Artistic License — Lyndsay Burch

Lyndsay Burch, the new artistic director of The Sofia: Home of B Street, shakes things up while respecting tradition.
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lyndsay burch
Photo by Wes Davis

Last August, Lyndsay Burch delivered and experienced a night of firsts. Burch was six weeks into her new position as artistic director of The Sofia: Home of B Street. The title is necessarily a mouthful as it covers a number of constituencies Burch oversees. Mainly, she is the artistic director of B Street Theatre, the Sacramento region’s pre-eminent professional theater company, which has its performance, rehearsal and administrative spaces in The Sofia building. She also is essentially the last word on what does and does not happen throughout the performing arts complex at 27th Street and Capitol Avenue.

That hot summer evening, Burch announced the theater’s upcoming 2022–23 season. It’s a slate of seven productions she and B Street staff worked together to select. Included are the chamber folk musical “The Last Wide Open,” an intimate family drama called “Broke-ology” and the acclaimed modern British farce, “The Play That Goes Wrong.” This is the first time in more than 30 years that B Street has ever announced a full season of its Mainstage shows.

“I wanted to make a statement about what my handprint on the theater was going to be,” Burch tells me later in her modest, knickknack-filled office. Though she has been with B Street most of her professional life, Burch is taking over from the company’s cofounder. From tech to the arts, taking over from a founder is a thing.

Her predecessor, Buck Busfield, never scheduled seasons. To his credit, he created a unique subscription model for the arts. Subscribers might know what the next play or two would be, but those were subject to change and often did, depending on what Busfield felt the company’s needs were at the moment: a smaller cast because revenues had fallen short or a funnier play because there was darkness and uncertainty in the previous offering.

It was a nimble way to produce theater if you had the actors and production team who could pull it together on short notice. Busfield had recruited and developed his people over the years. All that was needed was an audience who would go along with all that. Busfield had nurtured them as well.

lyndsay burch
Photo by Wes Davis

Burch arrived in Sacramento 10 years ago as an intern, during the early stages of what would become a marathon capital campaign. She saw the company raising money for a new building but wondered how the “we’ll let you know” schedule actually worked.

The patrons knew they had signed up for seven shows and that they’d enjoy most of them. Ultimately, the audience would love the actors in the intimate setting they saw them perform in. Most importantly, there was a casual, unstuffy informality about it.

“I saw that the brand they had cultivated was so strong, people didn’t care what they were coming to see,” Burch says. “I understood what was building this building,” she says, leading me up a set of stairs.

When Burch first came to B Street, shows were frequently punctuated by the sound of passing trains behind the old theater building. If the company wanted to stage an event, they put up tents in the parking lot. At The Sofia, they have state-of-the-art acoustics in the performance spaces and large, work-ready rehearsal spaces on-site, not halfway across town.

Burch’s ascension to artistic director was not preordained, but it was not a huge surprise, either. She had pointed herself this way since she started taking theater classes in middle school in North Carolina. Her parents were both accountants who always supported her artistic aspirations. Burch was just 12 when her theater teacher told her she should be directing. She’s been on that road ever since.

Lori Bluett, the B Street board president, tells me Burch is one of those people who always shows up to do the behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done. “For years and years, she’s been the person who says, ‘OK, if the janitor didn’t show up to clean the toilets, I’ll clean the toilets. You need help writing the script, I’ll write the script.’ She’s helped produce plays in India and at the Kennedy Center. Whatever opportunity, no matter how high or low, she was that person who would say to Buck, ‘Look at me, I’ll do it.’” The board did its due diligence with a national search for Busfield’s replacement after he announced his retirement, but Burch always seemed like the natural successor.

“She has the institutional résumé,” Bluett says. “But she also created through her work ethic a very expanded résumé for her youth by saying, ‘Show me, show me, teach me. I’ll work 24/7.’”

Burch leads me through an elegant hallway above the lobby, which has been elevated into an art gallery with a series of moody watercolors across the long, white wall. I tell her how nice it looks. “I think so, too,” she says. “It seemed like a wasted opportunity not to put anything here.”

