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'Modern Family's' Ty Burrell earned his acting chops on the stage

August 27, 2010 |  3:01 pm

“Modern Family’s” Ty Burrell is up for an Emmy on Sunday for his nuanced performance as a spacey dad in the critically raved-about sitcom. The strength of his performance rests, in part, on a motivating quality that Burrell picked up in the 15 years he spent training for and then acting on the stage.

Burrell “Fear,” Burrell said during a recent interview (click here to read the Sunday Calendar story).

“To this day, when I encounter a part for the first time, if my reaction is fearful, that’s a signal to me [that the work is] something that is worthwhile, commanding my respect to really pay attention, and to grapple it to the ground.”

Burrell spent 8 ½ years at three colleges -- the University of Oregon, Southern Oregon and Penn State -- and acquired two MFA degrees before grappling the daunting reality to the ground that if he was going to be an actor, he’d better go to New York and just act.

Apparently, he managed to conquer his fears. The list of Burrell’s Broadway and off-Broadway credits during the last decade is extensive. His credits range from Shakespeare -- “Richard III” and “Macbeth” -- to contemporary offerings, including Paul Wietz’s 2006 “Show People,” in which Burrell pleased New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who said Burrell’s “entertainingly sinister performance” conjured up the image of “Norman Bates made over into a young executive.” Among other highlights was work in a 2002 revival of “Burn This,“ the Lanford Wilson tale in which Burrell appeared opposite Edward Norton and Catherine Keener.

Meanwhile, throw a dart at Burrell’s London theater resume and you pretty much score the maximum points wherever it lands. In 2006, for instance, he appeared at the Royal Court Theatre in Caryl Churchill’s “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You,” a 40-minute one-act piece that revolves around a two-man relationship -- perhaps gay, perhaps not -- that is a metaphor for U.S.-English political intertwinements: The characters are named Sam (think Uncle) and Jack (think Union). Playing the assertive Sam, Burrell received rave reviews -- “nervy” and “wonderful” are easily acquired adjectives in reviews from the London press.

Most recently for the stage, Burrell worked extensively in 2009 at the annual summer JAW festival in Portland with Pulitzer-finalist Will Eno, helping develop the playwright’s new work “Middletown.” Eno’s admiration for the actor’s skills is unreserved.

“He’s not just another needy extrovert,” Eno said of Burrell. “There’s nothing of the cipher to him, he’s not a chameleon losing himself -- he just does things in this original way.”

“Middletown” is opening in October off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in lower Manhattan. Burrell gets a pained look on his face that scheduling commitments for “Modern Family” are keeping him out of the show.

“It sort of kills me that I won’t get to work on that,” says Burrell, tapping his chest in a sorrowful manner. “I am loving the TV work I’m doing, but when great opportunities come along for me in theater, there’s a little part that expires inside me when I can’t work in them.”

-- Christopher Smith

Photo: Ty Burrell. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times