Margaret Burke: Goddess in the Shadows


CODE Member Glenys McQueen-Fuentes sat down for a conversation with Margaret Burke, notable Drama Educator and innovator, about her extraordinary career in Drama in Education.


When the CODE Conference celebrated Norah Morgan for her contributions to CODE, and to Drama in Education throughout the world, the organizers placed a big sign at the entrance of the room where she was to speak. It said...."NORAH MORGAN--DRAMA GODDESS!"

Drama in Education has many goddesses and gods. We have photos, writings, interviews, videos, testimonials, and generations of students and teachers who have benefited from their work--all attest to this fact.  However, there is someone else in the background.  She is not in the front row, and she is more likely to be seen conferring quietly with the 'greats' behind the scenes, at the edges of the shadows, rather than speaking out front.  But--Drama in Education in Canada would not be the same without her.  She is the goddess in the shadows, and her name is Margaret Burke.

When Norah Morgan was retiring from teaching undergraduate courses in Drama in Education for the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University (note, not the Faculty of Education), she insisted that Margaret should replace her. Margaret became a tenured professor in the Theatre Department at Brock University, and turned a series of undergraduate courses into a full undergraduate degree program in "TIE/DIE"--one of only two in Ontario!   

I am honoured to say that I was teaching in the same department during the time of both Margaret and Norah, so I saw firsthand the work and legacy of both women.  

Given Margaret's recent book, Gavin Bolton's Contextual Drama:  The Road Less Taken--a welcome 'translation' of Bolton's very complex theories and practice in an unexpected format, it's time to bring Margaret and her work out of those shadows.  Below is the interview she recently agreed to give for CODE:

GMF...Margaret, tell us, please, how you came to know about Drama in Education?  Did you come to Canada specifically because of it?



MB...No, I didn't.  It came upon me--as an eventual 5-year close collaboration with Juliana Saxton at the University of Victoria.. Originally, I came to Canada for a holiday, and after a long series of coincidences, I ended up enrolling in Dalhousie University for a theatre degree.

GMF...Did you study Drama in Education there?

MB...No, I didn't.  I studied how to do theatre.  After finishing my degree, I was utterly broke, and thought that my only option was to go back to New Zealand. 

However, at the end of classes, my professor said to me: "Now, Margaret, what are you going to do with your degree?"  I told him that I didn't think I knew enough about theatre yet,  and I really needed to know more, but that since I was completely out of money, I didn't see how I could go on.  He replied: "...Margaret, here in Canada, you can get paid to study at the post-graduate level. You need to send off some letters asking what kinds of programs of study they have, and what kind of money they can offer you."  

Despite my shock, and still doubtful of any response, I sent out five letters, including one to U of T and another to the University of Victoria. I was shocked when I got an answer back from Barbara McIntyre, Chair of the Theatre Department at  the University of Victoria.  She was coming to Halifax soon after, for the big national academic conference, then called "The LEARNEDS" (now, "CONGRESS"), so we arranged to meet.

Barbara took me to lunch, and explained that UVic was about to expand their Theatre Program to include Drama in Education.  She had convinced a woman named Juliana Saxton, an actor and theatre person who had, with her husband, been active in the inception of the (now renown) Shaw Festival, and who had previously been teaching in the U of T, to spearhead this new area. Barbara offered to hire me to do further studies (a Masters) in Drama in Education, under Juliana.

GMF...So you and Juliana started at UVic at exactly the same time!

MB...Yes, we did.  Juliana had had a great deal of professional theatre experience, whereas I had had only amateur experience, plus my undergrad degree training.  However, Juliana was hired specifically to develop and teach a new, full Drama in Education program at UVic--not theatre.

GMF...But Juliana had been teaching TIE/DIE with David Booth and Chuck Lundy at U of T, right?

MB...Yes, she had, and she was also best friends with Norah, but all of that was quite different from actually having to create a program on her own.  As it turned out, I became her "offsider."

GMF...What was that, and was it the basis for your Masters in DIE?

MB...Yes, it was, and "offsider" meant that I was to be her "outer eye."  At every single class that Juliana taught, I was to sit on the sidelines, watch and take (copious, detailed) notes.  What was also remarkable about Juliana was her total generosity in sharing her pedagogy and her process.  Before every class--and often outside of them--she would say, "Margaret, at any time while I'm teaching, if you think there is anything I could or should be doing, or saying differently, or if you feel a different angle or technique would work better, come up and tell me, right away!"  And I would!  And we would immediately try this new tack...

GMF...So Juliana, with your close participation, hammered out the program class by class--a kind of impromptu performer/deliverer and note-taker/observer tag-team-teaching!  That really was very open and innovative!

MB...Yes, indeed.  And afterward, we'd go over my notes, and spend hours analyzing and reflecting on what had happened, what worked, why, and where the work should go next.

GMF...So this became your thesis--and we could actually read it?

MB...Yes, of course.  It's in the UVic library.

GMF...What a dynamic and collaborative way to explore both teaching, and the recording of teaching into meaningful text!  

