Interview: Lyndsay Burch of the B Street Theatre Talks About Keeping Theatre Alive With Humor

B Street's New 2024 Season is Full of Fresh New Works

By: Sep. 19, 2023
Interview: Lyndsay Burch of the B Street Theatre Talks About Keeping Theatre Alive With Humor

Interview: Lyndsay Burch of the B Street Theatre Talks About Keeping Theatre Alive With Humor

For over 25 years, the B Street Theatre has been a visionary leader in the community, championing new artists and works while bringing quality professional theatre to Sacramento. Amid theatres across the country shutting down, B Street continues going strong. They recently announced their 2024 season, which features several new works. Three of them hail from B Street’s own New Comedies Festival, including its winning entry, The Newlywed Game. BroadwayWorld recently spoke with B Street’s Artistic Director, Lyndsay Burch, about what makes this theatre so special, how they navigate a changing theatre landscape, and why humor rules.

A recent New York Times article about dozens of regional theatres shuttering across the country sent alarm bells through the local theatre community. Why do you think theatres are still struggling so much post-pandemic? Were they struggling before the shutdowns?

There was also a local article in Sacramento News and Review and there have been many publications that have written about this recently. I think we have to go back a little bit. The reality is that there is a group that publishes a report every year – a fact sheet on demographics. Ticket sales, donations, and the percentage of income that goes to full-time staff, those kinds of reports have indicated that adult theatre attendance had been declining for five years before the pandemic, which I believe was largely marked by the Great Recession. Many theatres closed during that time. I think theatre saw a decline in audiences happening slowly. Many theatres said we need younger audiences and more diverse audiences, be it regarding age, race, gender, geographic location, and many other factors. Theatres are traditionally understaffed. Few had the bandwidth to do audience development and maintain a strong subscriber base. What the pandemic did was a hard hit so now what’s happened is the loyal subscriber base that sustained and built theatres dropped by 50%. We did lose over 1,000 households. Before the pandemic, we were at 6,300 and we are creeping now towards 5,500. What is happening to this base, and I think there are several answers, is that unfortunately during the pandemic people’s mobility and health status changed. Maybe an even bigger reason is that the way we consume entertainment has very much shifted and I attribute the acceleration of that shift to the pandemic. The generation that subscribed to theatre considered it a civic duty to support our local artistic community. They thought, “I want to invest in this for myself and for future generations.” Now that there are streaming devices and loyal subscribers are used to being at home, they want to pick and choose what they see. Theatres are built around that subscription model. Single tickets are unpredictable. We can’t really budget and plan on that. We budget and plan on the subscription base. Inconsistency is creating financial challenges for all theatres. They have to figure out how people are choosing to attend the theatre.

What shows did you have the most success with single ticket sales this season?

The Play That Goes Wrong was a record-breaking hit for us and Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson was a very strong single-ticket seller. After that, Insertion and Last Wide Open were good single-ticket sellers. The Play That Goes Wrong is a machine on another level. For us, selling 3,000 single tickets is a hit. Anything between 2,500-3,000 is great, 2,000 we are happy, 1,500-2,000 is dicey, and anything less than 1,500 means we’ve lost money on the show. Dramas are not necessarily as appealing to audiences. Broke-ology resulted in subscription renewals. so you have to balance your season. The Play That Goes Wrong was at 4,000 and Ms. Holmes and Ms. Watson was a 3,700-ticket seller. Theatres have very high overhead. You have to pay for 3 weeks of rehearsal, labor, sets, costumes, marketing, load-in, painting, and more, and the subscriptions sustain all of that. With single tickets, you’re hoping to support the cost of the run and maybe make a couple thousand dollars to put back into the organization.

This year compared to 2022 is like being in a different world. Things are improving and at a faster rate than I expected. I think it will take another 18 months or so to stabilize. I think a lot of theatres were recovering from the recession right before the pandemic. Theatre arts take a long time to bounce back but I see hope and audiences returning. We don’t see the consistency of subscribers but we see new trends and are learning from them.

What kind of shows do you see your audiences preferring now?

