Michael Butler directs To Kill a Mockingbird
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
San Francisco Chronicle April 13, 2011

Forgive Michael Butler if he sounds a little tired of directing just now. He may be excited about his current staging of "To Kill a Mockingbird," but sometimes he'd rather be acting. Or playing music.

Besides, he has an entire theater company to run. At 57, Butler is nearing the end of his fifth season as artistic director of Walnut Creek's Center Repertory Company. During that time, he's accelerated the longtime community theater's transformation - begun by his predecessor Lee Sankowich, who was also artistic director of Marin Theatre Company - to higher artistic levels.

Butler has brought in more professional actors, directors and designers. He's also increased the number of shows each season to eight, in the Lesher Center's three theaters, by adding two more adventurous, Off Center shows to an eclectic mix of popular and edgy musicals and safely established and riskier new dramas. "Mockingbird," Christopher Sergel's popular dramatization of Harper Lee's novel, is the third show he's staged this season, without a chance to act.

Butler's been doing both for a long time, sometimes designing sets or writing music as well (he's a published songwriter and a rock, blues and country guitarist). Before Center Rep, he was a frequent actor and director at San Jose Rep, where he met his wife, then-artistic director Timothy Near. He's performed on Broadway and at numerous regional companies, and directed everywhere from Marin Theatre and Aurora to Cleveland Playhouse, Seattle Rep and Shakespeare Santa Cruz.

Q: You have an eight-show season now?

A: In all three theaters - because of Off Center. It was six. When I first started I think it was five. That includes our "Christmas Carol," which is now in its 14th season. That's the one show we do in the Hoffman, the 800-seat theater, which is the largest.

Q: You usually direct how many?

A: This year I did three, which I will never do again. Famous last words - but it's too much, kind of back to back - "Dracula," "Boeing Boeing" and now "Mockingbird." Besides, I like to keep my hand in acting, at least once every other year. Because it's fun. A lot of my career has been as an actor and I don't want to let that go just because I have an administrative job. I think the audiences like seeing that too. There was one period where I was directing a lot and didn't act for like four years and then climbed back into a play. It was "Art" with Peter Van Norden and David Pichette, two guys who were like total Jedis. The first two weeks of rehearsal I was like a runner who was winded early in the race. "Don't wait! I'll catch up. Don't worry." My chops just weren't there. I got them back, but I don't want to go through that experience of being rusty again. It gets harder and harder to un-rust.

Q: "Mockingbird" is being done a lot lately.

A: Isn't that interesting? TheatreWorks, Ashland - you could make a case that wrestling with the history of race in this country is still a very big issue. I kind of laughed at one event we did where someone started with, "Well, now that we're in a post-racial society ..." Oh, really? Are you sure? I don't know if having an African American president has heightened the interest, but anything that makes us look at that issue is a very good thing. And you know To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, won the Pulitzer in '61 and was made into a movie in '62, all right at the edge of the hottest part of the civil rights movement. And it's still cited as the most influential book after the Bible, worldwide. So it's very useful as a story for white people to deal with whatever degree of racism or prejudice we carry. It makes it possible for us to look at that because it's this little girl and we're seeing it through the eyes of innocence and great caring and respect for the people in the story.

Q: Is there anything unusual in the approach you're taking?

A: I think there is. The script pretty much cries out for a kind of realistic production. At least I think that's what most people have done. There's a strong urge to put the neighborhood onstage, to have all those little houses and porches, all that loving naive realism that I can't stand. I really didn't want to do that. I wanted to somehow capture the feeling of what it's like to enter the world of a novel where, yes, things are described but that's planting seeds in the reader's imagination, where it all really grows and is visualized. I thought it needed a simpler platform. In some ways I'm treating it more the way people traditionally do Our Town.

It's a beautiful set (by Melpomene Katakalos), a kind of raked platform of old barn siding that we found that curves up into like a wave. And very little on it. But of course I've got Dan Hiatt playing Atticus Finch, so who needs scenery? You know, I hadn't thought about it that way until just now. But it's true.


Backstage: Center REP PreparesTo Kill a Mockingbird
Lou Fancher, Walnut Creek Patch

Artistic Director Michael Butler is taking on Harper Lee’s iconic story of rape and racism. It opens Friday and plays through April 30. Walnut Creek Patch got in on the action at a rehearsal …

Dan Hiatt, as Atticus Finch, points his rifle just above my head, aiming at the mad dog barreling in our direction.

“Shhhhiff!” he says, imitating the sound of a bullet whistling past my ear.

It’s a Center Repertory Company rehearsal of To Kill A Mockingbird, and I’m a fly on the wall, just a few feet from the action.

To my left, Center Rep Artistic Director Michael Butler leans forward, chin in one hand while he scribbles notes with the other, never allowing his fierce gaze to drift from the scene.

