In 2016, Lynsday Burch completed a five-week fellowship in Mumbai, India, where she observed the production of “Gandhi: The Musical” at India’s National Centre for the Performing Arts.
The experience inspired Burch, artistic producer at B Street Theatre in Sacramento, to direct and produce the full-scale, original musical “GANDHI!,” which runs through March 11 for B Street’s Family Series. The musical tells the story of the main character Mo on a journey to understand and accept his heritage.
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Burch began her career with B Street Theatre in 2013 as an intern after working at many other theater companies around the U.S., including 24 Hour Plays New York and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Over that time, she says she has seen an emerging trend: On a national scale, there’s a big push among theater companies to move women and people of color into leading artistic roles.
For example, the League of Resident Theatres — the largest professional theater association in the U.S. — implemented a diversity initiative with strategies for hiring, recruitment and mentorship to better “reflect the rich diversity of this country.” And the National New Play Network (where Burch is a board member) dedicated Jan. 21 as International Women’s Voice Day to encourage theaters to present an unproduced play by a woman.
Here in Sacramento, more women are also beginning to take center stage, which is evident at B Street Theatre. “I think B Street is ahead of the curve on this national movement by already having women in several leadership and key staff positions,” Burch says.
With several women holding key roles on and offstage, B Street is breaking the mold for gender parity in theater. In what has often been seen as an industry dominated by males in leading creative roles, the local theater is instead empowering women to rise through the ranks to lead everything from marketing to playwriting and directing.
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In addition to Burch’s “GANDHI!,” another great success among the women of B Street is the recent commissioning and production of “Treatment,” an original play written and performed by three women in the company, which ran in the Mainstage Series last summer. It was one of the top three best-selling Mainstage shows of the season, with multiple nights sold out, according to Liz-Liles Brown, marketing and sales director at B Street Theatre.
Tara Sissom is a core company member and the outreach and education ambassador for B Street. She and fellow core company members Amy Kelly and Stephanie Altholz wrote “Treatment” at the request of Producing Artistic Director Buck Busfield two years ago.
“I credit it all to Buck’s trust in us,” Sissom says. “He’s a great mentor, and he taught me to understand playwriting in general. He then takes a lot of risk and gives us these opportunities, and it’s up to us to knock it out of the park.”
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Sissom says she’s glad she chose Sacramento to be her home and to remain with B Street, where she’s worked since 2010. “That just doesn’t really happen,” she says, of her opportunities at the local theater company. “To be under 40, and also a woman, I kind of feel like I’ve got this extraordinary secret. I am not in L.A. or Chicago or New York, but I am working circles around those people.”
Mindy Cooper, a professor of theater and dance at UC Davis, recently relocated to Sacramento after 30 years in New York City as an independent choreographer and director in the Broadway community.
“It’s kind of phenomenal,” says Cooper of the role of women at B Street. “Most of us who have been plugging away in the trenches for 30-some years think, ‘Why did it take so long? Why does this have to be in the headlines?’ It should just be the norm.”
Behind the Scenes
B Street also has women in leading roles offstage, including Liles-Brown, who began as a box office associate in 2011 and now directs all sales and marketing activities. “In an environment like B Street, I believe it is key to have gender parity,” Liles-Brown says. “A theater organization absolutely needs men and women’s voices heard equally in the artistic and administrative sides of the organization’s structure to fully connect to a broad audience. We pride ourselves in being a theater for everyone and we continue to follow that same mission behind the curtain.”
While B Street may be ahead of the curve, there remains a lack of gender parity in theater throughout the industry, especially in terms of writers and directors. According to an American Theater study, which surveyed member companies of the Theatre Communications Group, just 26 percent of plays produced among member companies in 2016 and 2017 were written by women. The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Women Count project found that among 22 theaters sampled, only 33 percent of women directed plays from 2010-2015.
“These are very coveted jobs in the industry, and individuals stay in these roles for sometimes 20, 30, 40 years,” Burch says. “If a theater is founded by a man, it may be a long time before a woman even has the opportunity to step into that senior leadership role. But the world is changing and the leadership in theater is changing as well — it just takes time.”
Sissom believes that a lot of it comes back to the opportunity to be in Sacramento. “It’s a unique place to work, and it has attracted a lot of really smart, talented women, and they see that potential and that staying power if they work hard and prove themselves,” she says.
Cooper agrees with Sissom about the potential for women in theater in Sacramento. “There’s a marked difference in the last eight years in Sacramento’s theatrical community,” Cooper says. “Before it was fine. Now it’s on fire. In terms of moving and shaking, I think Sacramento is high on the list.”
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B Street has built a community of almost 30,000 devoted subscribers and patrons, and has dedicated itself to producing more than 100 new plays — 60 of which are world, national or regional premieres. Yet despite its successes, we at B Street have never lost sight of our original mission to entertain and educate children about theater and playwriting.
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Thanks to all of you.