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Curtain Call: Craterian’s McCandless says theater promotes empathy and understanding

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Craterian Theater Executive Director Stephen McCandless (in suit) is feelin' the groove as he kicks up his heels during the filming of a music video for the opening of the annual holiday Gingerbread Jubilee. Photo by Jim Craven for Craterian
Ashland High oboe student Clara Dyson took second place in the Young Artist Competition, winning a $500 scholarship. RVSB photo
Ashland High bassoon student James Dyson won third place in the Young Artist Competition and a $300 scholarship. RVSB photo
SOU music major Travis Muñoz will guest conduct Leonard Bernstein's "Overture to Candide" at the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band concert May 21. RVSB photo
South Medford High student Asher Howell composed "Honor and Glory" for concert band. It will be performed by RVSB at its May 21 concert. RVSB photo
2022 Concerto Competition winner, Ellie McGary, a senior at North Medford High School will perform a solo with the Youth Symphony of Southern Oregon. RVSB photo
Executive Director of Performances, Stephen McCandless. Courtesy photo
Stephen and Cailey McCandless at the Craterian Theatre. MT file photo

Stephen McCandless, executive director of performances at Craterian Theater in Medford, never had a grand plan to become a theater manager.

“My only goal has been to do what I do well and to be of service,” he said. “I’ve never aspired to a particular position or rank. I’ve just responded to opportunities.”

He describes his career as a succession of steps, each of which came with increasing management responsibilities.

McCandless was born in Eugene and the family moved to Medford when he was six. His dad was a founding partner of Protectors Insurance and his mom was a surgical nurse at Rogue Valley Medical Center (now Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center).

“There’s no explaining how my brother, David, and I both ended up in theater. He’s a professor in the theater department at SOU,” he said.

Good theater always makes a big impression on him and he’s had the privilege of seeing a lot of it. A production of “Godspell” he worked on in high school and also saw presented in Eugene made him realize how powerful theater can be.

“Also, while in high school, I saw a production of ‘Comedy of Errors’ at OSF that was set in a circus motif,” he said. “It was totally zany and I’ve never forgotten it.”

Lynn Sjolund was an important early mentor of McCandless and was instrumental in his winding up at the Craterian.

“I stage managed and ran sound for several shows for Lynn Sjolund when I was a student at Medford Senior High,” McCandless said.

Years later, Sjolund was Craterian interim executive director when McCandless and his wife, Cam, decided to move back to the Rogue Valley. The old friend and mentor encouraged McCandless to apply for the job.

“At the time, I was director of operations for Holzmueller Productions in San Francisco,” McCandless said. “We provided management, design, and production services and equipment to Bay Area theaters and to corporate clients like Sony, IBM and ATT.”

After nearly 15 years in the Bay Area and starting a family, the couple decided to move to a smaller community to raise their two girls, Cailey and Meghan. They visited his parents here once a year and during one holiday trip he saw an article in the Mail Tribune about the renovation of the Craterian.

The article mentioned that Sjolund was interim director, leading to a discussion with him that resulted in McCandless applying for the job.

“They did a national search and I was chosen as a finalist,” he said.

That was followed by interviews with the fundraising consultant and the search committee, meetings with OSF’s Bill Patton and the Craterian board, and finally a dinner function with other community stakeholders.

“I remember being exhausted when I left. Ultimately, I was offered the job, but it all started with Lynn. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”

The Craterian opened in 1924 and functioned primarily as a movie house. Later, it couldn’t compete with modern multiplexes, was used less and less, and fell into disrepair; a common story all over the country.

“It was a wreck by the time a movement started to transform it into a modern performing arts center,” McCandless said. “It is what it is today because of the vision and tenacity of a group of community leaders who understood the benefits of having such a facility in downtown Medford.”

After booking more than 800 shows to date at the Craterian, McCandless finds it difficult to name a favorite. One standout, however, is “Hairspray.”

“It was a big, glitzy, Broadway-quality production of one of my favorite musicals,” he said. “The finale alone was worth the price of admission.”

Other memorable productions were “Peer Gynt,” “Ragtime,” and “Moby Dick.”

“The National Theater of the Deaf presented ‘Peer Gynt’ and sign language was integrated into the performance,” he said. “We held a reception in the lobby afterwards for our local deaf community and the cast, and it was like a party with the sound turned off. It was moving and amazing to watch.”

With countless national companies performing at the Craterian, McCandless has met many luminaries along the way.

“I most enjoyed meeting Bernadette Peters, arguably one of Broadway’s biggest stars,” he said. “We’ve presented her twice, and on her first visit, I was sitting in the auditorium during a sound check and she came off stage, knelt down in front of me, and sang a love song. That was a moment!”

The Craterian brought Peters back as the centerpiece of a celebration for philanthropist Jim Collier when they added his name to the marquee.

“We asked her to attend a private reception in Jim’s honor and she couldn’t have been more gracious or attentive to him.”

There also are memorable moments when home-grown productions take the stage at the Craterian. It’s easy for him to pick his favorites.

“It’s always the last Teen Musical Theater of Oregon or Next Show we’ve done,” he said. TMTO showcases local teens and Next Show features local adult productions.

“If I had to pick a most memorable show by TMTO, I’d say ‘Tarzan,’ because it proved to be a turning point for the company,” he said. “It was the first time we flew actors on stage.

“We threw all of the Craterian’s production resources and expertise at some of the Valley’s most talented teens. The results were stellar and put the company on the map. The community discovered that TMTO shows transcend expectations of teen theater.”

While the pandemic presented financial challenges for the nonprofit theater, finding qualified stage crews is as much a tall order post-pandemic as it was pre-COVID.

“We hire as many as 60 people for one day to load in, run and strike a show,” he said. “We can’t book shows if we can’t get the crews we need.”

The job has its satisfactions. McCandless describes show business as “soul” business in that productions are chosen to edify and enlighten as well as entertain audiences.

“It’s satisfying to know we have touched some number of lives in every audience,” he said. “My biggest satisfaction, though, is TMTO, because we’re providing a space for teens that’s inclusive and nourishing, creating the next generation of theater artists and audiences.”

He sees the Craterian as important to the community for its economic value and multipliers.

“Typically, for every dollar spent at the theater, two to three more are spent in the community. But the theater is more than livelihoods. It’s about life.”

While theater at its best is about mind-opening, soul-stirring and spirit-lifting, it’s also about self-discovery and empathy, he said.

“If we’re going to survive as a species, we have to do a better job of understanding our commonalities and not be threated by our differences. I don’t know any other human endeavor that promotes these ideals so well as the theater,” he said.

Next up this weekend at the Craterian are “Heart by Heart” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14, and Henry Rollins at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 15.

Heart by Heart features the original rhythm section for the Seattle rock band Heart, bassist Steve Fossen and drummer Michael Derosier. They were the driving engine behind the band’s classic hits.

Rollins — a singer, poet and monologust — became one of the most recognizable faces in the 1980s punk scene as the lead vocalist of the LA-based hardcore group, Black Flag. His Craterian visit is a stop on his “Good to See You 2022” tour.

For tickets, prices, and information about upcoming concerts and shows, go to craterian.org.

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