When Steven J. Burge was growing up in tiny Martelle, Iowa, a community theater up the highway regularly hosted touring shows, and every year he'd get to see a theatrical production as his big birthday or Christmas present. "It was magical," he remembers — so no surprise that he became an actor himself. Burge landed in Denver in 2003 for a role in Little Shop of Horrors at the Aurora Fox. "I was going to be regional, go where the work is," he remembers. "Thirteen years later, here I am."
While he was cast in productions around town, Burge also worked a number of jobs, most of them in communications — including a stint as Westword's receptionist. But now he's taken on an even tougher, full-time task: After serving as understudy to Wesley Taylor, he's playing God eight times a week in An Act of God at the Garner Galleria Theatre, a hit that was just extended until April, On the eve of his move to the lead, we talked with Burge about acting, this show, and what he would have done as God at Westword.
Westword: What's it like to move into the starring role of An Act of God?
Steven Burge: It's very cool. This is my first time working at the Galleria. In fact, all three actors in this show — Steven Cole Hughes, Erik Sandvold and myself, along with director Geoffrey Kent — are making our Galleria debuts with An Act of God. We've all worked at the Denver Center before, but this is our first time treading the boards at the Galleria. And we're all locals! I think it's fantastic that the Denver Center is supporting and using all Denver actors for this gig.
What's fun about playing God?
The whole idea of this show is that God has come down to Earth and overtaken the body of a local actor — mine, in this case. And through this human vessel, He delivers His new laws "directly to the people," to clear up any confusion the old laws might have created and "forever end the uncertainty about what it is [He] expects from humanity." I'm a PK (preacher's kid): My mom is a minister, so it was lots of fun to explore some of these Bible stories that I had grown up studying from a completely different angle.
It's important to say, though, that if you don't have a strong background in theology or were not raised in faith, you can still come see this show and understand it and enjoy it. In fact, some of our most appreciative audience members have told us that they were atheists and laughed through the whole thing. More than being about religion or the Bible or this belief system vs. that belief system, I think the show is about humanity. (And it can definitely be a catalyst for spirited debate in the car ride home after the show. Ha!)
But sappy as it probably sounds, the funnest part for me is making people laugh. I learned to use humor as a shield when I was a very young little gay boy growing up in rural America. It is a tool that has served me well over the years, both personally and professionally. And people laugh a lot at this show. It makes you think and it makes you talk, and it does all the things good theater is supposed to do, sure. But above all...it makes people laugh. And I've often thought that, really, is the one thing that everyone has in common, right? Regardless of your political beliefs or your gender identity or your sexual orientation or your spiritual practices or your socioeconomic background or anything else that so often divides us, we all love to laugh. And I consider it a blessing to celebrate that commonality and make a bunch of people laugh, eight shows a week!
Does the show change with audiences?
Oh, for sure! But that's not unique to this piece. It's live theater. You can see us. And we can see you, too.
And with any show, but especially a comedy, the audience's collective energy will affect the actors on the stage and the people sitting in the audience. It's more fun for everyone if you just come in ready to laugh and have a good time. And there's cocktail service throughout the show, so really? There's no excuse not to be loose and fun. (My favorite qualities in an audience member and a date.)
How do you get ready for a show like this?
You know what? I don't really have to do that much, honestly. The director is great. The cast is great. The crew is great. There's not a lot to worry about "preparing for" beyond, you know, making sure I know the words. And making sure my inhaler is stashed in my costume in case I have an asthma attack on stage or something. Which won't happen...knock on wood!
Really, more than amping myself up before the show, I need to find techniques to bring myself back down after the show. It's such a rush! And I'm all high on adrenaline for a long time afterward. It's a good problem to have. I don't know how many people out there are fortunate enough to have a job they never want to take a vacation from or one that excites them so much that as soon as the work day is done, they can't wait to come back and do it all over again the next day. But that's my job right now, and I never take that for granted. If you don't have a job like that? Do your best to go find one. It's the only way to live. And pay rent.
If you'd been God when you were Westword's receptionist, what would you have done differently?
And speaking of fun jobs — working at Westword was so much fun! I loved it! It was like theater every day. Crazy, unpredictable, improv-at-its-best theater every day! I loved it! When I was there, I believe beer only came on Fridays, though. If I were God, I'd have made beer come every day. Like manna from Heaven.
How does this differ from Fully Committed, your one-man show?
Probably the biggest difference was that Fully Committed was just me. Even though God does the heavy lifting in An Act of God, there are two other actors out there with me: Steven Cole Hughes as archangel Michael, and Erik Sandvold as archangel Gabriel. They are great people and very talented, funny actors. It's so much fun to play with them every night.
Another big difference is that in Fully Committed, I didn't play just one character, I played, like, forty characters and ran through, like, ten different story lines all at once. It was crazy! Fun, but crazy.
In this one, I only have to play God — so how hard could that be, right? — and each different commandment is like its own five-minute mini-play. If we bomb one, we have an immediate opportunity to start over and ace the next one.
What do audiences need to know before they see An Act of God?
People would probably appreciate knowing that the playwright, David Javerbaum, is a thirteen-time Emmy Award-winning writer for The Daily Show. That probably tells your readers a lot right there. And...
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As I said, my mom is a minister and my dad was a deacon. They flew out to see me do this show. And they loved it. Granted, they kinda have to love it, because they're good at parenting, but I think they really, legitimately loved it. They weren't offended.
There is some material that is going to be challenging to some viewers. That's the case in lots of plays, though, right? But as is also the case with lots of plays, if you stick it out to the end — if you can say, "Oh! I don't know if I agree with that interpretation of the story" or "I think that joke is a little bit off-color...but I'm going to see how it all plays out in the end" — I think you will be glad you did. There's a definite story arc. God is on a journey. And during the course of that journey, He questions Himself and some of His Old Testament tactics (i.e., drowning everyone on the whole, entire planet) and at the end, He comes to a really lovely conclusion, I think: "You're going to be fine, people. You are my greatest creation!"
David has created a really lovely, funny piece of thought- and laugh-provoking theater. I hope people of faith and people of goodwill alike will all come laugh with us. And again, cocktail service throughout the show. Sooo, you're welcome, folks.
An Act of God runs Tuesdays through Sundays until April 8 at the Garner Galleria in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For tickets, call 800-641-1222 or go to denvercenter.org. If you have a question after you see the show, Burge promises to sit down with you at the Galleria bar and discuss it. And watch for our Facebook Live with God, aka Steven J. Burge.