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  • The next stage of her life

    Recent St. Mary's grad Meghan McCandless balanced school with a professional acting career in Portland during her senior year. Now she eyes a career in theater
  • Meghan McCandless remembers the moment she went from being a girl with a lot of amateur acting credits to being an actor with a professional production on her resume.
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  • Meghan McCandless remembers the moment she went from being a girl with a lot of amateur acting credits to being an actor with a professional production on her resume.
    She and her father were driving south on Interstate 5 from Portland in January near Eugene and they were listening to "Super Boy and the Invisible Girl" from the hit musical "Next to Normal" on her iPod.
    Then her cellphone rang, and it was Director John Kretzu at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, calling to say that Meghan had the part of Natalie Goodman, the daughter in Artists Rep's upcoming production of "Next to Normal." She'd just had her second audition for the part.
    "My dad said he just wanted to listen to the song," says the 18-year-old, who graduated from St. Mary's Friday. "Thirty seconds later I got the call. We were freaking out and yelling."
    The role was a landmark for Meghan, who has sung and acted and danced her way through numerous theatrical productions in Southern Oregon. It firmed up the resolve that will send her this fall to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to study for a career in the theater.
    "It's a rock musical about mental illness," she says of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt's play, the Broadway production of which won three Tony Awards in 2009 and a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. "It has a six-person cast. The mother is bi-polar and schizophrenic, and it's about how the family tries to deal with it. It's an intense musical, not your typical 'Oklahoma.' "
    Directed by Kretzu, the Portland production earned enthusiastic reviews.
    "Kretzu has a real find in Meghan McCandless of Medford," wrote The Oregonian's Marty Hughley, "still a high school senior yet capable of both a powerhouse vocal performance and all the right tones of resentment, anxiety and need as the couple's neglected daughter."
    Portland Stage Reviews wrote: "McCandless' Natalie shines, slowly reigniting her mother's synapses by recalling the events wholly, including the embarrassment and pain involved, versus her father's simple 'happy memory' pictures."
    The young actor has been performing on the stage since summer camp at age 5. "Charlotte's Web," at 10, with the Conservatory of Performing Arts in Medford, was her first role in an elaborate production. In addition to multiple roles with both the Children's Musical Theater and Teen Musical Theater of Oregon, she's appeared in numerous productions by Oregon Stage Works, the Ashland New Plays Festival, Rogue Opera and Camelot Theatre Company, as well as landing a role in the Emissary Productions feature film "Indigo." She's also studied voice and dance (tap, ballet, jazz).
    "She's just a wonderfully talented young lady," says Camelot Artistic Director Livia Genise. "When we were doing 'The Miracle Worker' — Meghan was playing Helen (Keller) — Renee Hewitt lost her voice, and I went on for her. Meghan was so delightful to work with.
    "She knows how to take a stage as a lead, and she knows how to share a stage."
    When Meghan heard that Artist's Rep was auditioning for "Next to Normal," her father, Stephen McCandless, who is executive director of Medford's Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater when he isn't playing stage dad to Meghan, emailed Nause and asked if Meghan could audition. Two car trips to Portland later, the role was hers.
    With the show running daily except Mondays, Meghan lived in Portland during the show's 11-week run, staying with friends of family friends who'd often hosted exchange students. Her teachers at St. Mary's were supportive, and with the help of twice-weekly tutoring in calculus and macro-economics, she crunched through her school work — she also had Irish literature, creative writing, religion and art history classes this term — during the days.
    "I'd walk to a coffee shop to get homework done," she says. "I had to do my laundry and make meals. Around 5 I'd eat dinner and drive to the theater."
    She was paid for her work — "It was my summer job," she says — and even became a candidate for Equity, the actors union. And her first taste of the professional actor's life left her wanting more.
    "The cast was so on the ball, every night was a new experience," she says. "I knew if I hadn't done this I'd have still been in high school studying calculus with all my friends."
    She plans to study musical theater at Northwestern and make a career on the stage.
    "At this point that's the plan," she says. "I have incredibly supportive parents. I'm aware of the skepticism people have. It's not the most stable job, and life throws you some curve balls. But I don't care what people say. It's gonna work out."
    Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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