilling, I confess that I look back at my time at Royal St. George’s College as golden years: more than 27 years after my leaving, there are still a good many former students who keep in touch. I also have fond memories of staging the diocese’s sesquicentennial Eucharist in the (then) SkyDome, and I was privileged to be part of the delegation from the Diocese of Toronto to Seoul, Korea, in 1990 to celebrate the Diocese of Seoul’s centenary.

It feels as if I have never been away from the theatre. I love it. This might be a good place to point out that at the altar and in the theatre are the two places I feel most fully alive.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, pointed out that the church is very much like the theatre: “The congregation is the actor; God is the audience; and the preacher is the prompter.” The word worship equals “worth ship,” the offering to God of what God is worth. I feel that if we don’t take time and trouble over our offering of worship, we have missed the point. For me, theatre always has a sense of occasion about it. It would be wonderful if our services of worship could have a similar sense of occasion. In the same way that no actor would dream of going on stage unrehearsed and unprepared, we should be equally well prepared when we worship – not just the clergy and the choir and the readers, but every single one of us. Worship is not just what the people in the chancel and sanctuary do, it’s what all of us do together. I forget where I read it, but I like the definition of true worship as “when spirit touches spirit – when our spirit reaches out to God and when God’s spirit reaches out to us simultaneously.” That thrills me.

Another thing: in the theatre, people forget their personal differences and unite in order to ensure that the production they are working on is the very best it can be. Sadly, parish life isn’t always like that…

Five years from now, I’d still like to be enjoying good health, still able to laugh at myself, and still able to make a contribution in the church, in the theatre and in the community.

My favourite passage from scripture is John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Christian life is meant to be fulfilling.


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