“I’ve let down some very important people in my life and have many amends to make as a result. The community as a whole is surely on that list.” – Facebook message to the Las Vegas theater community by Brandon Burk, artistic director of the Onyx Theatre, Prisoner #1022746
Damn straight he let them down—horribly, grievously, inexcusably.
Brandon Burk drove drunk and killed a man. He is rightly incarcerated for it. Brandon Burk is also one of the most talented theater people ever to grace Las Vegas. Neither cancels the other out.
Yet it did give rise to a strange arrangement in which his state-mandated housing complicates his Las Vegas job—a job his boss refuses to deny him while Nevada denies him his freedom.
“I believe in giving people a second chance in this life,” says Onyx Theatre co-owner Michael Morse. Together with theater manager Ernie Curcio and artistic director Burk—who performs his duties via phone calls from the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs—Morse keeps the intimate, innovative Onyx on its artistic path.
“When Brandon came here, I absolutely fell in love with the man because he’s so upbeat,” says Morse, whose cozy, 100-seat playhouse is tucked inside The Rack fetish shop in the rundown Commercial Center on East Sahara Avenue. “When you have people who have the same love of the crazy you do, and they want to see the little Onyx Theatre survive and thrive, you don’t throw that away.”
Sadly, the 31-year-old Burk squandered his second chance on a technicality, having been imprisoned, released and re-arrested—led out of the Onyx lobby in handcuffs as patrons looked on earlier this year—and now awaits his third chance, clinging to his first love from a distance.
Following is the tragic timeline:
On his first day back home.
Sentenced to 5 ½ to 14 ½ years behind bars, he spent four years at a Carson City prison, organizing an Alcoholics Anonymous program and teaching Shakespeare to fellow inmates. Recalling a visit with Burk, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s theater critic, Anthony Del Valle (who died last month), wrote in his Theater Chat column: “A prisoner came up to our table and said, ‘Brandon, I hope just because you have a visitor, that doesn’t mean Shakespeare class is going to be canceled.’”
Granted work-release status in April 2012, Burk was transferred to the Casa Grande Transitional Center on Russell Road. Initially, he found local work waiting tables.
Yet Burk was highly regarded in Vegas theater circles as an actor/director—his deft, funny and dramatic performances were consistent highlights of Nevada Conservatory Theatre productions at UNLV—and as a onetime dialect coach for Spamalot on the Strip. Approached by Morse in June and offered the Onyx position as artistic director, Burk accepted.
“I’ve had eight artistic directors in eight years, and it doesn’t pay a lot, so you really have to love it for it to matter,” Morse says. “Brandon and I shared the same philosophy of theater, that low cost does not have to equal low quality. It took a few months but he was able to pull together enough talent to pull off Sweeney Todd last October. One show sold out after the other.”
Sweeney was widely lauded as among the best, if not the best, community theater productions of 2012; so popular that in a rare feat of endurance, it was revived for more performances in January; hailed by Del Valle—known to be as demanding of friends’ work as anyone else’s—as a show that “restores your faith in American musicals, as well as local artists’ ability to do them justice”; directed by Brandon Burk, who left daily rehearsals for nightly confinement.
“He’d get into a rhythm,” Morse says, “but he still had to go back to jail every night.” Not that it blunted Burk’s creative influence—or the personal insight that he could now provide that few others could ever hope to share: As the Stephen Sondheim musical begins, Sweeney Todd is a newly released convict.
“His situation made it unique and when he was in prison he had really gotten passionate about this project of Sweeney Todd, it had gotten into his soul,” recalls local theater vet Chris Mayse, who starred as Burk’s mad-eyed Todd.
“He gave me a lot to think about. We talked about his experiences when he was incarcerated, the sense of isolation, things Sweeney would have gone through. That’s why this play spoke to him. With Brandon, as with Sweeney, when he comes out of prison, he wants to get his life back, to get his feet back on the ground. I felt like that with Brandon.”
