Features | 20 March 2024

Dean Burke: I wish I’d known…

I wish I’d known… Our series of interviews with theatre makers sharing their experiences of working in the industry

MGCfutures speaks to Theatrical Milliner and 2016 Bursary recipient, Dean Burke

When did you decide on your current career path and what prompted your decision?

I trained as a dancer at The Place and had been performing professionally since I was 11-years-old. By my early twenties I had battled bulimia and a knee injury, which forced me to stop and take time away from work. When I returned to the industry, I came to the realisation that it wasn’t the correct path for me. I would find excuses to not return my agent’s calls, to postpone or cancel auditions and to refuse job offers. I suddenly felt alien in my industry, so I made the difficult decision to walk away.

I had no idea what I would do, or what career I could have with a mostly performance-based CV, so I worked front of house and as an exhibition assistant for the next few years and became very frustrated. I had always led a creative life and to not have any creative output felt like swimming upstream. After a particularly difficult period at work, I was exhausted and run down and my partner asked me: ‘If time and money were no object, what would you do?’ I think the answer that was expected was ‘go on holiday’ or ‘start a degree’ but instead I said ‘Tudor millinery’. I don’t know why I said it, but that was the answer.

We decided to research if there was such a thing and to our surprise there was a course and it was due to start a few weeks later. The course was ‘Shakespeare and The Tudors: Theatrical Millinery for Stage and Screen’ at Morley College, taught by the incredible Jane Smith. I took the course in spring 2014 and by the autumn Jane had asked me to assist her in her studio. After a few months assisting Jane and enrolling on further courses, I realised that I had found something that I loved doing, that was fulfilling and exciting and which I wanted to make my new career.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in the beginning?

Self-doubt. Having had no formal training I worried about my skills-level, my lack of contacts in the costume world and stupidly thought that I was too old to be considered for entry-level jobs (I was 28). I remember once talking with Jane about what my next steps should be for gaining formal training, she told me directly: ‘None. Your hand and eye are individual. You are “hatty”. Do the work your way and say yes to everything.’ She was right and in 2017 I started working full-time as a freelance milliner.

What has been one of the greatest rewards?

At the risk of sounding corny, I absolutely love my job. I am super-geeky about millinery and I am probably stitching straw, making flowers or dying feathers for fun if I have a rare day off. It can be hard work – long hours and tight deadlines – but seeing your work, the things you’ve made, on stage or screen is a powerful feeling.

What advice would you give the younger you just starting out?

Every journey is individual. How we navigate life is not the same as someone else. Trust your journey, take your own steps in your own time. Oh, and remember to enjoy it!