I see audiences preferring comedies right now, and always have in the largesse. The ones who prefer drama are in the minority. Think of what movies sell. Barbie is going to make a lot more than Oppenheimer. You have to program a season with variety. One, for your artistic spirit, and two, for example, because Jump is a drama, you can’t come back after The Play That Goes Wrong with a comedy because everyone will say it’s not as funny as The Play That Goes Wrong. If you keep doing the same genre, everything starts to get compared. You have to switch it up enough to avoid some of that. Other than doing The Play That Goes Wrong, which is obviously a known title, we focus on new works. One thing that inspires me is our audiences are along for that ride. A lot of theatres are feeling the need to pivot towards old chestnuts, familiar stories. It feels safe but maybe, in times of uncertainty, it’s time to take a risk. Maybe our audience is shifting and it’s time to take people along for the ride. Our New Comedies Festival showed a record number of attendees this year. You have to have a balance. You need to include new things that are going to surprise people.

What did B Street do to ensure its success during and after the pandemic? How did this differ from other local companies that may be struggling to recover?

I think it’s interesting where we sit. As you know, STC is not producing professionally this season. That has kind of shaken our theatre community. With Capital Stage, people certainly see B Street as a more commercial theatre and, of course, in a lot of senses that is true, but four out of the five plays in our season are world premieres, so we’re still a new works theatre. I think Capital Stage does fantastic work and they may focus on more social justice issues, but our focus is on new works. I think the way to make new work successful is to do just that. It’s actually not a spoiler to see a reading and then see the production. You feel a part of it. I think we are focusing on more light-hearted material but it’s not necessarily without a message. Of course, The Play That Goes Wrong is a straight-up farce but a lot of the time we’re saying something. There can always be criticism about any theatre or any art, but I think it’s important to remember that theatrically and artistically we’re an ecosystem. If we all did the same things, we wouldn’t survive. It’s important that our programming and missions are distinct. I think that’s the great thing about theatre that happens in Sacramento. It’s all important and it all needs to be done in this community. It’s important to give our community variety. Going to good theatre begets going to more theatre.

Do you find much crossover in audiences? For example, do you have many patrons who frequent multiple theatres?

The theatre-going community is kind of like a funnel. At the top would be Music Circus and the national tours, down the funnel would be B Street and then Capital Stage. A lot of the people who go to B Street go to Capital Stage. A lot of people go to B Street for twenty years and don’t go anywhere else. Theatre is kind of the gateway to theatre. If you see a musical and you love it, you might go see a play. There is a crossover, but there are some loyal B Streeters who fell in love with the small quaint old space. One of the things the theatre community is discussing is how to facilitate more of that crossover between theatres with a larger subscription base to expose everybody to everything that’s happening.

There’s not competition between theatres for customers?

I think there was a time when it was more proprietary. It was not helpful to begin with, but certainly now survival of American theatre in general depends on us all supporting each other.

B Street is committed to highlighting new artists and new works. Why did you take that approach as opposed to sticking with tried-and-true favorites? Do you find audiences to be receptive to new works or is there some skepticism?

They’re very receptive and B Street started doing plays that people have never heard of. It’s sort of the way its reputation was built. Before we moved to the Sofia, we used to not announce the season. Subscribers would subscribe and show up and not know what show it was. That’s how trusting they were. Sometimes we would see scripts two weeks before rehearsal started. The way people are purchasing now, there’s definitely a desire to know. It shows trust in us and new works that this audience has had for decades.

My first experience with B Street was when I saw Letters to Declan almost thirty years ago when it was brand new.

People would buy a subscription just to see Jack Gallagher and blindly see 6 plays they had never heard of. That’s why I got into theatre. You would regularly do Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Ibsen, and then I saw this audience that was so excited about new plays. I knew this place was incredibly special.  

How are you engaging the community and getting the word out to promote these new works?

It depends on the show. We have limited staff and bandwidth so, of course, reviews help, and we get a lot of nice press from radio and television, especially when the playwrights are in town. A lot of the time it’s reaching out to groups that are affiliated with the show in some way. For Insertion, we reached out to book clubs. Some did giveaways to promote the show. Café Bernardo, Fort Sutter, Tea Bar, and other local hotels and restaurants help to get the word out. It’s a way to let people know that the theatre exists. The greatest marketing tool we have is word of mouth. If someone doesn’t trust a new work or they’re hesitant to go to something they can’t read a review of, their neighbor telling them they have to go gets them there. Maybe they saw something on Good Day Sacramento, but the word-of-mouth pushes people over the edge to buy. There used to be community engagement and a customer would take 3 hits before they buy but because we’re inundated with email, Facebook, and Instagram, it’s more. You have to basically do everything in your power through social media, e-blasts, press, flyers, and partnerships, and hope that somebody hears about it enough times to say, “I’m going.” We do a lot of strategic comping, that’s a big part of it too. We’d rather have someone come for free and maybe buy a ticket to see something else. Come see a show and experience what we have to offer. Some people may be a little afraid of theatre. They had a boring experience at school or think they have to get dressed up or it’s just too much money.

