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Helping teens excel onstage makes TMTO director giddy

A number of those who developed their acting skills in Teen Musical Theater of Oregon shows have gone on to pursue degrees and careers in the arts.

Take Cailey McCandless, for instance.

She choreographed her first TMTO show when she was a senior at St. Mary’s School, graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in theater at Northwestern University in Chicago, did a company management internship with Cirque du Soleil in Los Angeles, then performed and danced at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

She returned to the Rogue Valley in late 2016 to run the program that meant so much to her growing up. As program director of TMTO, she carries most of the administrative load. But she also fills creative team roles on shows the company produces.

“During college, I realized how much I love teaching and working with high schoolers,” she said. “TMTO has always occupied an indelible place in my heart.”

Part of her creative work involved reinventing TMTO when the pandemic hit.

“We ended up spending six weeks this summer turning our spring production of ‘Children of Eden,’ canceled two days before its opening, into a movie version,” she said.

Meeting the COVID challenge to “Children of Eden” brings her a deep sense of pride because of the effort it took for the cast and creative team to make it to the finish line.

“What should have been a three-month experience turned into an eight-month experience,” she said.

The show morphed from a full-scale live offering to a cinematic production to yet a third version, a multimedia concert that was presented in front of a socially-distanced, masked audience of 80 last August when venue restrictions were eased.

The movie version of “Children of Eden” is still in post-production. When TMTO is ready to share it with the community, announcements will be made on its website and social media platforms. TMTO is part of Craterian Productions and can be found through craterian.org.

McCandless practically grew up in the Craterian Theater. She was 6 when her family moved from California to Medford about 24 years ago. Her dad, Stephen McCandless, had accepted the position of executive director of the Craterian, a job he continues to hold today.

“I watched my dad negotiate and book acts, saw almost every show, artist, celebrity, and act that came to town,” she said.

“I ran follow spot, filled stagehand positions for touring shows while I was in high school, and performed in musicals on stage. So much of my theater background and education was shaped by my exposure to all aspects of the arts growing up.”

In her job, she has the opportunity to be involved with the creative conversations that shape every TMTO production. That’s because she not only serves as program director, she also is part of the creative team for each show.

Once TMTO is in show mode, she typically arrives at the theater several hours ahead of the cast’s arrival time.

“What I do with that time depends on what my show-specific role is for that production; i.e., director, choreographer, stage manager, etc.,” she said.

When she directs, that time might be spent typing up notes for the actors. When she is stage manager, she tidies up from the previous night’s production. She also likes to be around in case a cast member comes early with questions or needing advice.

Up to 200 youths age 6 to 19 participate each year in TMTO shows. In order to anchor a show and to give cast members a chance to work with professionals, TMTO often will use guest stars in principal roles.

A participation fee of $425 is charged each student, but up to $100 per family can be earned back by completing volunteer work. Sibling discounts are offered and limited scholarships are available.

Besides working on the singing, dancing and acting, there are often technical challenges to overcome.

“As a team, we’ve solved a few of those,” she said. “We’ve produced quite a few Disney musicals, each of which has posed interesting technical problems.”

Some of them they’ve engineered and designed on their own. They used a hydraulic dog-grooming table as the basis for the magic carpet in “Aladdin Jr.” Video projection has been used to solve some challenges, like producing many of the snow effects in their production of “Frozen Jr.” last year.

They use outside help as well.

“We’ve partnered with ZFX Flying Effects for several of our productions,” she said. “They’ve helped us incorporate complicated flying equi8pment and sequences into our work on three or four occasions.”

She finds satisfaction in all aspects of the job, but says a big payoff is opening night.

“The electricity on stage and in the audience is palpable,” she said. “It is deeply rewarding to see the fruits of our collective labor finally manifested, and I marvel at how far the cast has progressed and grown in a short amount of time.”

It took a while to figure out what she really wanted to do in the business. But she found her niche at TMTO.

“I’ve always been interested in and curious about all aspects of the performing arts,” she said. “Being willing and able to do a wide variety of jobs has prepared me for running TMTO.”

She started choreographing musicals when she was a freshman in high school, even choreographing some TMTO shows from a distance when she was at university.

“I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I found a lot of satisfaction in my stage management training in college, and I use a lot of that training regularly.”

She enjoys drawing and took art classes in college, which enables her to contribute to design conversations at TMTO.

“I picked up basic video and sound editing in college, and I’m constantly putting those skills to use, too,” she said.

With such large casts, TMTO is fortunate to have three rehearsal spaces at the Collier Creative Center, about three blocks from the Craterian. Each space is as large or larger than the Craterian stage. The center also serves as a scene, costume and props shop.

“It’s an incredible space made possible by the generosity of Jim Collier,” she said. Collier is a local philanthropist who supports many aspects of the arts in the Rogue Valley and elsewhere.

Quite a few TMTO alumni have worked in show biz—as entertainers with the Walt Disney company, as performers on cruise ships, and even in off-Broadway casts.

“Even though not everyone in TMTO decides to pursue an arts career, I think it’s safe to say they all move on from our program with a deep love for the performing arts,” she said. “I would say most have a passion for supporting or engaging in the arts as they journey through life.”

She does miss performing. “I miss dancing in particular,” she said.

Performing at Disney was a dream come true.

“I got to perform on the Cinderella Castle Stage, entertain at weddings, and dance several times a day on Main Street USA.

“I also got to open a new parade in Magic Kingdom several years ago,” she said. “It was right around the time they were gearing up for the Christmas season. I’ll never forget rehearsing in Magic Kingdom overnight, as that’s the only time cast members can rehearse on the parade route without guests being present.

“We drilled our parade staging while the music blasted through the empty park. All the while, other Disney employees scurried around, decorating the Castle and the park for Christmas. It was unforgettable.”

Now she’s helping Rogue Valley youngsters discover their talents, giving them an opportunity to shine.

“Helping them achieve the potential we see in them makes me giddy!” she said.

Some day one of them may be leading her own Disney parade or taking a Broadway bow. And Cailey McCandless will be among those busting their buttons with pride.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

submitted photoCailey McCandless’s varied career brought her right back to where it began with the Teen Musical Theater of Oregon.