The New B Hive
B Street Theatre—led by co-founder Buck Busfield—has finally moved from its humble warehouse space outside East Sacramento to splashy new digs in the heart of midtown. Enter, stage left: The Sofia.
After almost three decades of cramming ambitious A performances into a modest-size warehouse on the edge of East Sacramento, B Street Theatre co-founder Buck Busfield has finally cut the ribbon on the company’s new home in the Sutter District—The Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, named after the wife of prominent real estate developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, who discreetly chipped in $1.5 million (matched by the Sutter Community Foundation) for the naming rights to surprise his arts-loving spouse. The new $31 million, 49,000-square-foot complex is an epic upgrade for B Street, considering its two state-of-the-art theaters, three rehearsal halls, on-site Tea Bar & Fusion Cafe (launching late spring), and lively paseo to be shared with the forthcoming Fort Sutter Hotel (which is scheduled to open in fall 2019) and revamped Cafe Bernardo.
And yet, the no-frills original remains beloved among longtime Sacramento theater-goers, who regarded its fickle lighting, temperamental air conditioning and occasional train rumble—often ill-timed to the performances’ crescendos and punchlines, lament veteran B Street actors Dave Pierini and Elisabeth Nunziato—as part of its appeal.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure there will be a whole new set of quirks to love about The Sofia,” says architect Ron Vrilakas, who nodded to the old warehouse with a cool industrial design that achieves warmth through organic materials (reclaimed beetle-killed pine donated by the Sacramento Tree Foundation lines the interior walls, for example) and the visible hand of local artisans such as Hollywood Park-based Mike Whisten, who customized the wood-and-steel furniture in the lobby and courtyard.
“We’ll always love the old space, but we’ve been performing at the level of The Sofia for quite some time,” says Busfield, confident that no other company in the country does Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? better or, for that matter, any uproarious farce whatsoever. Busfield, along with his brother, Timothy (Thirtysomething, West Wing), started a roving theater troupe here in 1986, piling out of a beat-up Ford van devoid of a back seat to perform Aesop’s Fables and Gold Country tales for schoolkids all over Northern California. (“Children’s theater is the core of our DNA,” says Busfield.) The company moved into the B Street digs in 1991, turning the shabby structure into a cozy two-theater venue with no rehearsal space to speak of and nary a dressing room. “But plenty of vermin,” says Nunziato, who auditioned for the Busfields at their first HQ, a one-bedroom apartment on F Street that was located, she notes wryly, “a few doors down from serial killer Dorothea Puente.”
Humble beginnings are, of course, designed to be outgrown. B Street’s rise to what’s described in its brochure as “the most prolific theater of its size west of the Mississippi” (the nonprofit, 20-member company produces 16 plays a year, attended by more than 100,000 people), has been steady, but not meteoric, allowing for decades of memories to accrue on B Street, and, by the same token, decades of anticipation to brew for The Sofia.
By day, the larger of The Sofia’s two playhouses, the 365-seat Sutter Theatre for Children, hosts students for performances. Breaking in the stage on Feb. 20 is Gandhi!, an original musical about the Indian activist and his peaceful brand of civil disobedience, with book and lyrics by B Street artistic producer Lyndsay Burch. By night, musical acts and notable speakers will headline the venue, including spiritual keynoter Rob Bell, and San Francisco alt-country quartet Blame Sally. “Maybe one day Barbra Streisand!” Busfield rhapsodizes, noting a trend toward more intimate, A-list shows with higher prices (see Springsteen on Broadway, with tickets ranging from $497–$850).
The new Mainstage theater features B Street’s familiar thrust stage (i.e., the audience surrounds it on three sides), vital for close communion. A steep rake assures that each of the 250 seats—about 60 more than the old space—has a clear view of the show. From nosebleed-high catwalks, a newfangled LED lighting system is secured (good riddance, hand-swapped color gels of yore), the steel infrastructure also making it possible to lower props to the stage (“Now we can crash a chandelier like they do in The Phantom of the Opera,” says Busfield) and drop a legit grand drape for dramatic “and scene!” moments.
The inaugural Mainstage production, One Man, Two Guvnors, a British romp about a good Brighton boy who gets entangled with a couple of gangsters that starts on Jan. 30, would have been impossible in the old space, what with the flurry of physical comedy by the large cast.
“The new theaters are intimate, but they’re not small,” says Pierini, who also writes plays for the children’s theater and develops special projects for the company. He and fellow actor Jack Gallagher are currently working on You Better You Better You Bet, inspired by Groucho Marx’s 1950s quiz show, You Bet Your Life. They plan to present the show in the largest of The Sofia’s rehearsal halls, unofficially known as Upstairs at the B—a place where aspiring playwrights can workshop their raw material, local musicians can try out new compositions, and historic game shows can be revived with modern folly, B Street style.
“We have the finest artistic team, and from them comes some of the most debauched, just-plain-wrong humor since the dawn of the first chuckle,” says Nunziato. “Witnessing this continues to be an honor.” Good to know that even though the company has moved into an elegant new home, the one-liners are staying as wicked as ever.
Read more of Sactown’s coverage on B Street Theatre HERE.