In the first five minutes, there has been a mad dog, a shooting, a young girl asking her father to explain what “rape” means, and the “N” word.

The question that comes to mind is Why?

Why take on Harper Lee’s classic novel, which rose to instant fame, then to iconic status with Gregory Peck winning an Academy Award as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version?

Butler—occasionally pulling his silver, swirly-curly hair and flexing a face that snaps like a rubber band from perplexed to despair to jubilation during our 50-minute interview—was eager to answer the question. Center Rep, the in-house theater company for the Lesher Center for the Arts, opens this production of To Kill A Mockingbird.

“I don’t even think of it as pressure," he says. "The play is based especially on the novel, not the film. The characters are not famous as much as they are great. They have complexity, something that speaks to the larger part of our humanity.”

Although he never read the book as a boy, and he saw the film for the first time just nine months ago, Butler has strong opinions about both.

“I didn’t like the film," Butler says. "I think Scout was great, but I didn’t think Gregory Peck was right for the part. Too movie star. He didn’t even try to do a Southern accent!”

Butler pauses, tugging on a lock of hair and moaning to himself, “Oh there, now I’m going to get myself in trouble."

“It just didn’t move me the way the book does," he continues. "The book is so much richer.”

Moving audiences is Butler’s purpose.

“The most meaningful thing I have gotten from being an artistic director is seeing an audience leaving the theater really flying high," he says. "That gives me deep, deep joy. It’s what people want: they want to escape.”

Lee's novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, arriving in the midst of the civil rights movement, can hardly be described as frothy escape. Published in 1960, Lee’s novel bears the influence of the Scottsboro Boys case of 1931, in which nine black teenage boys were accused of rape, and of Emmett Till’s murder after he was reported as flirting with a white woman in 1955, the same year as the well-known Montgomery bus boycott.

The film version was released in 1962, just before Americans waged racial warfare with the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and Martin Luther King’s Selma to Montgomery marches two years later.

“The reason the play resonates the most with me is that the book made it possible for whites to examine their own racism and consider changing,” Butler says.

“The first day, the cast read through the script and I talked about the 'N' word," he says. "All I wanted was to make sure everybody understood it is still a powerful word. It’s still shocking to hear Olivia, [Olivia Lowe, the actor playing Scout, the daughter] say it."

“We can’t act like it was never used,” Joseph Ingram said in a panel discussion at the Walnut Creek Library on Feb. 22. Ingram will appear as Tom, the black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. “Unfortunately, it’s used as a term of endearment nowadays,” he added, surprising the largely white audience gathered at the library event to learn about the production. He explained that the word sometimes is used among members of the African-American community.

Butler says he knows some people will question if the “N” word should be used.

“The script is very protected, we have to do the words that are written, but the stage directions, costumes and set are left to us," he says.

Heavily influenced by the book and a desire to engage the audiences’ imagination, Butler has eliminated standard architecture and chosen a set design that is less fixed in the real world and more abstract, flexible and universal.

“Theater can do that," he says. "Sure, you can bring a helicopter onstage and everyone will ooh and aah, but if you can make the audience see it when it’s not there, then you’ve done something."

Butler sounds almost regretful as he talks about writing out some of the characters, or reducing their parts: “You can’t get everything in. If you did, [the play] would be five hours long!”

Of course, there is one character who hardly appears onstage but is pivotal to the story. He is very much included.

“Boo Radley is a remarkable character," Butler says. "His part is small, but his shadow is so long."

"Boo Radley is that person we talk about. It’s even harsher than gossip, it’s actual judgment,” Butler exclaims, his face a mix of enthusiasm for the character and distaste for what he calls “the adult world’s disturbing aspects.”

The director praises his cast.

“Dan Hiatt, [Atticus] is an especially accomplished actor," Butler said. "More than anything, you just don’t want to get in his way. He has a special aptitude for a kind of American: a taciturn but heartfelt character."

Although he initially worried about working with young actors for the first time, Butler says it has been a happy experience.

“It‘s fun to dial in that kid energy," he said. "When we were creating the chase scene, I was actually running around with them."

Butler relies on theater to transport him to another time and place, change him, then return him to the present. He hopes his audiences enjoy that experience, too.

“I know why they want to escape that awful stuff we’re bombarded with every day," he says. "They want to experience some element of our shared experiences that is uplifting, disturbing, complex and shows us a way out.”

For tickets and information about To Kill A Mockingbird, contact the Lesher Center for the Arts box office at 925-943-7469 or www.lesherartscenter.org.



Center REP presents classic To Kill a Mockingbird
Joint Forces Journal

Harper Lee's timeless Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, with a standout cast, comes to the Dean Lesher Theatre in Walnut Creek, as a featured production of Center REPertory Company, playing April 1-30.

