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Star makers: Stephen and Cailey McCandless make their mark on Medford theater

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Stephen McCandless, executive director of Craterian Performance Company, and daughter Cailey McCandless, director of Teen Musical Theater of Oregon.

Q: The talent of young people in productions of Teen Musical Theater of Oregon is outstanding. How do you find and cultivate talent?

Cailey: Honestly, they find us. TMTO has always attracted kids who love the theater, and many of them are naturally good at it. And then we do our best to train them and hold them to a really high standard. The quality of our productions is impressive and that just naturally feeds on itself and attracts more talented kids to the program.

Stephen: Part of the appeal is our professional venue and staff. People who see the shows are impressed, so word spreads. TMTO has developed a reputation for excellence, and that’s attractive to people. We do virtually no recruiting.

Q: What do the TMTO participants tell you about the experience?

Cailey: It sounds cliche, but I think it literally changes the lives of the kids who are involved. We see that time and time again. Our kids come back, show after show. Some of them literally spend eight, nine, 10 years in the program. We get to watch them grow up. We’re not necessarily setting out to create professional theater people. They participate because they love theater, they want to improve their skills, and their friends are here. TMTO changes the lives of these kids. That’s what they tell us.

Stephen: From my vantage point, it’s a two-part experience. One is the high-quality training they get and the value of being on a professional stage. The other part is the culture of the company, which is extremely inclusive, kind-hearted and patient. Kids from different schools and a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and family experiences become best friends here. Kids come together and they find each other. Finding a home and their tribe is as important to their life journey as the experience of being on stage in a great show.

Q: The Countdown to Christmas videos you produced are remarkable. How did that occur?

Stephen: Last summer, Cailey had to become a film director because we had to turn our COVID-canceled spring show into a socially distanced movie. That project is still in post-production, but the results are going to be pretty amazing. We learned how to use video as an alternative to a live show.

Cailey: When we had to cancel our holiday show, we already had a template for how to turn it into a bunch of music videos. We filmed the cast one at a time indoors, and I edited the footage to give the illusion that everyone was in the same place at the same time. When we filmed outdoors, we had everyone wear masks and keep distanced. I shot everything on my old iPhone. We just kept doing takes until we had everything we needed. All the vocals were recorded separately, so the cast is actually lip-syncing in the videos. Even though the process was disjointed, compared to what we’re used to, the cast seemed really grateful for the opportunity to do what they love and to create something that the whole community could enjoy.

Q: What does TMTO do for the community?

Stephen: It offers great entertainment that’s affordable. There is an enthusiasm and a freshness to the kids’ performances that is so appealing. But if they weren’t good, that wouldn’t matter. The uniform praise we hear is about the “professional quality” and “amazing talent” of our kids. You can tell it just makes people feel good. It’s inspiring, really.

Cailey: We challenge the teens to never settle and to always strive for their absolute best. Those are life lessons that they’ll take with them everywhere. Watching our shows, you can tell that we have worked the kids and pushed them. And they respond. These kids are discovering what they love to do. They are realizing how much joy comes from being involved in the arts. You can see that on display when the final product hits the stage. You feel it in the room when you’re working with them. And then we turn it loose on the community. Based on the audience response, you can tell they’re loving it too.

Q: Cailey, how did you get involved in TMTO?

Cailey: I went to college thinking I wanted to work in professional theater. I’d been choreographing since I was a freshman in high school and thought, “Eh, that’s a cool side-thing that I do, but I’ll keep going and work at the professional level.” But I found myself always orbiting back to the high school-age group.

Stephen: Cailey had all this great training from Northwestern University, and she had worked for Disney and Cirque du Soleil. She had been TMTO’s choreographer since forever. I knew if TMTO was going to keep growing, we needed someone to run the program full-time, and she was the perfect person.

Q: Stephen, what’s it like working with your daughter on a professional level?

Stephen: Well, it is great.

Cailey: It is.

Stephen: As an employer, you want to capitalize on the strengths and the assets of the team. Cailey has a way of “bending reality to her will.” She’s unrelenting and always gets great results, so even when I disagree with her, I tell myself to trust her. I’ve learned to step back and say, “OK, how can I help make that happen?”

