‘The Burn’ delves into bullying themes for a young audience


Source: Michael Brosilow

Nina Ganet, Birgundi Baker, Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller and Phoebe González in “The Burn.” The show explores the topic of online and in-person bullying.

Crystal Wall, Reporter


While at Northwestern, Phoebe González (Communication ’15) took a playwriting class with Devon de Mayo, whom she describes as one of her influential professors. Now, in a testament to their lasting relationship, de Mayo is directing González in Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of “The Burn.”

“The Burn,” playing through March 10, is commissioned by Steppenwolf for Young Adults and tailored to connect with an adolescent audience.

“The Burn” deals with both online and in-person bullying through a plot set in a high school’s tension-filled production of “The Crucible.” Mercedes, the protagonist, is targeted for her social ineptitude and strong religious background.

“One of the things the play demonstrates really effectively is the actual physical, living, breathing consequences to an action online,” González said. “We are constantly experiencing growing pains from teens and technology.”

González, who plays Mercedes, said her relationship with de Mayo is her longest standing one from NU, and added that de Mayo was fundamental to her development as an artist during her time in Evanston.

“I went into that class really, really scared, feeling really in over my head, and feeling that everyone in the class had more experience than me,” González said. “Devon was this incredibly warm, encouraging intellectual who really encouraged my work.”

Erik Hellman (Communication ’03) plays Mr. Krawacek, a well-intentioned teacher who struggles with alcoholism. Hellman has performed in theater geared toward young audiences before, but he said the high school audience of “The Burn” has been particularly vocal in Q&A sessions after the show.

González said she noticed how willing the students were to support one another’s stories during the Q&A and clap for each other if they shared personal experiences with bullying. She said she believes theatre is a unique medium for addressing an issue like bullying, as the audience experiences the emotions of the characters along with the cast.

In an email to The Daily, de Mayo also noted how students are far more willing to give feedback than adults are. She said this feedback was especially valuable for the actors to tailor their acting techniques so they can connect well with a teenage audience.

Hellman said audience members sharing their personal resonance with particular scenes has helped him to see the show from the perspective of a young adult. Once he is aware of the significance of certain scenes to the audience, he said, he tries to honor that in his performance.

De Mayo said she made sure the show was authentic by directing it outside an echo chamber of adult beliefs. De Mayo and Philip Dawkins, the piece’s author, worked closely with the Steppenwolf Young Adult Council to make sure the play would connect with younger audience members.

De Mayo stressed the importance of accessible theater for young adults. She said engaging young people in cross-generational dialogues is an effective way of creating greater understanding among future leaders.

“Scientifically, it’s been proven that theater can enhance empathy because we are watching human emotion for an extended period of time through storytelling,” she said. “We need empathy in the world right now, desperately. And I think young adults are the key.”

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