Set in a small Alabama town in the 1930s, the story follows young Miss Jean Louise "Scout" Finch as she watches her father defy ignorance and prejudice in the fight of his life, as she learns the true meaning of integrity. It focuses on scrupulously honest, highly respected lawyer Atticus Finch, magnificently embodied by the performance of Dan Hiatt. Finch puts his career on the line when he agrees to represent Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape. The trial and the events surrounding it are seen through the eyes of Finch's six-year-old daughter Scout.

While Robinson's trial gives the play its momentum, there are plenty of anecdotal occurrences before and after the court date: Scout's ever-strengthening bond with older brother Jem, her friendship with precocious young Dill Harris (a character based on Lee's childhood chum Truman Capote), her father's no-nonsense reactions to such life-and-death crises as a rampaging mad dog, and especially Scout's reactions to, and relationship with, Boo Radley, the reclusive "village idiot" who turns out to be her salvation when she is attacked by a venomous bigot.

The screen version of To Kill a Mockingbird is general considered to be a classic, starring Gregory Peck in the lead role of Atticus Finch. Also, Robert Duvall made his movie debut in the role of Boo Radley. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction.

For tickets or more information on this outstanding production please phone (925) 943-7469 or visit www.CenterREP.org



Around the Creek: Learn How Center REP Will Dare to Bring THIS American Classic to Walnut Creek
Martha Ross, Walnut Creek Patch

Last year, when I heard that Center Repertory Company had decided to present a stage version of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird at the Lesher Center for the Arts this spring, I thought: "Very cool!"

I e-mailed Michael Butler, the artistic director of Center Rep, the city-run theater company, saying that he likely had an automatic audience of students from local high school English classes. Surely, Lee's beloved coming-of-age novel, which examines racial intolerance in the Depressio-era South, is still required reading in high school English classes. Also, around the time I learned that To Kill a Mockingbird was on Rep's 2010-11 season, my son finished the book and declared it to be "great." He said that--as any book should--it took him to a whole different world, and he loved being immersed in it.

My son and I also eagerly watched the 1962 film version, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. My son also declared that to be great.

The role of Atticus Finch not only won Peck the Academy Award for Best Actor but earned him icon status. Peck's Finch is "the gold standard for representations of fatherhood on film, writes Salon.com. Finch is a widowed father, raising Scout, the book and film's narrator, and her brother Jem while fighting a noble but doomed struggle to defend a poor black man wrongly accused of rape.

While I'm very much looking forward to Center Rep's production, which opens April 1, I confess to wondering how the company will sell audiences on a non-Gregory Peck version of the story.

That's why I'm going to the downtown Walnut Creek Library this evening to hear Michael Butler talk about bringing this American classic to the stage in Walnut Creek. Butler is directing the show.

In his Live! From the Library talk, "To Kill A Mockingbird: From Page to Stage," Butler will be joined by cast members of this Center Rep production. He and the actors will discuss bringing this well-known novel to the stage. History teacher Meg Honey, who last spring led her St. Joseph Notre Dame High School students on a Civil Rights Movement tour of the South, will moderate the talk and place the novel in the context of Alabama in the 1930s when the story takes place.

Unfortunately, the talk, which is free, is also full. But you can still sign up for the waiting list by going to the library foundation's website.

In the meantime, I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Michael Butler's ability to make this a must-see show. His fall production of Dracula was one of the best pieces of theater I've seen in a long time. It totally made me forget Bela Lugosi or Robert Pattinson.

I've been a fan of Butler since 2006 when he directed an inventive, fast-past, hilarious version of Around the World in 80 Days, before he even signed on to be artistic director of Center Rep. His 2008 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream made my son, then 10, fall in love with Shakespeare. Overall, Butler has brought a younger, more hip sensibility to the Lesher Center's in-house theater company.

Center Rep's To Kill a Mockingbird plays April 1- April 30. For tickets and information, call 925-943-7469 or visit www.lesherartscenter.org.


Two Orinda Teens Perform Key Roles in Pulitzer Prize-Winning Drama
Sally Hogarty, The Orinda News

When Center REPertory's production of To Kill a Mockingbird debuts at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek on April 1, it will include two young Orinda actors - Olivia Lowe (Scout) and Danny Christensen (Jem).

I've always loved the book and feel really honored to be able to portray Scout," says Lowe. "I feel like we are friends." An 8th grader at Julia Morgan Elementary School in Berkeley, Lowe has studied with Young REP and performed in Center REP's production of A Christmas Carol as Belinda Cratchit last year.

To prepare for the pivotal role of Scout, Lowe has re-read the book several times and spent time looking through her own family's photo albums. "I'm 14 but Scout is only 9 years old, so I've looked at myself at that age and tried to remember how I reacted to things," Lowe explains.