Cailey: We’ve been creating theater together since I was very young. Dad has been executive director since I was 6. As long as I can remember, we’ve been engaged in creative conversations about “how do we do this” and “did that work?” Coming back to Southern Oregon felt like a continuation of all of those early conversations. All either of us have ever done is be involved in the theater.

Q: Stephen, what was your pathway to become the executive director of the Craterian Performances Company?

Stephen: I had very fond memories of growing up here, but I never imagined moving back. It was really a coincidence. My wife and I had decided we needed to move out of the Bay Area to a smaller community to raise our kids. We were home visiting one time, and I saw an article about the renovation of the Craterian Theater, and that Lynn Sjolund was the interim executive director. I called Lynn, “Hey, we’re home for the holidays, and I’d like to chat about the Craterian.” Lynn encouraged me to apply for the executive director job. That was 26 years ago.

Q: What do you think would make Southern Oregon better?

Stephen: The first thing that comes to my mind, frankly, is diversity. Having lived in San Francisco, the cultural diversity there is part of the richness of life. It was a big adjustment coming home, and I miss it. Some people are threatened by it, but I find diversity life-giving.

Cailey: When kids graduate from high school, the thought is, “How do I get out of here as fast as I can?” I don’t know how to attract younger people back here, but that’s something, in addition to the lack of diversity, that I’m aware of.

Q: What’s in the future for TMTO?

Cailey: Our goals have always been to include as many kids as possible. How can we continue to sustainably offer these high-quality opportunities for kids? My hope for TMTO has always been that it would be long-term and outlive us; that it’s not dependent on the two of us being here to make it happen.

Stephen: Our big challenge is to manage the growth and popularity of the program. There are times when we find ourselves stretched to the limits, so we have to keep looking for ways to add support and staff. Several years ago, we had to split the summer program into two age groups because we had over 150 kids. We hope that the community continues to be generous in their support of the program. There really isn’t anything else like it.

Q: How does this community respond to, support and engage in arts and culture?

Stephen: I think brilliantly. It’s very unusual to have a community our size with the cultural resources we do. From the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Britt, a fantastic symphony, multiple choral groups, Oregon Cabaret Theatre, Camelot Theater to smaller theater groups like the Randall Theatre and the Collaborative Theatre Project, it’s just extraordinary. And that couldn’t be true if it weren’t for the community engagement and support for these arts organizations.

Q: What will happen when the pandemic allows for live performances again?

Cailey: There’s no question in my mind that the arts will come roaring back to life. The vitality, energy and hopefulness of these kids inspires us. It’s contagious and has made a mark on this community and will continue to do so. We had 200 kids in our program before we closed. They’re all ready to go. I am 100% sure TMTO is going to roar back to life.

Stephen: The Craterian will get back to bringing great arts and entertainment to Southern Oregon and hosting our art partners. Live entertainment is sustaining, it’s enriching, it isn’t going away. Teen Musical Theater of Oregon is a bright shining star in the Craterian’s future. It’s the heart and soul of our work and in our DNA now. Teen Musical Theater of Oregon has a very apt slogan, “Starring the Future, Today!”

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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Craterian Performances and Teen Musical Theater of Oregon

Craterian Performances is the nonprofit owner-operator of the historic Craterian Theater in downtown Medford.

The Craterian presents regional, national and international performing artists and attractions, is the Medford home to local arts organizations, including the Rogue Valley Symphony, hosts special events for businesses and private parties, and produces performances by Next Stage Theater Company and Teen Musical Theater of Oregon.

The mission of TMTO is to provide professional training and performance opportunities for cast members, and to produce professional quality, affordable, family-friendly entertainment. TMTO draws cast members from public, private, charter and homeschools from all over the Rogue Valley. Rehearsals typically last seven weeks and take place at TMTO’s 23,000-square-foot production facility, the Collier Creative Center. No prior experience or training is necessary to audition, and scholarships are available.

TMTO typically produces four shows per year and periodically offers performing arts classes in singing, dancing and acting. More TMTO information is available at www.craterian.org or by contacting tmto@craterian.org. TMTO videos and other Craterian content can be seen on the Craterian’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/Craterian.

Stephen and Cailey McCandless at the Craterian Theatre. Photo by Denise Baratta