Off the Clock: The Play’s the Thing for This Professor

Posted: November 10, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By David Driver

John Barclay Burns
John B. Burns

It was a chilly Friday night in Silver Spring, Md. Located in a strip mall just off a busy road, the Silver Spring Stage – a community theater – was hosting the premier of “The Play’s the Thing.”

For Mason professor John Barclay Burns, the play is the thing, at least in his off-hours. On that particular evening, the associate professor of religious studies was a long way from modern traffic snarls on the nearby Beltway. He was in a castle on the Italian Riviera, circa the 1920s – thanks to his character in the play by Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnar.

Burns had the role of Johann Dwornitschek, an aging, stoop-shouldered butler. The play was adapted by British playwright P.G. Wodehouse and first staged in the United States in 1926, on Long Island.

“I looked at the script and thought, well, maybe this characterization of a doddery butler will be fun. I auditioned, and I got the part,” says Burns.

The director of the Silver Spring production was Pauline Griller-Mitchell, whom Burns has known for about 25 years. He has been in the same cast with her and had roles in other plays she directed.

“There was a debate whether or not I should do it with a Scottish accent,” says Burns, who was born and grew up in Scotland. In the end he did not use the accent, since he surmised that in Molnar’s original version the butler most likely came from rural stock.

Burns began acting as a college student in Glasgow, Scotland, some 40 years ago. He later moved to Canada to begin a pastorate in Toronto and came to Northern Virginia in 1981 to become the minister of Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax.

Burns, who joined the Mason faculty in 1986, has a doctorate in the mythology of death in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. However, his passion with theater has kept him involved in community theater throughout the years.

“It is a release. I am a firm believer that good teachers are good actors,” says Burns, noting that both require being comfortable in front of an audience. “For my classes, there is a certain level of performance, which keeps (the students) awake, I hope.”

When he moved to Northern Virginia, he joined the British Embassy Players. The group no longer performs at the embassy and is now called the British Players. They usually put on three plays a year.

One memorable role he had with the British Embassy Players was as one of Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters.

“The quality of (community) theater here is very good, indeed,” says Burns.

Burns chooses his roles based on the location of the local theater and whether he can work it around his teaching schedule.

“I have always learned by being on stage. I have to act with the book in my hand. I don’t like to sit at home and read the part,” says Burns, though he does have to do just that to prepare. “I never look at the audience. I always think it is tacky to look at the audience.”

Some local theaters call on Burns as a British accent coach. He will attend the first read-through and make notes and let actors know subtle difference in the pronunciation of words based on British English and American English.

He is also a judge for the Ruby Griffith award, named after the London native who moved to Washington after her professional acting career. As a judge, Burns will see about six plays per year at area community theaters.

Write to at