EL native Tim Busfield scrutinizes changes in storytelling

May 4, 2016

East Lansing native Timothy Busfield is an Emmy winning actor who’s appeared in more than 30 feature films and TV movies. We talk with Busfield about how technology and other forces are changing the art of storytelling.

After graduating from East Lansing High School back in 1975, Tim Busfield went on to a successful career in the movies, television and directing. It’s included appearances in more than 30 TV movies and feature films, including the memorable 1989 fantasy "Field of Dreams." He has been a regular or recurring character on 14 TV series including "West Wing" and "thirtysomething," for which he won an Emmy, and has directed more than 90 television episodes. He’s also appeared in over 50 plays.

After years living in California, Busfield moved back to Michigan in 2010. He was joined by his spouse, actress Melissa Gilbert, in 2013. Today, he and Gilbert, now a Democratic candidate in the 8th Congressional district, live in Brighton.

Recently, Tim Busfield returned to East Lansing to spend the day here at MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. He spent some time talking with students about the future of storytelling, and he also spoke with Current State about how storytelling is changing.


On how storytelling has changed

“The original storytelling is around a campfire. There were no electronics at all. 'How did you kill the woolly mammoth? Well, here’s how we did it.' Stories evolving for a millennium had no electricity attached to them.

People with their phones are now making YouTube videos, telling shorter stories. They're finding a way to connect with an audience. It’s not as much of a country club environment as to who gets to tell stories. You used to need to have money, or know somebody to be able to tell a story. Now you can tell a story on your own, put it on YouTube and have 10 million people see it.” -- Timothy Busfield

On changes in the theater world

"Theater is dying for a number of reasons. Proscenium theater isn’t accessible to the audience anymore because they’re used to seeing performances over someone’s shoulder or back. The distance traveled to a proscenium theater may not necessarily be the best environment for making something feel real. With the ability of putting theater in the round, that’s theater adapting to more cinematic values. When you’re on somebody's back in a theater situation, you’ll still listen.” -- Busfield

How has reality TV changed storytelling?

"Reality TV has revealed our writing in TV to not be too awfully good. You can look at as a positive or a negative. The negative aspect of reality TV - and I take responsibility, as should everyone else - is that we were not real enough in our writing, directing, or our acting for the audience to feel like they were emotionally involved." -- Busfield

On evolving storytelling preferences for college students

"“I think [students] want it to feel real, they want to relate. They’re not just going to tune into an episode of network television that is overwritten, and underplayed. They’re not going to accept it. They’d rather go purchase something off their phone that moves them." -- Busfield