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Funny Guy

Walnut Creeks Center Rep is having a laugh riot with the sophisticated and inventive Michael Butler in charge


Anne Hamersky

HIGH SPIRITED Michael Butler brings a zany sensibility to Center Repertory Company, where his first year as full-time artistic director has garnered rave reviews, a jump in ticket sales, and four Shellie Awards for his rollicking Around the World in 80 Days. The romp continues this month when he stages How the Other Half Loves, an intricate farce about love, marriage, and infidelity by Brit wit Alan Ayckbourn.

“Wackiness has huge appeal to me,” says Butler. But the Juilliard-trained director, actor, writer, dancer, composer, and lyricist (whew!) is no stranger to the full breadth of theatrical offerings.

He lived in New York for 25 years and honed his talents on and off Broadway, as well as on some of the nation’s greatest regional stages, including the Guthrie in Minneapolis. Locally, he’s directed shows for Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and San Jose Repertory Theatre, where his wife, Timothy Near, is artistic director.

Why is Michael Butler such a happy guy?

I’m an artist who’s got a job. No wonder I walk around here whistling.

No, really. You have a knack for staging very funny plays with crazy accents and dazzling technical stunts. One critic called Around the World in 80 Days the “daffiest comedy you will ever see—Monty Python meets Jules Verne.” That has to come from some quirky atom in your DNA.

I grew up in the early ’60s in upstate New York with a mom, a dad, five sisters, and two brothers whose creative accomplishments range from world-famous hand-carved play structures to music. Fabulous and beautiful exchange students lived with us. So I have an appreciation for art, music, dance, movement, language, characters.

Has the responsibility of being an artistic director for a company been sobering?

There are two models of artistic director. One keeps his head up in dreamy clouds, doesn’t get involved in marketing, exclusively follows his muse. The other is very responsive to the audience and shareholders alike. Given my training as an altar boy, I tend to be on the more responsible side. I pay attention to what everyone has to say and try to create something that is a synthesis of their dreams as well as my own.

What goes into developing a season? Is it budget? Are there artistic considerations? Or are you just trying to please the audience?

It’s a mix of all those things. Next season, we’ll do two musicals instead of just one because people like plays with music. I can’t do six, or even three, huge shows in a row that have dozens of costumes or scenes that have to be built, because we only have a tiny staff. And casting: Are there actors in the area who can do this? We are going to reintroduce classics into the repertoire, at least one a year. If they don’t do well, that might affect future choices.

What musicals can we look forward to in the 2007–08 season?

We open in September with a Bay Area premiere, Hank Williams: Lost Highway. Hank Williams invented that country half-yodel and defined what country music would be, and he had a very complex emotional and psychological life. The story is about the triumphs and difficulties of being a musician.

And the nonmusicals?

We are going to do a stunning production of a play that everybody thinks they know, but nobody really does, and I am sure most people have never seen it. Two years after it opened in London in 1953, a film producer wanted to buy rights to make the movie, but the playwright said this would be done only when the play closed. It still has never closed, so the movie has never been made.

The suspense is killing me.

It’s Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. And the director is the best—I’ve worked with her many times: [my wife] Timothy Near. I’ll be in it. The characters are so eccentric, so brilliantly written, so fun.

You mentioned you want to do classics.

Yes. We’re doing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a charming tale of young lovers who run off to the wilds of nature to find their own true love. I’ll direct, and I hope to involve other performing groups for collaboration. I’m imagining bungee jumping, a Victorian dream box, Freud meets Henri Rousseau, the juxtaposition of suppressed imagination in the Victorian era, and the psychology of dreams. We’ll also do something contemporary, edgy, American: Nixon’s Nixon, set the night before Richard Nixon resigns. He and Henry Kissinger cook up a fantasy international incident to keep Nixon in office. It’s wickedly good back-room politics.

Walnut Creek arts leaders have wanted to raise the quality of performances at the Lesher Center. How are you making that happen?

I’m hiring the best directors I can, and that will help draw the best actors and designers. And we try very hard to make working at Center Rep a good, creative experience for everyone. That can make a huge difference to artists. But really, the whole thing is a bit of a catch-22: To get the increase in funds needed to raise the quality of the work, you have to first raise the quality of the work so that people want to support the work.

You’ve worked everywhere. How does the Bay Area theater scene compare?

In London and New York, rich ladies will go to a bad neighborhood and walk on needles to see something. There is a smaller number of hardcore theatergoers here. At the same time, out here people are more aesthetically diverse than I’ve encountered anywhere.

What about audiences in the East Bay suburbs?

One of the ideas behind regional theater [like Center Rep] is to present an array of choices to the community—a balanced season that might contain everything from a musical to a Molière, from Neil Simon to someone no one’s heard of yet—all done equally well. One of our big challenges is overcoming people’s natural tendency to narrow their preferences, not expand them.

Have audiences told you what they want?

I’ve gotten the idea that life is tough, news is bad; they want to get away from that when they go to the theater. But some people are telling me they want more controversial stuff. On one of our surveys, someone requested rarely performed 18th century comedies! Personally, I feel like my work has been very warmly welcomed here. I’ve put on a couple of pretty seriously wacky pieces, and [the audience has] gone with me. I have great hope for where this theater and audience are going.

Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves plays May 17–June 16 at Center Repertory Company, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek. For tickets, call (925) 943-7469 or visit www.lesherartscenter.org.

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