B Street Reflections

Buck Busfield, producing artistic director of B Street Theatre, retires next month.
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buck busfield standing on the stage
Photo by Tim Engle

Late in the afternoon of March 4, Buck Busfield fine-tuned a scene of the B Street Theatre production “Lovers and Executioners.” Actor Meher Mistry threw cloth potatoes at another actor, Melinda Parrett. The play, a modern verse adaptation of a 17th century French commedia dell’arte nod to classic Shakespearean comedies, is full of physical fun. The prop potatoes sailed by Parrett’s head, careening into the audience—a potential safety issue. It’s the last play Busfield will direct as the producing artistic director of B Street before he retires in June.

“They don’t really hurt, though, do they?” Busfield asked the room. “Buck, they might,” answered Lynnae Vana, the veteran stage manager, annoyed that the question was even asked. She flipped a potato to Busfield and he tested the heft of the compacted material. Vana muscled the base of a ceramic stone water fountain onto a rolling dolly. “Can’t we just leave that downstage here?” Busfield asked, watching her.

Vana stood upright, her hands on her hips. “I suggested that two weeks ago, but everybody had a better idea, none of which have worked,” Vana said deliberately.

Busfield smiled. “Just put it where you want it,” he said. “Let’s move on.” He calmly swiped through screens on his notepad.

“We’ll fix the potatoes later,” he added. The production’s opening-night performance was less than four hours away.

buck busfield
“The most important aspect of any endeavor that’s a business or a nonprofit is a personal connection with the public.” Photo by Tim Engle.

After 36 years, hundreds of plays directed (at least 200, he estimates), thousands of performances overseen, millions of audience members around the world entertained, and a major performance venue built, Busfield will leave the company he co-founded with his brother Tim. Buck is the only artistic director the company’s ever known.

“It’s a combination of where I’m at internally in my life with my age, turning 70. There’s some other things I want to do,” Busfield said to me later. “The other piece is the last two quarters before the COVID closure were really important because that’s when the business model worked.” The last half of 2019 was the company’s best in nearly 10 years. It was just their second year in The Sofia, the theater complex for which Busfield spent 10 years raising money. It opened in 2018.

“We were paying everything off, making enough money to pay all our bills,” Busfield said. “It was the marriage of those two things that really gave me confidence.”

Busfield was already scheduled to direct “Lovers and Executioners,” but his involvement was ambushed by a COVID delay. As a thank-you acknowledgment to a few longtime company members, he took them on a trip to Scotland in early February for a music festival. Busfield’s trip home included a 10-day quarantine in Amsterdam after he tested positive at Schiphol Airport during a layover in Holland.

Assistant artistic director Lyndsay Burch put the play up on its feet during Busfield’s absence. Burch has been named incoming artistic director, succeeding Busfield, and will assume his creative duties. The company will hire a managing director for the administrative oversight as well. It’s a typical arrangement for American theaters that can afford a person in each position. B Street has often gone without one.

That Burch can so seamlessly step in and out of the director’s chair or that so much is being confidently stitched together in the last moments (in truth, most theater comes together this way—B Street just takes it to an extreme) are tributes to the “B Street way” and what Busfield has built. He’s long considered his acting company an anchor of the company’s success. He told me that “truthfulness, the ability to make big theatrical choices and remain truthful,” was the key to being successful on the B Street stage.

“The most important aspect of any endeavor that’s a business or a nonprofit is a personal connection with the public, without a doubt,” Busfield said later.

THE TROUPE

The acting company was unofficial for many years, but anyone going to a B Street production in early 2000s knew they were likely to see Elisabeth Nunziato, Kurt Johnson, John Lamb, Greg Alexander or Dana Brooke. Years later, Jason Kuykendall, Amy Kelly, Peter Story and Stephanie Altholz became familiar faces as well.

“Up until social media started, all of marketing was about selling. Now, it’s all about engaging. It’s a very different thing,” Busfield said. “B Street, because of our acting company, was engaging all along. We were doing it as the DNA of the theater. It wasn’t so strategic; it’s who we were.”

Burch first came to B Street as a directing intern, which allowed her to shadow Busfield for nine months. “You could get to hear him talk about the process and why it was the way it was, and why it might have looked different than at some other place,” Burch said. One of Busfield’s unique qualities was his early commitment to new work rather than the slow-death-by-development process that so many theaters employ so they won’t have to actually put on the untried play.

Buck and Tim, 1988
Buck and Tim, 1988. Photo courtesy of Buck Busfield and The Sofia.

B Street green-lit the plays, and rehearsals became the development process, whether it was Busfield’s own drama, “Not in the Stars,” his commission of nationally known playwright Idris Goodwin’s “Bars and Measures,” or a comedy created by company members. To work that nimbly required a certain type of actor, and once he found them, Busfield held onto them.