Many things changed when B Street moved into the $20 million complex next to the late Randy Paragary’s Fort Sutter Hotel. Paragary was a longtime B Street supporter who had eagerly anticipated the possibilities of the new building. There are now two medium-size, audience-friendly performance spaces: a 257-seat Mainstage thrust-style theater and a 365-seat Sutter Theatre for Children proscenium-style venue. Both spaces have 30-foot ceilings, fly space for sets and space below the stage for lifts, trap doors and special effects that could never be considered in the old space.

The scale of the Sutter stage makes it a great fit for touring musicians. Regional veteran musical presenter SBL Productions was initially hired to oversee bookings. Once audiences started returning to live music after pandemic shutdowns, B Street began doing most of the booking itself, with Busfield having significant involvement in identifying the talent.

“We need to move past just keeping the building warm,” Burch says. “How can we curate? It’s a place where we haven’t previously had bandwidth.” Given how much the artistic director has on her plate, the board began searching for a managing director for B Street in the traditional American regional theater management model. B Street last had a managing director when Bill Blake was there handling Sofia fundraising and financing. He’ll be advising as they look for the company’s new business executive.

Performing organizations like Sacramento Ballet and Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus had productions that worked better in The Sofia’s midsized space than in larger city-run halls. Burch and B Street like having those types of efficient building rentals where organizations will put up and manage their own product in the space. “If we are able to add these elements, that’s going to greatly contribute to the long-term sustainability of The Sofia,” Burch says.

While there is certainly much more space onstage and off for everyone, Burch notes there is also much more space to fill.

“We were no longer a small little motorboat that could really easily pivot and shift in the waters,” Burch says as we look through the windows of the lobby out onto Capitol Avenue. “The Sofia had many more demands productionwise—sets doubled in budget and the plays themselves got bigger because you couldn’t just constantly do one-person shows or two handers downstairs.”

She also sensed the audience’s expectations of what they were going to see had changed. The new theater had been promoted in part through the idea that higher production values would follow with state-of-the-art technology.

lyndsay burch
Photo by Wes Davis

“I realized as an organization we needed more stability. Also, there was the fact that back at the old space, the company, frankly, was a bit younger. People aren’t 25 anymore. They make plans and they also want to be able to financially plan what their income is going to be. “This ability to pick a script two to three weeks out and put it into production was much, much less feasible,” Burch says. “I don’t think staying in that model was really going to grow us to where we ultimately want to be in terms of the production quality or the national visibility of our work.”

Burch thought the season announcement was best for the staff and the actors, not just production but marketing and development as well. Everyone would benefit from having timelines in place.

Having a season scheduled had so much to recommend it, but the announcement could be an important event as well.

“I wanted it to feel very B Street; we opened it with a sketch, the whole acting company. There were some scenes read from the plays, there was catering, there was artwork,” Burch says. “I think it was successful.”

She wanted attendees to think, “Oh, we’ve never seen B Street do something like this.”

It was an opportunity to bring in donors and subscribers and generate excitement around the season that not only would result in subscription renewals or purchases, but also production support. They were able to say, “We’re doing ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ next year,” and then go out and recruit sponsors for the season’s highlight production, which they did two months later.

“Now we’re a year out and we know that we can set aside this funding to do this production. I saw this avenue to do some bigger things that were previously not available. I realized outside of maybe a couple titles, we’re still doing plays no one’s ever heard of.” Burch laughs. “That’s still the brand.”

At the season announcement event, Burch also told attendees the company was moving its New Play Festival (directed readings of new plays yet to be produced) from the upstairs rehearsal space to the downstairs theater because they had maxed out capacity the previous year. The company was also going to be producing three plays developed at this year’s festival.

Burch was having a good night that was about to get better.

“A couple came up to me and said, ‘We want to purchase this sponsorship for the new play festival,’” Burch says. “It was at this moment—my first big donation that someone was coming and giving to me. I said, ‘Oh, well, yes, that’s great. Would you like to schedule lunch or coffee?’ They said, ‘Well, we have our credit card right here. Can’t you just charge it?’”

Burch, who is usually poised and in control, was flummoxed for a moment. Then she realized it was an affirmation of the plan and direction she had just laid out to everyone there at the event. “It was exciting to know that whatever we had done . . . had convinced people this is something we’re investing in.”

The new era of B Street was unfolding.

“I think that people have always invested in B Street,” Burch says. “But now that The Sofia’s built, how can we then get them to invest in the growth of the programming? This felt like the first step toward that.”