B Street Theatre’s new home

Longtime members of Sac’s beloved theatre company look back as they prepare to open the magnificent Sofia Tsakopouos Center for the Arts on Capitol Avenue

Workers putting the final touches on The Sofia, which opens ths week.

Workers putting the final touches on The Sofia, which opens ths week.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Maxwell

Making fantasy a reality

Tim Busfield: When I was in high school, I was 14, it was freshman or sophomore year, and as a project we adapted A Charlie Brown Christmas. And we did it for the teachers and I remember the teachers sort of had tears in their eyes. And the head of the theater department at East Lansing High School was there and he said we should do this for the school kids. And so they brought in all the K-3 kids in East Lansing, and I fell in love with that audience right away.

And then when I was at East Tennessee State, a friend of mine wanted to start a children’s theater. So I went with him, and Buck was working as a paralegal in a law library, and we incorporated. And then we went out into Appalachia—and the kids, you realized how much they needed it. We went under after about 50 performances because we just didn’t have the business end. And it really bothered me because I saw the value and the importance of what we did. So I was hell-bent to start another children’s theater, and this time I wasn’t going to let it fail. And then I got sort of sidetracked, with the television, but I never lost sight of it.

Then, I was sitting in my trailer on Trapper John, M.D.—I had gotten Trapper John in 1984—when I turned to my wife and said, “I can start that theater now.” Because I knew I could get past school secretaries. We started Fantasy Theatre with the philosophy of: Feed the guppies, and then give them a place to come when they’re older, and you can help save the American theater.

I gave an actor 50 bucks in December of 1985, and said I needed him to research Sacramento, Calif. and Columbia, South Carolina. Because I need to be an hour away from New York or an hour away from Los Angeles—I can’t afford understudies—and I want to be in a state capital, so I can be close to the arts councils and commissions.

And I then incorporated a nonprofit and started writing letters to superintendents of schools and telling them I was going to move to Sacramento and start an Equity theater company there, and try to bring professional theater to the schools so kids would grow up with theater as part of their curriculum.

Buck Busfield: The initial Fantasy Theatre was all Tim. The touring theater for kids that he’d started with some friends in college had failed, and Tim decided he was going to make one that was successful. His career took him to regional theater and Broadway, and then Hollywood, and he finally had a little bit of money. And he said, “I’m going to do it again, and do it right.” And he called me to come help him. And he spent a lot of his money and put a lot of sweat into it.

B Street co-founder Timothy Busfield with the winner of the 1988 Fantasy Festival children’s playwriting contest.

Photo courtesy of B Street Theatre

He arrived in Sacramento in July ’86. I came out in August and John Hardy, his other partner, was here with him in July, and I went to start banging on doors. So it was just this kind of shoe-leather, white-knuckle operation. And it was a fully professional company, all Equity actors, and we started booking 12 shows a week in schools, still in ’86. It was one of the only Actors’ Equity Association school tours in the country.

Greg Alexander: My connection to the core group of B Street Theatre goes all the way back to 1980. I was an apprentice actor at the Actors Theatre of Louisville where I met Timothy Busfield, who at the time was in his first year of being a company member there and had been an apprentice the year before. And he and I did a show that was a hit at the New Play Festival, called the Asshole Murder Case. It was like a 10-minute play about two college roommates, and it was hilarious. It was this big hit, kind of a phenomenon, and we struck up a friendship. And I remember him talking about wanting to start a children’s theater then. His plan was to start it in Virginia, and then his career took off in Hollywood and so it was going to be in California.

Dave Pierini: I had gone to school to be a writer; I went to Loyola Marymount University but I wasn’t really mature enough for higher education. So I came back to Sacramento, where I’m from, and was tooling around and doing a lot of community theater, and having fun. And then I met Elizabeth Nunziato, and she had started to work for the Busfields, and she said, “Listen, if you’re serious about this and you want to do this for a living, you need to do a couple of things. Go take Ed Claudio’s workshop.” He was teaching the original actors’ workshop back in the day. And then I auditioned for these Busfield guys. And got hired.