“It was amazing to watch the company members, because they were just so comfortable with that process,” Burch said. “I immediately fell in love with the model of the acting company. The shorthand, the familiarity, the long relationships and, of course, chemistry.”

THE BEGINNING

Busfield’s father was a theater professor who taught at Florida State, The University of Alabama and then Michigan State, where the family put down roots and stayed. Buck, the second eldest of four kids, was born in Florida but grew up in Lansing, Michigan, where his dad often directed college and community theater productions. In their backyard, Buck and younger brother Tim made Super 8 films that typically ended with “someone getting blown up or set on fire.”

“One of my earliest memories is my dad pushing me out onto a stage to say a line and me upsetting him because I didn’t understand. I had to know what I was doing at age 4. What’s my motivation?” Busfield said.

tim and buck, 1956
Tim and Buck, 1956. Photo courtesy of Buck Busfield and The Sofia.

We were sitting in TBar, the cafe next to The Sofia on Capitol Avenue. Busfield had chosen it from the several vendors interested in setting up shop on the site. He tasted his soup, which he decided needed heating.

“My dad said, ‘Just go say the line.’ I remember going out and saying, ‘Everyone relax, it’s cool,’” Busfield said.

Those walk-ons continued throughout grade school before he was able to age out of the kid roles and pass the duties to his younger siblings as music and sports entered his life.

Mom Jean with Tim and Buck, 1976
Mom Jean with Tim and Buck, 1976. Photo courtesy of Buck Busfield and The Sofia.

“We were surrounded by it growing up,” Busfield said of theater making. “It was something that was so near, it seemed impossible. I shouldn’t say it seemed impossible—it seemed pedestrian.”

Yet when younger brother Tim, breathing fire from his recent Hollywood film and television successes, called in 1986 to say he wanted to start a children’s theater in Sacramento, Buck, then working as an actor in Minneapolis, was all in. Together they founded Theatre For Children Inc., which evolved into the B Street School Tour.

Buck had just returned from a spiritual retreat in India, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Mehera. They are both devotees of Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who preached the oneness of life. In 1988, Buck sent her a round-trip ticket to come visit him in Sacramento. “The theater was still going through some rough stuff, but I just figured, ‘I’m going to stay here. I think I can make this work,’” Busfield said. “I don’t think I ever had a thought of leaving.” They were married in 1989 at First United Methodist Church. She never used the second half of the ticket.

Wife Mehera and Buck, 1989
Wife Mehera and Buck, 1989. Photo courtesy of Buck Busfield and The Sofia.

The first tour went out in the fall of 1986 with all the short plays written by Buck or Tim. “The first show we did brought down the house with comedy, and there was silence when appropriate. It’s what we wanted,” Busfield said.

“I guess it validated our aesthetic. What we like, kids will like, teachers especially. The more you got validated or invalidated by the audience is how you get your confidence. Then you just do a lot of it.” Over the years, hundreds of actors have piled into vans to take original live performances across the region, where an estimated 3.6 million kids have experienced the shows.

Five years later, they founded B Street Theatre and began producing world premieres by such writers as Aaron Sorkin, Joe DiPietro and James McLure.

THE BUILDING

B Street’s home since 1991 had been a converted warehouse sandwiched between a levee topped by train tracks and a modest city park playing field. By the early 2000s, Busfield realized his evolving theater company needed larger, better performance spaces to fulfill its potential and showcase its varied entertainment ambitions.

A new theater required a capital campaign. Bill Blake, a respected nonprofit arts consultant, was recruited in 2005 to help Busfield manage the process. Blake understood he was hired to do two things. “One was, get the building project done, help them realize this plan,” Blake said. “It’s a huge undertaking for an organization, and Buck knew he needed some help, just more bandwidth to do that.”

They had one huge thing going for them: the promise of land from Sutter Health, which Busfield felt was the most important part. “I could go to anybody and get their attention,” Busfield said. “It put a stake in the ground of validity that made everything flow from that. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think anyone else would have given.”

The Original B Street Theatre, 2016
Original B Street Theatre, 2016. Photo courtesy of Buck Busfield and The Sofia.

Blake’s second initiative was to maintain and grow the operating cash flow. “B Street relies more on earned revenue (ticket sales) than contributor revenue (gifts or grants) and definitely wanted someone who would come in and help with that,” Blake said.

Busfield is a master of cash flow and also has an innate feel for ticket sales and trends. “He’d been doing it a long time when I started, and it was just so in his bones, the business of it,” Blake said. “He just had an amazing intuitive sense of how the market was responding to the work.”

