‘I’ve spent a really long time hiding it’: Musical star opens up about hearing loss

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‘I’ve spent a really long time hiding it’: Musical star opens up about hearing loss

By Nick Miller

When Kirby Burgess was a kid growing up in Batemans Bay, she used to get the lyrics of songs wrong. Very wrong. When the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang “dream of Californication”, she would hear “chicken can’t afford a vacation”.

Kirby Burgess, star of Cruel Intentions, at The Atheneum Theatre.

Kirby Burgess, star of Cruel Intentions, at The Atheneum Theatre.Credit:Simon Schluter

It was hilarious, but it was a symptom of something serious: a hole in her right eardrum. Many kids have them and, usually, they grow over. But Burgess’ never did. A traumatic operation in her late teens failed to fix the problem (though it stopped her regular ear infections). She basically can’t hear much with that ear these days, and the other one isn’t quite 100 per cent either.

But to date, she hasn’t let on. Since she was three, Burgess has been chasing a dream of singing and dancing on stage – and she didn’t want to risk throwing it all away.

In auditions she would lipread to understand the directions, then nail the part: Rizzo in Grease, Ringmaster in Barnum, Baby in Dirty Dancing. She stole the show as rock chick Linda in The Wedding Singer. And now she’s the villain, Kathryn, in a new production of Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical, about to open in Melbourne before a national tour.


“When you audition in the room there’s a sheet you fill out and it says on there, ‘Is there anything that would hinder you from doing this job?’” Burgess says, taking a break from rehearsals in the theatre foyer. “I always said no. And I’ve always kind of felt that I was lying, even though I’m not. I’ve always had this fear of telling people about my hearing and what that means – that people would assume I couldn’t do the job.

“I’ve spent a really long time just hiding it. I think of it as a superpower because I’m in disguise all the time.”

She now feels ready to reveal her superpower. Partly, she says, because she’s taking runs on the board, not just raw talent, into the audition room. And partly because she believes that opening up about it will make her (even) better at her job.

Burgess says she has struggled, privately, in the rehearsal room and on stage, trying to compensate without being detected. She relied on perfect natural rhythm and timing to hit her cues, especially when performing with an actor who might be on the other side of a big stage and facing away.


“It’s scary because you think, ‘Am I doing the right thing for this moment?’”

When she told the team at Cruel Intentions, she says they were “incredible”. She is now considering wearing a hearing aid on stage, and gets a little emotional talking about it.

“When I first put a hearing aid on [on stage] ... that experience, of realising all the things that you’re missing out on, might be daunting.”

However, it’s exciting too. She can’t wait to experience what it will do for her as an actor, performer and company member.

Though the hearing aid is on order, whether she can use it in Cruel Intentions is still not settled. There are many unanswered questions about how it would practically work and, as her situation feels unique, she’s not sure whom to ask for advice.


Will her head microphone interfere with the hearing aid? Or vice versa? Could it feed back or interrupt the signal? Could she secure it within her wig and makeup without affecting its operation? Will it make costume changes more tricky?

“I’ve reached out to some people in the industry on questions about that, but unfortunately there isn’t a lot of education on it.”

She’s hoping for answers soon because the hearing aid will transform the experience of performing for her. And – she hopes – its visibility will be a positive symbol of inclusion for the audience and industry.

“I’m very excited to start this new side of my life – and this would be a good show to try it in a safe and welcoming environment. Hopefully, I can.”

Cruel Intentions plays Melbourne from May 25, Sydney from June 30, then Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra.

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