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My Boston: Actress Kate Burton

ABC's "Scandal" star and veteran theater actor talks Chekhov, her craft, and what she likes about Boston

Theater buffs are in for a treat this March as Kate Burton returns to Boston to star in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” her fifth collaboration with Huntington Theatre Company and her first time back since 2009’s “The Corn Is Green.” Over the years, the fascinating, LA-based New Yorker has spent a lot of time in this town. Did you know that she’s the daughter of Richard Burton? That she has a degree in Russian studies from Brown and aspired to be a diplomat? That she’s Sally Langston on ABC’s “Scandal”? Read on. (“The Seagull” runs March 7-April 6. Boston University Theater, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617.266.7900)

For an actor based in Los Angeles, you pick up a lot of work in Massachusetts. What keeps you coming back?

The audiences. They are some of the greatest in the United States. So incredibly versed in theater, particularly classical theater. I’ve done mostly classical plays at the Huntington, and all have been received with extraordinary rapture. Also, the experience of living in Boston for two months every few years is just heaven on earth. It is an extraordinary place to spend a chunk of time. Besides working on one of the greatest plays ever written, it is also extraordinary to be able to go to the MFA, go to the Gardner Museum, go to Harvard, visit the Public Garden. There are so many things to do in Boston. It’s never-ending, and it’s never endingly wonderful.

Do you prefer working with a regional theater such as the Huntington, or in New York on Broadway?

I do a lot of Broadway shows, but I also do a lot of regional theater in New York, which is Lincoln Center Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club. Those are all institutional theaters that are technically on Broadway, but it’s not like working in a Broadway house. When you’re working in a Broadway house, it is an independent commercial venture [and] always a more intense experience because you are so dependent upon the reviews, you’re so dependent upon the audiences coming to buy tickets, and so you feel like you’re ripped in half a little bit. When you’re working in regional theater, you’re doing it for the experience of doing the work and the experience of doing it for love. I think the experiences of working in a great regional theater like the Huntington is, sort of, an unsurpassed experience. The theater that I work on at the Huntington, which is the theater on Huntington Avenue [Boston University Theater] right near Symphony, is an incredible stage. It’s the closest thing to a Broadway house that I’ve ever worked on that is not [actually] on Broadway. I’m not saying that I like it better than New York! I love New York, too. But, I like them for different reasons.

This is your fifth play with the Huntington, and your second Chekhov play there after “The Cherry Orchard” in 2007. What can we expect from “The Seagull”?

In the past I have been directed mostly by Nicholas Martin, but now we are very excited to work with Maria Aitken. This is my second time doing “The Seagull”; I played Nina when I was at Brown University. Chekhov is a humanist, and so when you’re watching his plays, he’s wanting you to see them as slices of life. You’re dropping in. He regards it, which is sort of amazing, as a comedy, but it’s really the comedy of life, the human comedy. It’s not like ha-ha, Neil Simon comedy, but it is a world. He’s created an extraordinary environment with these four major plays of his. And every one brings insight and self-reflection, just like the things that happen when you see a great work of art, or you go to a great play, or you listen to a great symphony. You have those moments of knowing why you’re on the planet, and that is, I think, what this play offers.

Will LeBow and Kate Burton in the 2007 production of "The Cherry Orchard"
Will LeBow and Kate Burton star in the Huntington's 2007 production of "The Cherry Orchard." (©T. Charles Erickson)

How do you go from pursuing Russian studies and European history at an Ivy League university to actress?

It’s a long road. It’s a long road. It’s a long road from Brown University, being a senior and wanting to be a diplomat, and then making a real sharp U-turn and going to the Yale School of Drama for three, very long years, and then coming to New York and starting to work through being a theater actress. I didn’t become a Hollywood actress until I was in my mid-40s. It took 20 years to happen. I think what I did become was a very bona fide theater actress right away; that happened pretty immediately. Making my way into television, and then making my way into film took a much longer time, and I didn’t really hit my stride until “Grey’s Anatomy.” Now, I am having a great experience on “Scandal” by the same creator-writer Shonda Rhimes. I feel like I’ve been really blessed, because I’ve had people in my life who have looked over me and who’ve shepherded my career, quote unquote; who have believed in me. Nikos Psacharopoulos at Williamstown. Then Nicholas Martin; I’ve done about eight plays with him. He believed in me. Shonda Rhimes, frankly, believed in me. Through it all, my husband, Michael Ritchie, has always believed in me so much.