There is certainly a lot for Scout to react to in Harper Lee's modern classic. Set in the fictional southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, the story takes place during the Great Depression. Scout lives with her older brother Jem and their widowed father Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer. Scout and Jem, along with their friend Dill, are busy trying to pry the reclusive, mysterious Boo Radley out of his house when Atticus is appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Racial issues turn the quiet southern town into chaos and change the children's world forever.

"Scout is a wonderful role model for young girls, and I love working with our director Michael Butler," says Lowe. She also feels fortunate to have well-known Bay Area actor Dan Hiatt as Atticus. "He is just amazing. I have learned so much watching him," Lowe says. "How he transforms into Atticus is incredible."

Christensen agrees. This is the first production the Miramonte student has been involved with that included professional actors. "The rehearsal process is very intense," says Christensen. "I go from a full day at school to five-hour rehearsals. We also rehearse on weekends with Mondays our only day off. But I love it." Christensen finds director Michael Butler a great role model. "He is so supportive and enthusiastic and really listens to the actors. At rehearsals, he always finds time to sit down with me and help me with my character. He's also an amazing actor himself."

Christensen and Lowe are both students in Center REP's Young REP program. "Last year, one of our classes was on how to audition, and we actually prepared auditions for this show," Christensen explains.

Center Rep's To Kill a Mockingbird runs April 1- April 30 at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek. For tickets, call 925-943-7469 or go to www.lesherartscenter.org.


Center REP to present Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning drama To Kill a Mockingbird
The Stark Insider

Center REPertory Company announced it will present To Kill a Mockingbird, from April 1st through April 30th, 2011. Directed by Michael Butler, the show is the sixth production of the REP’s 44th subscription season.

“I pretty much cut a different figure than Gregory Peck,” explains Dan Hiatt at the outset, making it clear he’s not going to imitate the Academy Award-winning star as he takes on the role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

For one thing, it’s a stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel in which Hiatt is appearing for Center REPertory Company, not a star-powered Hollywood production. But Atticus was also named the greatest hero in the history of American movies by the American Film Institute. And librarians have voted Harper Lee’s original work the best American novel of the 20th century. Hiatt, a veteran Bay Area actor, may be challenged but not intimidated to play a role considered so heroic. He’s returning to Lee’s original, 1960 novel, to help create a more detailed, maybe more subtle character.

“I’m not even sure Atticus is really the central character of the story,” Hiatt says. “It’s all from the point of view of Scout, his daughter. It’s a powerful story, with important things to say about the history of race relations in this country. But it’s also a very sweet coming-of-age tale.”

Hiatt, who has performed with the American Conservatory Theatre, California Shakespeare Theatre and Berkeley Rep, is digging into the book to find the man behind the heroic image. The play adapted by Christopher Sergel, of course, follows the basic story of a white attorney who defends a black man, Tom Robinson, unjustly accused of rape. “Atticus isn’t a saint, or a hero, or whatever you might want to call him,” Hiatt says. “You definitely want to see the flaws, the humanity. I think it comes out pretty well in the book. He’s not wild about defending Tom Robinson. It’s his code of ethics and honor that demand that he take on the job.”

As he re-read the book, Hiatt was struck “with how much Atticus seems kind of wounded.” It’s between the lines of Lee’s novel, the adult perspective beneath Scout’s point of view. “He lost his wife about four years before the story starts, and he’s trying to keep everything going for his family during the Depression. And he feels like an outsider in his own community to a certain extent.”

There’s no denying that Hiatt loved the Gregory Peck movie, but he’s staying away from that “indelible” performance for his own interpretation.

“There’s a way in which you might want to see more of Atticus’ frustration. He’s not a man who’s a broad-shouldered pillar of the community from the beginning.”


Center REPertory tackles Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird
Pat Craig, The Contra Costa Times

LIKE SO MANY pieces of literature that become part of school curricula, To Kill a Mockingbird has made that sad, short trip from being good to being good for you.

It's just a two-word difference, but when you stand in front of a bookshelf pondering what to read, Harper Lee's modern classic suddenly conjures visions of homework and 500-word essays that suck all the joy out of the best of yarns.

That might be the best reason for Walnut Creek's Center Repertory Company to produce the stage version of the story, which starts in previews Friday and opens its main run at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The story, which you likely recall from high school English or the wonderful Gregory Peck film, is told through the eyes of Scout, attorney Atticus Finch's young daughter, as she watches her father defend a black man, Tom Robbins, unjustly accused of rape in a Depression-era Georgia town.

While the trial is at the center of the story, Lee has created an amazing examination of race relations in the United States, and the nature of a small town that rarely has to deal -- on the surface, anyway -- with problems more associated with other places and times.