Kirby Burgess on building a long-term career

Living in a generation prone to instant gratification, it can sometimes be difficult as an artist to patiently build your career. A career in the Arts is often a long-term investment of sorts, and while your ultimate goal may be the lead in a long-running musical, a resident director of a major arts company, or a consistently working actor, such goals are generally the result of many years of hard work and experience.

Kirby Burgess is one such performer with years of hard work behind her. Since her first musical contract of High School Musical covering the role of Sharpay, Kirby has worked as an ensemble member, on and off-stage swing, dance captain and understudy in shows such as Hairspray, Sweet Charity and Grease. In fact, Kirby had never done a show with only one track to focus on until she was cast as the lead role of Baby in the 10-year anniversary tour of Dirty Dancing in Australia.

‘Dirty Dancing’ as Baby

It could be said that her career has followed a somewhat cumulative effect, in which one experience has led her the opportunity and the means in which to take on the next. With that, as well as the incredible respect I have for her on and offstage, I felt she was the perfect person to chat to about patience, gratefulness and a forward thinking eye for this industry.

A cumulative effect

Rizzo in ‘Grease

Having such a wide array of experiences covering more than one track, I asked Kirby if her time as a swing or an understudy influenced her ability to play leading roles. Her first opportunity of such was taking over the role of Rizzo from Lucy Maunder in GFO’s tour of Grease the Musical. Kirby describes it as an “unconventional experience”, still feeling like an understudy in a way. “I rehearsed the show by myself with Natalie Gilhome, our incredible Resident Director. It was mostly she and I, with a couple of others coming in sometimes. However, I was really lucky that Nat allowed me to be my own version of her. I didn’t need to fit into what Lucy did.”

“Then when I got Baby (in the Dirty Dancing tour), as my first original role, I feel that the experience of being a swing and particularly an understudy, really helped. I personally think they’re underestimated and understated in our Australian industry. The work that it takes to be a cover, the number of hours you spend in your life doing that as well as your own plot in the show, is massive. From coming into being lucky to play a lead, first and foremost, I had so much respect for my two beautiful understudies that I had as Baby. And I wanted to collaborate with them. I wanted them to ask me questions.”

Kirby’s respect for her covers wasn’t something she was always shown when acting as an understudy. She surmises that it could easily be due to a lack of empathy from those actors who haven’t had the chance themselves to cover. “Your understudy being prepared is going to help you out, because you don’t have the pressure of not being able to take a show off, even if you’re physically incapable. The shows we do in Australia these days are so physically demanding for us and there are injuries and actors going off mid-show, and swings and understudies just have to get on and do that track. The ability to support those people comes from the fact that I’ve done it myself.”

The skillsets of a cover

Heather Chandler in the Brisbane Season of ‘Heathers’

Not only has Kirby’s career allowed her an empathy of a company as a whole, the unique skillset of a swing or cover allowed her to thrive by the time she was playing leads.

“I can pick up things very quickly. As a swing, I’ve often done performances where I’ve covered more than one track at one time. You do have to be quite aware of what’s going on around you. As a skill, that’s opened up my awareness beyond what only I’m doing. It’s all about the team effort and supporting everyone around you.”

“Being an understudy, you also get to work with a lot of great people. You don’t get to rehearse with the actual lead; you rehearse with your fellow understudies. So that’s certainly developed my ability to react in the moment based off who I’m paired with, rather than just doing what I’ve rehearsed.”

 

Training

While Kirby may not have received specific formal training, a lifetime of dancing and even circus training has given her the skills to take on the many roles she has. Throughout high school, Kirby trained in circus arts every morning before school, describing it as “such a discipline. It taught me what it meant to fully commit to something. It’s a skillset I’ll never forget that I have, but it also helped me to solidify that I don’t want to specifically follow that career path.”

Yet a lack of formal music theatre training isn’t something Kirby feels like she’s necessarily missed out on.
“I honestly think you can study your whole life, but you’ll never learn your true lessons until you’re on the job. That’s not just about skills either. That includes company management, stage management and etiquette in the theatre. I was lucky I got to learn that really young and really quickly, because I went straight into work. Maybe if I studied, I would’ve been further in my career. Who knows? On the other hand, I don’t really know the technique behind a lot of my skills, and sometimes I feel that can be a good thing. It means I tend not to get in my own head as much.”

Long-term career planning

While having all these extra skillsets can really help your employability in this industry, Kirby admits, “being solid in the three skillsets (acting/singing/dancing) when I was younger may have held me back from becoming a lead because I was too valuable in an ensemble. You can perform the skillset required for leading roles, as well as the other flips and tricks potentially needed in the ensemble tracks. The only reason I was lucky enough to be pushed into a leading capacity is because I said no to contracts. Which was hard. And it put me in an awkward position for a while, where I would go in and have to say that I needed to further my career. That doesn’t necessarily mean the leading lady, but I wanted to have the opportunity to play supporting or featured roles, or even the first cover. At the time I made this choice, I was onstage swing and dance captain (which I was very honoured to have the chance to do at such a young age), but I wanted to be pushed into another realm. I knew that if I kept going on this roundabout, it would be harder to get out of. But as hard as it was, it was a big lesson for me to fight for what I want.”

“I’m always pushing for an end goal. I have my ultimate and I want to achieve that. I don’t have expectations of how soon I need it to be, but you have to work for it.”

‘Jerry’s Girls’ (The Production Company)

The dangers of instant gratification

While Kirby has worked hard to reach the current point in her career, many artists in this generation can fall into the habit of expecting to achieve all their goals in this industry immediately. Kirby describes the artist not being at fault, and instead a society “surrounded by instant fame. We’re so used to looking up to celebrities like the Jenner girls who are achieving so much in their early 20s. So new graduates come out thinking, ‘why aren’t I like them?’ We have a lot more expectation on ourselves to think that if we spent all those years studying, we should see the rewards instantly. There are some people that are achieving that, but I don’t think it necessarily lasts. In Australia, there aren’t enough opportunities for your one opportunity to make you have fame longevity. When you’re young and newly graduated, go and understudy, go and swing.”

‘Big Fish’ (Hayes Theatre Co)

This even includes the expectation of the first gig and having the opportunity to perform such roles.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t enough jobs, and there are already enough people in this industry whose reputations have established themselves over your talent. Don’t expect that it has to happen straight away, because it might not. That definitely doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve to be in this industry, it just means a lot of people have worked before you.”

While the opportunities in this industry can be few and far between and the waiting game often difficult, what strikes me about Kirby is her passion and her drive. What I’ve found consistent in the qualities of ‘successful’ artists include their confidence and determination in knowing that they are in this for the long haul. While their hard work may not always be rewarded instantly, there seems to be no shortcut to building on your experiences and paying your dues.

 

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Author

Born in the land of sheep and hobbits, Joel Granger moved to Australia to study at WAAPA's Music Theatre course, class of 2015. His credits include 'Sweeney Todd', 'Big Fish', 'Please Like Me' and 'True Story with Hamish & Andy.' He would like to say he enjoys long walks on the beach, but his ginger hair and freckled skin means he actually avoids sunshine as much as possible. Follow Joel on instagram at: @joelgranger_

Joel has written 19 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by

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Kirby Burgess on building a long-term career
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