MB...Yes, it was wonderful!  And in those days, Juliana and Norah had begun writing their book, so each summer, when Juliana would return to Ontario to visit her children, she'd also spend weeks and weeks writing with Norah.  Then, Juliana would try out and analyze the things they were writing back in the classroom at UVic.

GMF...Did you edit the book (Teaching Drama: A Mind of Many Wonders), or do the foreword?  

MB...No, but I certainly had my brain picked, and again, they were extremely generous in that, if I suggested something quite different from what they were saying or doing, they would credit me in the book.  However, I don't think that I am mentioned a lot.   My role was more like creating continuous background noise for them.  And of course, I couldn't often watch Norah teach because she was way back out here, in Ontario, working away while Juliana was in UVic.

GMF...You must have produced great noise, because Norah brought you to Brock to replace her.

MB...Yes, that's true.  And I taught 4 full courses each year, whereas now, profs are only allowed to teach 2 full courses.  

GMF...And due to internal University changes and pressures, you had to revamp all of the courses Norah had begun.

MB...Yes, I did.  However, it was all worth it when we were able to offer a full Honours undergraduate degree program in Drama in Education (and Applied Theatre).

GMF....That tells us how you met Juliana and Norah, Margaret, but how did you get to know and be friends with all the other "big" names of the time in TIE/DIE?  I mean, you've just had your book, Gavin Bolton's Contextual Drama:  The Road Less Taken published, and I know that much of that came out of Gavin's frequent summer intensive courses for teachers that you arranged he give at Brock (again, in the Theatre Department).  But how did you meet "the Brits"?  What about Dorothy Heathcote, for example.

MB...Well, Dorothy was invited to UBC to teach an intensive, so of course, Juliana absolutely had to go to see her, and as I was by now Juliana's personal assistant and friend, I went along, too, and got to do the same as I did for Juliana. I sat in the background and took lots of notes.  It was really wonderful to watch Dorothy teach, especially as the Mary Jane Wagner book (Dorothy Heathcote:  Drama as a Learning Medium) was the basis for what I was doing with Juliana--although Wagner did not do the instant intervention element that Juliana had set up with me.  And of course, some of the interchanges with Dorothy, Juliana, and the UBC teaching are also in my thesis.

So, as Juliana's assistant, I met all sorts of TIE/DIE people, but of course, I stayed in the background and was usually too intimidated to speak.

GMF...Whom else did you meet that way?

MG...Gavin Bolton, for instance.  Juliana would come back East every summer, but she'd arrange for a well known and respected Drama in Education expert to come and teach a 3-week intensive course (6 hours a day) while she was away.  My job was to look after them. One of the first people to come was Gavin, and I was his "go-fer", of course, but he was fine with my taking notes while he worked.  Also, with Gavin, because I was always there, taking notes, he would agree to meet with me afterward to go over things. H e'd allow me to ask him questions on anything that had happened during the session, and he did his best to answer her (and of course, I took notes on that, too).

GMF...And what about Cecily O'Neill?

MB...Oh yes, with Cecily, it was the same thing.  She also came to teach a 3-week intensive, and again, I took notes.  And every summer for at least 5 years, different people came, and I'd look after them, and take notes.

GMF...Once you were hired at Brock, you continued that pattern of bringing in the top people to do summer intensives for our program, too.

MB...Well, yes, by that time, I knew them all, and they knew me, so it was just a natural thing to do.  And Gavin came several times.  Warwick Dobson also came once, I believe.

GMF...What about CODE?  Norah and Juliana had, of course, been amongst those who founded CODE, and they instantly included you when you came to Brock.

MB...Yes they did. And that's when the CODE magazine CONTACT began, and I agreed to edit it.  You see, Juliana felt very strongly that CODE, as an organization, badly needed a publication to attract experts from elsewhere, and to give Canadians a place to be heard, as well, for recording their action research, teaching, etc.

GMF...And you got all the big names to write for you...which was fairly easy, because you knew them all--and they kind of 'owed you' for looking after them!

MB...Yes, I did know them all, and it wasn't difficult to get them to contribute.

GMF...CONTACT lasted for a long time, didn't it.

MB...Yes, for at least a decade--until they wanted to make it digital.  By that time, I decided to pass it on to others.  Besides, I was interested in writing a book on Gavin, since I had copious notes on every single class he had ever taught at UBC and Brock.

I had notes on both what he did--and what he said, and he was willing to help me.  He okayed every word.

GMF...Margaret, what about advice?  What would you say to young teachers today?

MB...I'd say--keep going...even if you need to be 'subversive.'  My friends and contacts tell me, for example, that in England, with the excuse that since all attention and energy must go to teaching literacy and accommodating the many, many groups of new inhabitants, DIE is no longer permitted in the curriculum.  What my friends also tell me is that their solution is to shut their classroom doors--and do it anyway!  And that would be my advice--don't let anything stop you from including Drama in your teaching!

GMF...A quiet, daring solution from the edges--appropriate for a goddess in the shadows!  Thank you, Margaret Burke, for you contribution!