I started with the company when I was 20 years old, when we were just the Fantasy Theatre school tour. We had an office in an old Victorian and a van. We would rent rehearsal space and we would put together the shows in two weeks. And then they’d send us out on the road. We would all meet at the office at 6 in the morning, climb into the van and drive off to wherever we could get to and back in a day. So a lot of shows in Stockton, in the foothills and all over Northern California. Twelve shows a week. And it was the best gig in town at the time, especially for a 20-year-old.

You unload a set that was stored in a box on top of the van with four other actors and set up in a sour-milk-smelling multipurpose room or gymnasium. And you’d perform in this 45-minute show—and the kids would be rooted—just glued to what you were doing. It was amazing to have that kind of impact on a young audience.

Young audiences are tough and they tend to get a little squirmy, but these shows were written in such a way that we could keep their attention glued for 45 minutes.

Tim Busfield: I remember one of our very first plays, it was one of Buck’s—The Tortoise and the Hare. And the narrator comes out and says, “This is the story of the tortoise and the hare” and the kids went, “Groan.” And then the narrator says, “Harry Harrington had narcolepsy,” and the teachers immediately looked up. “And the tortoise was an industrial paperweight at a local construction company.” And the teachers folded up their books and got big smiles on their faces.

A gift

Kurt Johnson ruined his hair for the 2001 production of <i>Earshot</i>.

Photo courtesy of B Street Theatre

Buck Busfield: In December of ’89, Tim resigned as the artistic director of Fantasy Theatre because he had to go to Hollywood to do thirtysomething, or something, I don’t remember. I went to India to visit my wife’s family, and I came back and on my desk was a note from Tim that said, basically, “It’s yours, if you want it.” Before that I had been writing the pieces and composing music for them, and doing administration. So I said, “OK.” So I took over, and he was fairly absent for a few years, and then I think thirtysomething got canceled and he came back. He had more time on his hands and by that time I’d moved the Fantasy Theatre to the current B Street Theatre location, as just an office. And then Tim, in his inimitable, energetic, dangerous, creative genius way, said “Hey, let’s start that adult theater we’ve been talking about.” So that’s when we started.

Tim Busfield: I remember one Wednesday matinee with Aaron Sorkin, and the air conditioner was out and it was July. And Sorkin came in and said, “Bus, there’s 14 people at the matinee,” and I said, “Yep.” And he said, “Well, let’s just cancel.” And I said, “No, we can’t cancel the show.” And he said, “I will write a check for the 14 people, give them their money back.” I said, “No, we don’t cancel the show.” (Laughs.) And he said, “OK.” That building, with no air conditioning, was just hot. But, you know, that was a new play by Aaron Sorkin, and he was in it. … Edie McClurg was up there, and we were doing Frankie and Johnny with nudity. We weren’t afraid of R-rated plays—and we were really, really trying to push the envelope. We did not want a community theater or classic regional theater. We wanted to push the envelope.

Elisabeth Nunziato: I always felt very connected to the audience at the B Street in a way that I have never felt anywhere else. And I don’t think the audiences often realize what a big part of the experience they are for us. I think sometimes they may feel that they’re passive participants, but they’re a very important, vibrant element for me. If the show goes well in an evening, it’s all of us together.

Kurt Johnson: It’s kind of like acting for film, where you get to act basically like a film actor, but you’re doing it in front of a live audience. I did one season at Music Circus doing non-singing parts because I can’t sing a lick, and there’s a real difference when you have to make your intentions and emotions understood by someone that far away, in the back row. Compared to where I can basically talk in this voice on B Street’s stage most of the time. And that’s a real privilege. It’s just really great to be able to do.

Like I just did The Christians, and that was one of my favorite dramatic roles ever. It’s about a preacher who’s going through a moral dilemma about his church. And a lot of the play, he’s actually talking to the congregation. So there’s no facade. There is no willing suspension of disbelief, because I’m actually talking to you, so I can actually react to how you’re reacting as an audience member. And that was a really great high point of being “truthful on stage for a purpose,” which is an old acting saying.

Another of my most favorite experiences here: we did a play called Escanaba in Da Moonlight, about deer hunters in Michigan, and there’s a one-minute fart scene, where everybody gets blown across the stage in slow motion, and I’m rolling rolling over tables and stuff like that. People were literally falling out of their chairs—an ex-girlfriend of mine literally laughed so hard that she fell down into the island between the seats during that scene. And to have those two experiences at the same theater working with the same people. I think it’s just amazing that I am able to work this one job and still have such a wide variety of experiences.

