Born on January 4, 1895, in Chatham, Ontario, the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary, Mary Ellen Morrison spent her formative years in rural areas and graduated from Regina Normal School in 1912. While her rural teaching career inspired a lifelong interest in young people, she also became involved in community theatre with Jack Thomson, her first husband. Widowed in 1923 with two sons, Allan and Harry, her return to teaching ended with her marriage to George Burgess in 1928 and the birth of a third son, Orrison. Between 1928 and 1944, she became increasingly active in community theatre as an adjudicator, director and executive member of the Regina Little Theatre and Saskatchewan Drama League.
Widowed again in 1944, Burgess became the drama consultant for the Division of Fitness and Recreation, Department of Education. Between 1944 and 1961 she travelled extensively across Saskatchewan advising teachers, assisting on school productions, and adjudicating festivals. Her work focused mainly on school theatre, especially with drama becoming a curricular subject in 1946. However, acting on her belief that educational theatre and community theatre were closely linked, she also reached a wider audience through lectures, broadcasts, articles, workshops, and summer schools. In 1977 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus, for her outstanding pioneering work in Canadian drama. Mary Ellen Burgess died on December 12, 1984.