Busfield and Blake were on a roller coaster of selling tickets, raising money, designing a theater and then riding out a recession. It was sometimes suggested they take a break. “I think both of us just felt like we couldn’t give up,” Blake said. Raising money was the central piece since construction couldn’t start until there were commitments in place to pay for it. It was the metaphorical heavy lifting of the project.

Blake remembers Buck having an epiphany early on in the process as they drove home from yet another event where they didn’t get the big, splashy gift they desperately needed. At that point, the proposed budget was around $21 million.

They had met lovely people who pledged support at modest levels, but capital campaigns live on big chunks of cash—million-dollar chunks—and they weren’t getting those. “It was hard to see that there were many prospects, and we were just so down about it,” Blake said.

But then Buck started talking about what they did have. “It’s not a few big donors that support this company,” Blake remembered Buck telling him. “It’s actually a lot, a lot of people who are ticket buyers and donors at smaller levels, and there’s huge power in that.” They gave themselves hope and inspiration.

“If we could engage the mass of the public that did support B Street, and did support live theater, and did support the growth of midtown—that ultimately would carry the project over the finish line,” Blake said. It took them 10 years. Blake returned to private consulting in 2015 after the capital to build the theater had been secured.

the sofia theatre 2018
The Sofia, 2018. Photo courtesy of Buck Busfield and The Sofia.

In 2016, the company broke ground on Capitol Avenue. In 2018, B Street moved into a brand-new, state-of-the-art-complex: The Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts.

The theater complex ended up revitalizing the entire city block between 28th and 29th streets. At the east end of Capitol is the late Randy Paragary’s new Fort Sutter Hotel and redesigned Cafe Bernardo. Next to it is The Sofia, a two-story, 49,000-square-foot complex with two theaters, three rehearsal halls and a smaller informal performance space upstairs. Across the bottom floor is a long, glass-walled, street-facing lobby. At the end of the block on the west sits TBar.

THE “L” WORD IS ON THE INSIDE

Even after Busfield steps down in June, he will still be around—not so much physically at first, but he’ll see shows, and he plans on programming some of the music The Sofia presents. He’ll also write a holiday play this year and direct occasionally in coming seasons. He’ll continue combining his love of travel and music.

He doesn’t think much about the idea of his legacy, but since he’s been asked about it quite often lately, he’s considered it. The building, the block really, he knows are considerable achievements. Already they’re part of the city fabric. They will outlive him.

“I got a building here that I think I’ve got to take some credit for,” Busfield told me. “But I’ve had my regrets all along the way in terms of strategy, management, artistic stuff that just I can’t stop from thinking, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that.’ Those things keep me honest.”

Some achievements are quantifiable. Stunningly so. More than a million children have seen live B Street theater since that first tour van hit the street.

“Over 30 years and counting—12 shows a week with that school tour, and then when he added the Family Series, he added more kids,” said artistic producer Dave Pierini, one of the longest tenured company members.

The Sofia interior
Photo courtesy of Buck Busfield and The Sofia

Pierini added, “The true artistic legacy is going to be the fact that that guy, through his stewardship and his leadership, made sure the kids of the Northern California region were exposed to theater in an unprecedented way.”

Busfield accomplished a personal goal early on after The Sofia opened: two simultaneous sold-out shows. “The vision for this place was to have a solid play, a concert together where you had a blending of communities—a blending into one,” Busfield said. “Where you could watch the ballet audience mix with hip-hop artists and get that community. It’s not so much what’s inside, it’s what’s in the lobby—the synergy.”

Blake, who travels the West analyzing arts organizations for a living, has a unique perspective. “I think The Sofia is an incredible legacy of what he built here in terms of an artistic company, who give life to The Sofia, to the organization itself,” he said. Blake includes the long-serving administrative staff, as well as the actors, directors, technicians and people “who’ve just been there.” “It really is a creative, energetic family. That’s an amazing legacy, and an amazing thing for a city like Sacramento to have inside of it.”

Buck Busfield speaking
Photo courtesy of Buck Busfield and The Sofia

Having a drink outside at Cafe Bernardo, Busfield reflected on his longtime board member Randy Paragary. “He was so clear and direct. I learned a lot from him,” Busfield said. He then talked about getting The Sofia built, but he could have been describing his long run at B Street.

“I can acknowledge something without understanding it,” Busfield said. “People have bought into the vision I create.” Having created so much, he seemed outwardly sanguine about letting go. We walked back down the street past the glass exterior of The Sofia lobby as late arrivals hurried into the building.

“I do want to stay connected in some way, and the board wants me on the board,” Busfield said. “I just don’t want to read the financial reports.”