Greg Alexander: I did a show in 1996. It was a phenomenal hit called Escanaba in Da Moonlight, and people came and they saw it again and again, and it was just crazy. And so, in maybe 2014 I was walking across the parking lot and there was a couple and they’re probably in their early 40s, and they stopped me and said, “Hey, you’re the guy that played this part in Enscanaba. You know, my wife and I, that was our first date.” And then they introduced us to their two kids who were there to see a Family Series show that I was in. I just thought, man, that is just amazing that we’ve been here that long enough that people can actually come and see a show and meet for the first time. And I guess they had a good enough time that they got married and had a family and now they’re bringing their kids to see our shows.

By the tracks

Buck Busfield (center) at the ‘88 Fantasy Fest.

Photo courtesy of B Street Theatre

Elisabeth Nunziato: One of the most romantic things that ever happened with the trains was that, very early on, I think it was within the first year or so, we did a show called Voice of the Prairie. Much of that show was about these two young folks on the run, riding trains. And so it was so romantic because we were on trains, jumping from trains—I actually busted my knee in that show but I got back up as soon as I could because it was a beautiful show. That was the first time that I worked opposite Kurt Johnson—and we just did Virginia Woolf together so many years later; that was a great bookend—and he was just incredible. It was his first show at the theater.

So the trains for me, they were so romantic. Even in Rabbit Hole, which was about a married couple processing the loss of a young child, and so of course there were these very poignant moments—even in that, if a train would pass through in a moment like that I would feel like the audience and the actors were unified in that moment by that experience. I always thought it was like this wonderful kind of unifying element because we were all aware of it together, and it felt more like the tide going in and out.

A family of artists

Dave Pierini: The actors in our company are all actors that I’ve worked with for 20 years now, so just for instance, there’s a scene in Moving Day with Kurt Johnson and Jamie Jones. I know those guys so well. It was the easiest thing for me to write, because I knew exactly what was going to get laughs. I can play to their strengths. I hear their voices when I write, anyways. I did an adaptation of The Snow Queen, and I was able to write parts for Stephanie [Altholz] that I knew she was going to kill, and she did. I knew exactly how to wring the most laughs out of what she can do. Having that ensemble, having that company of actors, it’s pretty rare. It’s like, it’s like those great jazz quartets when they get into this sort of improv.

Kurt Johnson: I don’t know that there are any other places in the country or the world, even, where there’s this core family of actors that get to keep coming back here and continuing. It wasn’t really formalized as a company for a good decade after I arrived. I mean it was after 2000, I think, when we actually sat down and I actually said this is the company and they put our pictures on the wall and stuff. I came in ’93, and a couple years into it I felt like “I have a place here.” But as far as, this will be where I will stay for 25 years? I don’t know if I’ve ever made that decision. I just kind of stayed because—why would I leave?

Elisabeth Nunziato: Dave and Kurt and myself, Buck snatched us up really young, but he threw us into adult roles immediately. Which was really interesting. So we played, we worked with a lot of great material and we worked within that material as adult characters in adult relationships at a much younger age than most actors get an opportunity to do that. So people are always like, “How old are you guys?” But that’s because they’ve been watching us play grownups for so many years. Basically we eventually grew up and became the age of the characters that we were playing. And at the end of the day he cast the essence of the character first and the type later, and that’s really been the magic.

Dave Pierini: When Kurt Johnson was a young man, he was really handsome. Well, he is still handsome, but he was a leading man. So he got cast in those leading man roles all the time. And eventually it was like, oh, maybe we’ve already seen him be the leading man. Thankfully, he got a middle-aged and fat and became a character actor. Like I’ve always been. I’ve always looked middle-aged and fat, so I always got away with being the character actor and could change the way I looked and stuff. So I was able to slide in and out without people getting too tired of me. So that’s the only drawback though, is that sometimes you know, you just have to be careful about how, how often we see them. But then Buck kept producing theater—opened our Family Series and the B3. So all of a sudden there were three stages to throw this company onto, where you could keep them working and not have the audience fatigue of any particular actors.

