Celebrating 50 Years of Center REP with Artistic Director, Michael Butler

Written by Jade Shojaee

Over the past 50 years Center REP has gone from performing in an old walnut warehouse (Civic Arts Theatre & Gallery known affectionately as “The Nuthouse”) to being the resident professional theatre company of the Lesher Center for the Arts, all the while staying true to its mission: to celebrate the power of human imagination and bring people together through shared stories of the human experience.

DRAA has been proud a sponsor of Center REPertory Company since opening our doors in 1993, and this year we are thrilled to be part of their celebratory 50th Anniversary Season.  The season kicked off this week with rock n’ roll icons Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash in the epic hit, Million Dollar Quartet, directed by Broadway actor/director Hunter Foster.

Million Dollar Quartet

Under the artistic direction of Michael Butler, Center REP has filled the Lesher Center season after season with sophisticated, savvy and story-hungry audiences who settle for nothing but the best. But the road to his success as Center REP’s fearless leader might be even more interesting than the seasons he curates.

Butler moved to the Bay Area for love, and brought with him a resume that touts his eclectic portfolio of accomplishments including a self-managed band for which he played the electric guitar, the mandolin, the acoustic guitar and the harmonica, a successful career as a Broadway/Off Broadway actor and a Julliard education.

In this interview, Butler gives DRAA a glimpse into his world, and into the fascinating past and promising future of Center REP.

Othello, Juilliard 1979, Butler as Iago

You graduated from Julliard and made a career as an actor in NYC. Quite the resume. Can you tell us a little bit about your history, and how you came to be Center REP’s artistic director?

It’s definitely been a road with many forks and side trips! But I actually think that’s an important part of the path to becoming an artistic director. There isn’t an MFA or training program for it, as there is for Acting, Marketing, or even Managing Directing. So having a broad range of experience and interests is very useful. I’ve always had an eclectic streak. Playing music was my first artistic outlet of choice. And books. I was majoring in Russian literature in college when I discovered theatre.

Getting into Juilliard was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me and those 4 extraordinary years of training changed my life. I worked pretty steadily as an actor in New York after graduating – Off Broadway, Broadway, soap operas (that was fun!), the occasional small indie film – and lots of regional theatre, doing great plays with great directors, to whom I paid very close attention, and began to learn the craft of directing.

I kept playing in bands too, which I loved for the sheer performance sensation of it.  And because my bandmates and I were all actors, we formed a theatre company, basically so we could do rock n’ roll in theatres rather than grungy clubs.  We directed ourselves, we produced ourselves, we did everything. When we  toured India, we had to tour manage ourselves because there wasn’t anybody else to do it.  And in addition to writing and directing the pieces, we often designed them too.  That lasted about 10 years and it was a great training ground for the job of artistic director.

It’s important to know about all aspects of running a theatre, from backstage to box office.  Just like it’s important for a director of a play or musical to know about art history, music, fashion, philosophy, literature.  So, jumping ahead – after 25 years in New York, I picked up and moved to the Bay Area (for love!)  I spent some years as an Artistic Associate at San Jose Rep, where I worked in the Marketing department, served as the Literary Manager, and learned a tremendous amount about running a large LORT theatre under their extraordinary artistic director, Timothy Near.  I was also directing at Bay Area theatres and one of my freelance jobs was at Center REP – directing Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile.  Two years later I was hired again, this time to direct Around the World in 80 Days.

I guess it went pretty well because Center REP was looking for an artistic director at the time and after an interview process, I got the job.  That was 12 years ago.

Butler in Center Rep’s production of Mirandolina

What has been the most rewarding part of spearheading such a beloved regional theatre company?

The audience and the artists!  I love our audience.  They want to have a joyous experience in the theatre and I love trying to bring that to them.  And I love striving to provide a really great artistic environment for all the artists.  Because, let’s face it, it’s not often like that.  I was a freelancer for 30 years; I know.  Nobody is going to get paid what they deserve in the theatre so the least we can do is try to make it a deeply fulfilling and positive artistic experience!  And it’s a great space – the Margaret Lesher Theatre is the best mid-sized theatre in the entire Bay Area.  I love making work in there.

Butler playing guitar at a DRAA donor event in the Lesher Theatre

Center REP turns 50 this year. Not many regional theatres can boast that kind of longevity. What went into choosing the 50th anniversary season? 

50 years is an extraordinary achievement for any organization, but especially an arts organization (although it’s worth noting that a lot of theatres started up in the Bay Area 50 years ago and many of them are still here – ACT, Berkeley Rep, TheatreWorks, Marin Theatre Company).  I wanted the anniversary season to be especially celebratory.

But we tend to do celebratory stuff anyway, so that bar was already high!

Our Season opener Million Dollar Quartet is about as high octane and whizz bang a celebration as you can get.  Check.  But I also wanted to keep presenting new plays and unusual productions of classics, so that led to Red Speedo and a new, very modern adaptation of a 17th century French classic comedy, The Liar.  Check and check. I also thought it was important to honor something from Center REP’s past – and nothing stood out as clearly as Kerri Shawn’s phenomenal Shirley Valentine.  Check, check, double check!  And getting the rights to the new Disney musical of Freaky Friday is a nice coup to wrap up the season.

What strides do you feel the company has made over the past 50 years and what are your goals for the company going forward?

Center REP has made enormous strides to become a professional theatre.  And that’s something that everyone over the 50-year history of the company has contributed to.  We have an extraordinarily skillful and dedicated staff.  We create every production from the ground up.  We hire the best designers in the Bay Area.  We build the sets and create the costumes in our shops.  We cast professional and professional-candidate actors and hire top notch directors, choreographers and music directors.  We want artists who will bring all their creativity to the project, creating a production that both honors the intent of the playwright and that brings something new and fresh to it.  I hope we can keep growing in that direction

And personally, I’ve learned to listen very closely to the audience and to honor and respect their wishes for the kind of experience they want.  Joy.  A basically optimistic view of life.  Entertainment, yes, but with content.  Meaning, but with a good measure of merriment.  Theatre that strives to astonish, and celebrate the power of the human imagination.

Butler with Duncan Sheik, David Möschler, Molly Aaronsson-Gelb and Juliana Monin

DRAA is so proud to be a part of Center REP’s success, and is looking forward to a glorious 50th season. How would you say the partnership has impacted Center REP’s success?

Oh, that cannot be overestimated!  DRAA is our major sponsor and contributes significant and sustained support to Center REP.  And here’s the thing – you simply cannot do professional theatre in America without such support.  Over the last 10 years, DRAA has stepped up their support several times, and each time it has allowed REP to take a step forward.  DRAA gave major additional support for this production of Million Dollar Quartet, allowing us to bring in Tony Award-nominated actor Hunter Foster and the four veterans of the MDQ National Tour to play our Quartet.

We literally could not have done it without DRAA!