I love that you have the $9 at 9 p.m. show offer.

$9 at 9 has been our biggest audience generator. It’s a majority of first-timers. I’m happy that people are coming. Any way you can make it seem like a fun and accessible thing to do. That’s what, in a lot of ways, we’re fighting against with younger generations. There are those preconceived notions about the theatre their grandparents went to.

In today’s post-pandemic theatre world, where theatre-going baby boomers are aging and there are so many more distractions, do you find that people are hesitant to go into playwriting or live theatre as a career?

Certainly, I think there’s this problem because a lot of the students studying theatre during the pandemic left that major because they didn’t want to study something they couldn’t do. They didn’t know when they could get back to it. We have a gap. Artists retiring and hiring have been a huge challenge. You have a void that was left. I see it picking back up. I see universities announcing their BFA classes. If I was a younger person in college, I would be looking at the articles about theatres closing that basically come out daily and I’d be scared. Then I think about myself, and I was in college in 2009 and those articles were already coming out. Social media was less prevalent. I said, “I love this, and I want to do this and a lot can change in 4 years.” Hopefully, there are people who say they have to do this with their lives, and they pursue it.

How do you go about searching for new works?

There are several ways. We do a call for submissions for new comedies. Posted on our website and the New Play Exchange where playwrights have pages. You can search for tags, like a comedy with four actors, two men and two women. Now, anyone can be on there and pay $10 a year and there’s no guarantee that everything will be good. We use the Dramatists Guild and reach out to agents we work with frequently. When we’re just looking for the season, we get stuff from agents or other theatres. We hear from our staff and company members. People who know and understand B Street keeping their ear to the ground in what’s being done in the industry.

What advice would you give a brand-new playwright who is hoping to get their show performed?

I would say, first of all, be prolific in your writing. Write as much as you can. Just do finger exercises, a 10-minute play. Keep working and putting your stuff out there. If there’s a theatre whose work you admire, try to get a meeting with someone. Get to know their leadership, say, “Do you have a reading series? I’d love to have my play read.” Submit it for development opportunities, play festivals, and opportunities online. Through that you’ll meet a director, you’ll meet actors. Artists a lot of times bring us plays. You have to be relentless and tactful and understand those of us who plan seasons and read plays get 1,000-2,000 a year. Writers write. Don’t be discouraged. So much of this industry is about relationships. Just take advantage of all opportunities and build relationships with a community. Keep writing and don’t give up because it takes a long time to get a play produced. Sometimes it’s about the right place and right time.

Tell us about your New Comedies Festival that happens every year. Insertion was wildly successful and was the winner of last year’s fest. Do you have something similar for dramatic works that aren’t comedic?

We don’t. Before the pandemic, we had what we called a new play brunch, and we would read a new play. We definitely want to bring this back, but it’s been a bandwidth and staffing issue. We would read anything. Drama, comedy, experimental, could be anything. That’s the way we would read different works. We want to bring that back this upcoming season. We’ll probably bring it back quarterly and try to add on from there. Most theatre companies in the country center around more dramatic works. I think this is because a lot of the great works in American theatre, like The Glass Menagerie, are dramatic. A lot of those festivals often overlook comedies as being important to the theatre canon. The reason for the New Comedies Festival is to also highlight the importance of comedic works to the American theatre canon and to engage with comedic writing.

What exciting things do we have to look forward to in B Street’s future?

We’ve had a wonderful season. I feel very fortunate to have been privy to such amazing works and what we have to look forward to is uniquely B Street and an equally exciting season in 2024. In a continuation of our rebuild since the pandemic, maybe adding some of these programs back that people love. We want to continue building our local and national reputation of B Street. This season is a real indication of the success of our program, that three out of four shows were generated through our festival. That’s really cool and exciting. I’m excited about that and very excited about the family series and what the future of that is. We had our most attended season by schools and I would love to exceed that record and have an increased number of students and educators see live theatre.

B Street Theatre’s current season continues with Jump, opening September 27. The 2024 season opens with a New Comedies Festival finalist, Rescue Me, on January 10, 2024. More information and tickets may be found online at, by calling (916) 443-5300, or in person at the Box Office at 2700 Capitol Avenue in Sacramento.

Photo credit: Wes Davis



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