Knowing his situation, Sweeney’s cast and crew also aided their show’s captain, whose movements and lifestyle were curtailed by work-release regs. “He could only be at certain places at certain times, so that would dictate when rehearsals were over,” Mayse says. “We’d give him encouragement, like, ‘If you can’t do that we’ll get it for you,’ or ‘If you can’t drive, we’ll go.’”
Beyond the triumph of Todd, Burk also scheduled the Onyx season of shows, keeping its stage whirring with productions from local groups including Ragtag Entertainment, Table 8 Productions, Poor Richard’s Players, Huntsman Entertainment, Chaos Theater, SRO Productions, Sin City Opera and Quadranine Productions.
“We’re booked through April 2014, so we’re doing well,” says Curcio, who is also a veteran actor, director and prolific local playwright, and who, like Burk, also performed in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. “Before he left [for prison], we had known each other maybe three months, but we became very close and really respect each other. We’re both UNLV alumni, both very invested in the Las Vegas theater community. We’re men of the theater.”
Rejecting the all-too-common practice of theatrical isolationism in this city, Burk also earned kudos from Morse for helping to shatter the inexplicable barriers that have long separated local troupes.
“Brandon helped foster an incestuous relationship between theater companies that never shared actors, never shared props, never shared anything, hardly,” Morse says. “He reached out to the entire community, borrowing set pieces and props. We can get on the phone right now with Las Vegas Little Theatre and say, ‘Do you have columns?’ And they’ll say, ‘How many do you want?’”
Set decorations, actors and backstage resources now bounce back and forth. Sadly, so did Burk. One night, a pair of handcuffs—not provided by a prop department—found their way back to the artistic director’s wrists.
“I’m at the counter and the store manager comes up and says, ‘You really need to come with me; Brandon’s in the office in handcuffs,’” Morse remembers. “I go in and Brandon is sitting there, very quiet, he wasn’t allowed to speak. He looked down at an iPad on the ground. [The officials] said, ‘Is that yours?’ For a second, I think he thought about lying about it, but then he thought honesty was the best policy. His brother had given it to him as a gift a couple of weeks earlier. Who knew? And he was led off.”
Busted back to prison over possessing an iPad.
Addressing that Black Monday in his message to the theater community—which was posted to Facebook in February by Del Valle at Burk’s request—Burk explained: While this is not a crime for most people, as an inmate it is illegal to possess a telecommunications device. I was aware of the rules that forbade me to have the device, and by having it I risked both the privileges and freedoms I had been granted, as well as the well-being of the Onyx itself.
Freedom revoked—at least until later this year, when Burk comes up before the parole board. “We’re starting a letter-writing campaign,” Morse says. “Several of us are going to the parole hearing to speak on his behalf.”
Though Burk is granted regular phone privileges, keeping communication flowing with the Onyx is challenging. “The calls are fast and furious, and it can be horribly frustrating,” Curcio says. “You can hear the beep from the prison phone going off right in the middle of trying to figure something out, or I miss the call and then God knows [when they will talk again]. I’m just keeping the ship afloat until the captain comes back.”
Adds Morse: “He likes to call on opening nights, and he’ll say, ‘What is happening? How’s it going?’ And we’ll say, ‘You can do what about it, exactly?’”
“Brandon was involved in something horrific that has affected many lives,” Mayse says. “He’s always going to have this shadow, this cloud hanging over him, carrying it with him forever. But he will come out on top. I’ve been thinking about him quite a lot lately.”
Likewise, Burk has been thinking quite a lot about his extended community theater family, as he wrote: It’s still unclear exactly how long I will be away … I [and the Onyx staff] still share a similar vision, mission and passion for that beautiful space. … Thank you so much for your support and for taking the time to read this. I hope to see you sooner than later.
Signing off for now, he invoked two words from which his redemption can take root:
Love and Art,