Kurt Johnson: A credit to Buck Busfield—I remember back when the theater closed down and went bankrupt, and they reorganized and they came back, and that first year when I came back, Buck Busfield had a rotation every Tuesday, he was the janitor that day. And he would go into the bathrooms with a toilet brush, and scrub out the whole theater. And to have it grow from there to here! And to look at what we’ve accomplished! I remember back in those first five years (and I hope he’s OK with me saying this; I don’t know why he wouldn’t be), I remember days when he was literally pacing back and forth in the lobby, doing yoga, waiting for the phone to ring, because if we didn’t get a thousand dollars in sales that day, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to open next week. And he’s managed to hang on and keep his nerves from shredding and eventually accomplish this. I just think that’s crazy. There is no way that this theater would still be open if I would’ve been in charge of this place. I don’t know how we did that.

Buck Busfield (second from left) at the 1988 Fantasy Festival.

Photo courtesy of B Street Theatre

Greg Alexander: There’s a gentleman who’s doing music for this show, Noah Agruss. His dad Mitch Agruss was an extremely accomplished actor on the East Coast—he did a lot of regional theater back in the 1940s; he did live television. And then he relocated to Sacramento in the 1960s, and he hosted a cartoon program—he was known as Cap’n Mitch, and he would host like Popeye cartoons and that’s kind of how he made a name for himself here. But then when B Street Theatre opened up, it afforded him the opportunity to act, to kind of rediscover his roots. So we did shows together all the time. He was just an amazing, big-hearted guy. And he was so moved by the process of watching this theater grow, and being a part of it. And I guess it’s been just over a year and a half or two years that he passed away. So I feel really sorry and sad that he couldn’t be here for this. But there’s legacy here because Noah’s here.

The seat of their pants

Jerry Montoya: The way Buck and I have generally worked is I’m where he isn’t. So he was directing Beggar’s Strike [in 2005] and I was teching a show on the main stage, and I got a message to come over. And I walked into a very tense room. The technical director at that point had delivered the news to Buck that they needed two or three weeks and probably about $3,000 to build the trees that were the main pieces of the set. The show was opening that night. And I just went, “Hey, this is a stupid idea: Let’s go cut down some trees.” Because we had two “volunteers,” you know, basically weed-trees, in our courtyard. And everybody said, “Well, that’ll work.” So we got saws and we chopped them down, dragged them onstage, put them up. We all still laugh about it because I open every idea with, “Hey, maybe this is a stupid idea…” and just throw things at the wall. And that’s the personality of this company is we think outside the box. And I think that’s why Buck and I have thrived together for so long. We need creative solutions that cost very little money; that’s what we’re after.

Elisabeth Nunziato: We have two weeks of rehearsal at B Street—two weeks on our feet and then we’re in tech. That’s it. And often we’re doing new plays so we’re hitting a script for the first time. That just makes the group so cohesive and spontaneous, and there’s, there’s a real kind of crackling energy, which I think that short rehearsal process feeds. Because we’re always kind of flying by the seat of our pants. Over the years, I think that is a large part of the energy that people feel when they come to B Street, you know, we have to be on our toes all the time and paying attention. There’s not enough time in the process to phone it in.

Dave Pierini: I was doing one of the holiday shows and I had a very small part, so I was a little bored. So Buck says, “Hey, can you read some plays for me? Read this play. It sounds good, but I just can’t crack the nut. I can’t get into it.” It was Around the World in 80 Days by Mark Brown. When I read it, I [heard] it and [saw] it and knew exactly what Buck could do with it, what we would do with it. It reminded me of one of our old school-tour pieces—lots of different characters, quick changes—and I saw it [all] and I came back to him and I said, “What are you talking about?! We have to do this play, and here’s how I would cast it, and here’s how I think you should hear it. And then he got it. And then it turned into the biggest thing we’ve ever done. It ran its initial six-week run, we added an extension of another six weeks. We’ve revived it for two more runs. We took it to India, performed it in three different cities in India. So that turned out well.

Star interns

Tara Sissom: As an actor, to have anything full-time, whether or not it’s related to your degree, is kind of amazing. And now I’m able to work full-time—in the outreach and education department; I’m a core company acting member; I’ve written a play; I teach in the conservatory. So right now I don’t have a day off until March 5. But it’s great because it’s such a home, and I know many, many people who I’ve worked with who would love to have the resources, the opportunity to have a home theater company. I can’t tell you how many of my friends that could sing and dance and act circles around me that have left the business because they’ve just been tired out from pounding the pavement every day. And I’m in beautiful Sacramento and working full-time.

