As the classroom camera focuses in, student Evan Wank transforms into The Dark Knight’s Joker. Channeling a manic energy and off-kilter laugh, he’s startling, chilling. But with the word “Cut!” the Joker disappears, and Wank breaks into a mild grin.
“It’s very different than theater,” he says about his first time performing for the camera. “In theater, you get a reaction from the audience and know exactly how you’re doing. When filming, there can’t be any background noise, no reactions, so it felt like I was doing something wrong.”
His dramatic arts professor, Kate Burton, assures him he did everything right. “I really have to get used to this camera business,” says Wank, who graduated in May.
This is precisely Burton’s goal with her “Auditioning for Camera” class. “I went to the Yale School of Drama and no one ever trained us in this,” says the professor of theatre practice in acting at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. “We were expected to walk into a film or TV audition and just know what to do.”
Acting wasn’t even on Burton’s radar when she was her students’ age. Studying European history and Russian studies at Brown University, she planned to be a diplomat. But her advisor was convinced that she was born to act. She changed course and went on to earn an MFA at the Yale School of Drama.
The Emmy Award-winning actress spent decades building her stage, film and television experience. Recent memorable roles include Ellis Grey on Grey’s Anatomy, U.S. Vice President Sally Langston on Scandal and Volumnia in Coriolanus for New York’s Shakespeare in the Park.
Her turn as a professor at USC is her latest acting collaboration. “USC is in a class by itself when it comes to training actors for the stage,” Burton says. “The BA, BFA and MFA are all robust programs that prepare young actors for the professional world.”
She credits the cross-pollination of faculty and students from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, USC Thornton School of Music and USC Kaufman School of Dance for a dynamic academic experience. “USC is one of the only universities in the United States that offers all of these opportunities,” she says. “And our location in Hollywood is essential to the growth of our actors.”
Students also benefit from her extensive background in Russian studies and acting, which form the basis for what she teaches and directs at USC. In addition to her camera class, Burton offers a mid-century American drama course and has directed Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and three Chekhov plays.
In a digital era that’s constantly shifting in trends and content, she teaches the fundamentals of the craft — how to control voice, physical presence, expression and character interpretation, to name a few — to help young actors focus on the timeless aspects of their profession.
“Through the ages, actors have provided entertainment, education and inspiration to the world,” she says. “I come from a family of actors [she’s the daughter of Richard and Sybil Burton] and am still amazed to find this to be an essential truth.”