Does your degree in Russian studies bring anything extra to your performance in a play by Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov?

I think that my knowledge of Russian, and Russian studies, and Russian history, Russian culture, has given me an incredible ability to see the play in context and really understand Russian people. I read “Nicholas and Alexandra” when I was 13 in eighth grade. Reading my first Russian literature, and encountering Chekhov in college, and just realizing that all of this interest that I’ve had since I was a young girl has led me to this. So, here I am. The last real part that I haven’t played in all of Chekhov is Irina. I’ve always resisted her, somewhat because she seemed to be something that I couldn’t relate to, but I could not have continued acting without having a go with her. She’s part of the Chekhovian canon, and I’ve played all the other great roles written by Chekhov, with the exception of Sonya in “Uncle Vanya.”

While visiting Boston, why might one choose to see “The Seagull” over the Broadway tour of “Flashdance The Musical” or the A.R.T’s “Witness Uganda”?

I think they should see all three of them. It’s like comparing grapes to watermelons—you can’t. If you’re a theatergoer, you should see all those shows. Each of them will bring you a different gift. “Flashdance” is a big old musical, and it’s a hoot. I’m sure “Witness Uganda” is an extraordinary political play about Africa. “The Seagull” is truly one of the seminal works of world theater. It is not simply one of seminal works of Russian theater; it is one of the seminal works of world theater. It’s considered to be one of the greatest plays ever written. It’s a complicated play, but it’s got extraordinary human dimensions to it.

Let’s talk about your character Vice President Sally Langston on ABC’s “Scandal”?

It’s a really hyperbolic, incendiary character. She’s very different from a lot of things you might see on TV, but if you are a fan of “Homeland” or “House of Cards,” you will enjoy “Scandal.” [“Scandal”] is a political thriller; I mean, it is a real pager-turner. Sally is part of this incredible array of colorful and interesting characters that tell this wild and wacky tale every week. She’s deeply religious. She’s very, very devout. She’s very conservative. She’s surprising. You think she’s going to go one way, and then she goes the other. You think she’s going to be this person, and then she’s that person. You think because she’s so religious, she’ll never do a terrible thing, and then, of course, she does the worst thing in the world. That’s what makes her so interesting.

What do you think is in store for Sally for the remainder of this season?

I’m not allowed to say, but I know exactly what’s in store for her. I’m shooting it right now. That’s why I’m having these 15-hour days before I come to Boston. When I’m in Boston, I’m going to be skipping back about four times to shoot a day here, a day there.

What role have you played that’s hit closest to home?

Well, actually, almost all my roles at the Huntington with Nicky Martin. Before this, the other three plays I have done with him were “Hedda Gabler,” “The Cherry Orchard” and “The Corn Is Green.” I think those three plays probably were three of the most powerful experiences I have had as an actress on the stage. I would say the one that’s the closest to me is “The Cherry Orchard,” although there are certainly some aspects in “The Corn Is Green,” because I also played that with my son [Morgan Ritchie] playing my student. He is playing my son in “The Seagull,” too, so this will probably feel close to home.

Is there a role that you just must play?

I don’t really have a dream role. There are some plays that I would quite like to do. There’s Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Normally, it is played by younger actors, but there have been a lot of productions lately with older actors, and I’d love to have a go with that. I know later down the road I’d like to do Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” And there’s an Edward Albee play called “A Delicate Balance.” I’d like to do “Hapgood” again, which I did at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. That was one of the few plays that I really wanted to do, where I was absolutely like a dog at the bone about it. And I did get to do it at Williamstown, so that was great.

Where will fans see you in 2014?

You can see me in “Scandal.” I just did an episode of a very fun, interesting new show called “Rake” with Greg Kinnear. And, there’s been some talk about some other television shows I was in before, and I may return to them. I have no plans on being at Williamstown this summer, so I might do some theater out in LA at my husband’s theater, Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.

What is the biggest difference between Los Angeles and Boston?

Probably the public transportation and the weather. And, there are no Red Sox [in LA]. I had a friend who said, ‘what’s ever great in LA is terrible in New York, and Boston. And opposite.’ It’s so true!

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Kate Burton (center, at front), Jessica Rothenberg, Sarah Hudnut, Will LeBow and Dick Latessa in “The Cherry Orchard.”
Kate Burton (center, at front), Jessica Rothenberg, Sarah Hudnut, Will LeBow and Dick Latessa in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “The Cherry Orchard,” directed by Nicholas Martin (©T. Charles Erickson)