Stephanie Altholz: I went to a tiny little acting conservatory in New York called the New Actors Workshop that was run by Mike Nichols, Paul Sills and George Morrison. Yeah, Mike Nichols would like come and teach our scene-study class every Wednesday, for the 15 of us in the school, when he wasn’t at the Oscars. Ridiculous. He’s brilliant. But after that I was in New York and I just wasn’t acting—I was working in restaurants. My parents had moved to Sacramento when I was 16, so I spent two years here before I moved to New York. I knew about B Street—my parents were subscribers—and I knew that B Street did an internship. So I thought well, I’ll go back to Sacramento, I’ll get a degree and then I’ll do this internship, and I’ll get my Equity card. And then I’ll come back to New York and take New York by storm. I had always kind of resented Sacramento—it’s hard when you’re in high school and you have to uproot everything, and I decided I would just hate Sacramento forever. But when I got back here I realized it’s actually an incredible town, artistically, food-wise, people-wise. I like everything about it. I love living in Midtown. And B Street felt like the island of misfit toys. And I felt like I was a misfit toy.

Mollie Michie-Lepp and Timothy Busfield in a 2008 production of <i>Encabana in Da Moonlight.</i>

Photo courtesy of B Street Theatre

The big move

Jerry Montoya: Buck and I talked about what kind of theater we wanted—for some reason I understand what Buck is after and at times can translate it better to people when it’s technical. Buck is an artist. He’s a great storyteller and his, his principles as a director and a writer are just spot on. My strength is to take artistic and translate it into something technical. So I knew what we wanted and what we were after, and I was able to speak with the architects. And it was really fun to see them being inspired by what we were after. And the theater designs have never changed from that original design.

The outside, the offices, the facade and everything else has changed and been drastically improved. One of the great things about what has happened in my opinion, is that this was supposed to be a $45 million project. And then the recession hit and the different plans of how to monetize it changed and we had to be paused. And I think that was the greatest blessing to us because if we’d have built that theater and then the recession hit, we would no longer be a functioning company. Now what we have is a building that was scaled back, that’s still the jewel that we wanted it to be. So serendipitously, for a nonprofit arts organization, the recession hit perfectly for us.

Elisabeth Nunziato: Virginia Woolf wasn’t on my list, which I know sounds really crazy. That Martha role—as you know it’s on everybody’s bucket list, and I had never thought about it. Basically they told me, “You have to do this; you’re going to do this.” My big concern was that—I wanted to be funny. I just didn’t want to do a three-hour play about vitriol and pain and loss and then send everybody home sleepy.

I feel this great responsibility to that audience because I’ve been in that two-way relationship for so long. I feel a personal responsibility for the experience that the audience is going to have over the course of that run, and so that was my only concern with that piece. But Buck was also concerned about it. So when I raised it with him, he was on it. We just immediately started dissecting what it is that makes that thing a ride instead of a lecture or a recitation. And that’s what it is; that’s the way it’s written. It’s not that I didn’t think it was in the script.

At the end of the day it was the right team. It was really the right team, top to bottom, to deliver the heart and the soul and the humor that’s in there. And Buck definitely infused it with what people have come to know as his sensibility. I know I’m not crazy because a lot of people who caught the show came to me afterward and they said the time had flown by. People left really high. They were moved and they’d had a full evening, but nobody left sleepy.

Dave Pierini: My favorite play, and one that I asked Buck to do for over a decade, was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And then we finally did it, and thank God we waited, because we had the actors who had grown into those roles, and it was just such a great production. And then we realized, oh, we still have to do one more play before we move.

And it’s been such a tradition for Buck to write a holiday show that I couldn’t see how we could say goodbye to that old space and not have Buck write a holiday show. But he was also incredibly busy with the move. So, because we’ve written together so often over the years, said, “OK, you gotta help me rewrite it.” And so together we sat down and came up with the idea, and all we knew is we want it to pay a homage to the fact that we were moving, to get a chance to say goodbye to that space. So we sort of came up with the title, Moving Day, first, and then started trading stories—he had a friend who had some experiences when he was a kid; I had some stories, and together we sort of came up with the basic outline of the show.

