WALNUT CREEK -- Michael Butler spent most of his career as a gypsy, going from one city to another as a freelance actor, director and musician. But he has found his calling running Walnut Creek's Center Repertory Company.

In his seventh season as artistic director of Center Rep, Butler is widely credited with raising the bar on artistic achievement for the troupe, which began as a community theater in 1968. Under his tenure, Center Rep has doubled its subscriber base; it often stages an ambitious eight shows a season and showcases some of the finest actors in the Bay Area. Staging an eclectic mix of plays such as the hard-hitting "Clybourne Park," the kitschy musical "Xanadu" and the crowd-pleasing Alfred Hitchcock homage "The 39 Steps," it has become a pillar of the Contra Costa arts scene.

"Michael Butler is a great man of the theater, but more than that, he's a great man," says Jonathan Moscone, head of Cal Shakes. "He is a generous colleague ... being there to give advice whenever I need it. I think he's doing a marvelous job at Center Rep to bring excellent work to Contra Costa County while providing opportunities for Bay Area artists to thrive creatively and financially. We are very lucky to have him."

The ever-modest Butler, 59, admits it took him a while to click with his audience. He was madly in love with his twist on the Pierre Beaumarchais classic "The Marriage of Figaro." The box office? Not so much. That's when he realized he needed to pick plays with wide audience appeal as well as literary merit.


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"I'm always looking to find the common ground between why they go to theater and why I do theater, to find the work that fulfills us both," says the affable director during a break in rehearsals at the Rep. "Good, solid, expertly crafted work really appeals to my audience. Imaginative, innovative approaches really appeal to me. A complex yet ultimately optimistic view of humanity appeals to us both."

A winning formula

Sometimes he still misses the freedom of being a freelancer, but mostly he adores being captain of a big ship. Even if it means a killer commute from his home in Sebastopol. And then there's the paper pushing and number crunching when he'd rather be making art.

"As a freelancer you have a lot of time to dream things up," Butler says. "When you run a theater you've got a lot of things screaming at you. But there's nothing like the high I feel watching people leave the theater in a state of joy. It's unbelievably satisfying. It's the best."

Musicals play a big part in his winning formula, a strategy he has taken pains to develop. One of his favorite things is eavesdropping on the audience to find out what tickles them.

"We do a lot of musicals and comedies, in part because they tend to be joyous nights in the theater. I love music in plays, probably because of my rock 'n' roll roots," says Butler, who plays guitar and harmonica. "I still love to hear guitars and a backbeat onstage."

Comedy is another touchstone at Center Rep.

"I love comedy because it's so freakin' hard. And so gratifying. Comedy is the extreme motocross race of theater, a physically demanding event held in all-weather conditions," he says, laughing. "I think my audience and I are chasing the same kind of theater experience ... a mix of the playground, church and a Saturday night dance."

One of the reasons Butler thrives on feedback is that he started out as an actor. He cut his teeth in the performance art scene in New York in the '80s and has performed on Broadway. He also played the villainous Pierre on the now-defunct soap "Guiding Light."

Acting is how Butler met his wife, Timi Near. A theater power couple, they worked together at San Jose Rep, where Near ran the show and Butler served as an associate artist for five years. Now she's a freelancer, jetting around the country for gigs, while he holds down the fort.

"Michael loves his audience and wants them to approach theater as a vibrant playground for the mind and spirit," she says. "He often addresses the audience before the show. He's gracious and high energy and draws the audience's attention to the stage. ... And in the true spirit of the pied piper, he often takes out his harmonica and plays a freight train blues."

Certainly, he's no snob. If some artistic directors turn their noses up at crowd pleasers, fearing the label "middlebrow," Butler says bring it on.

The stage of success

"There are a lot of plays out there, killer comedies, brilliantly constructed thriller puzzles, that are often seen only in high school or community theater productions," he says. "I like to choose those plays and get the best actors and designers to go crazy with expertise on them."

That down-to-earth strategy also makes it easier to keep an eye on the bottom line. Subscribers have doubled. Attendance rates are high. That's good because red ink is not an option because the Rep is funded like a city program.

"We are like Parks and Rec," Butler says. "We can't go over budget. So we don't. Ever."

That means new plays are a gutsy move. Butler recently launched the small Off Center series, where the Rep can experiment. He's about to present the local debut of Yussef El Guindi's provocative "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World." And he recently commissioned Molly Bell's cheeky "The Real Housewives of Walnut Creek: The Musical."

"Does that sound like a blast or what?" he says. "A night at the theater is a significant investment and the audience deserves to like what they see."

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772.

Michael Butler
Age: 59
Hometown: Sebastopol
Claim to fame: Now in his seventh season as artistic director of Center Rep, Butler spent most of his career as a theater gypsy.
Quote: "I love comedy because it's so freakin' hard. And so gratifying. Comedy is the extreme motocross race of theater, a physically demanding event held in all-weather conditions. I think my audience and I are chasing the same kind of theater experience a mix of the playground, church and a Saturday night dance."