And then the way we’ve written together all these years is, you know, I’ll write a draft that he gives me notes; I’ll do a rewrite … then he takes a pass at it and writes some new stuff and I give him notes … and we sort of collaborate that way as opposed to sitting in the room.

Greg Alexander: This new space affords us the opportunity to do bigger productions and put more people on stage. So this is the second largest cast I’ve been in at B Street Theatre. So it’s really great to be in a big cast, and it’s all company members. So when I look around, every single actor in this production has been the lead in show here. That’s Amy who did our show Treatment and there’s, Stephanie who did Treatment with her, and there’s Elizabeth who’s done, you know, Becky’s New Car and there’s Dave Pierini who’s done Big Bang and so many shows. And I was in Big Bang and Kurt Johnson just did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And there’s John Lamb has done so many roles with the family series and some great work on the main stage. And we’re all in the same show at the same time. So it’s really exciting. And then the other thing is the shows we’ve done at B Street that have been really big hits, that the people in the community seem to really appreciate are the broad physical comedies. And that’s what this is. This is a big, broad, funny show and it’s very much in the vein of Around the World in 80 Days, which was a big hit for us. The Big Bang was a big hit. The Explorer’s Club, which we did a couple of summers ago.

Tara Sissom: I’ll tell you my like private pipe dream for the theater. Most regional theater operates on like 70 percent grants and 30 percent ticket sales. And for the majority of our life we’ve been about 80 percent ticket sales and 20 percent underwriting. So that means we’re a people’s theater. And I think we’re ripe, within the next 10 years, to win a Regional Tony. Because now we’ve got the venue that makes us competitive with other theaters. Now that we’re in this space, that kind of puts us on the map. That’s my hope is that the theater world takes notice of what we’ve accomplished, because I think it’s extraordinary. We started in a van and built the Sofia in a matter of 30 years, when a lot of theater companies were folding. So that model of being a people’s theater means that if you do the work they like, the people will stick around and help you succeed. We have an amazing relationship with our subscribers and our patrons. The community loves us, and we owe so much of our success to that. I think we’re doing something right, and I think we should be known for it. I want it in the most humble way possible because I want the people that have worked so hard to be noticed, on a professional scale, by peers. Yeah, I think we’re due for a Tony.

Dave Pierini: I would say that I can speak for myself and most of the company that we’re so fortunate that Buck Busfield’s kept us employed. Even when I wasn’t on staff, he would still be able to get me work 40 weeks out of the year. When you’re an actor, especially when you’re a young actor, if you’re working 40 weeks a year, those three months that you’re not working you can collect unemployment or you can scrape together some voice-over gigs or some industrial films. Now listen, I look at the guys that I went to high school with, and most of them live in much nicer houses. There were some trade-offs with this life. But I get applause at the end of my work day, and I get to come to work with my most favorite people in the world, and laugh and have a great time every day. So for me, the trade-off is a no-brainer.

Jerry Montoya: It’s hard to describe what the experience of storytelling is going to be like in here. Sound-wise, it’s going to be all around you. Lighting-wise, we’re practically unlimited. The sets are going to let us do things that we could never do. And in the larger space: I think when people start seeing a concert there and there’s only 350 people, and it’s like you’re on stage with them. It’s going to be such a unique experience, right here in our town. And it’s going to be something that people can just head down here. You can run into somebody and say, let’s go do something that you can just come down here at 5, have dinner at one of the local places and pick one of the three or four things that are going on. You want to see something experimental? We have it in this space. You want to see a concert? We have it in this space. And there’s a great comedy or drama or romance happening in the B Street proper. Come on down. You know, bring a friend.

Stephanie Altholz: I think the fact that we built this thing, I mean, we didn’t just pick a place to build a theater. This is for Sacramento. Once we get full service, and we’re doing the upstairs space, and doing stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, improv and our children’s theater and our main stage theater, plus the invited comedians and artists and dancers—I mean like there will always be something to do. That’s an incredible organization for any city that have. And I’m so lucky I get to be a part of the one for Sacramento.