The Arts
April 26-May 2, 2006

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Elizabeth Craven

Sweat Equity: Elizabeth Craven plans a professional theater for Sixth Street.

Playing Up

New executive director Beth Craven helms Sixth Street Playhouse

By David Templeton

There's been a bit of a shakeup in Santa Rosa, and it has nothing to do with earthquakes.

At Sixth Street Playhouse, the newish home of Actors Theatre and the Santa Rosa Players, reorganization has taken place over the last couple of months, leading up to the recent appointment of veteran director Elizabeth Craven as the Playhouse's new executive director. Craven replaces Argo Thompson, who has assumed the role of artistic director of the Playhouse, overseeing both companies.

Holly Vinson, who has been serving as artistic director of the Santa Rosa Players--Sonoma County's oldest theater company, and the county's primary producer of new and classic musicals--will become the new production manager as well as taking on the newly created role of educational director. David Lear steps down as artistic director of Actors Theater at the end of this season, and Danielle Cain, longtime member of Actors Theatre and managing director of Sixth Street since the two companies merged, has left the organization.

Craven has been a major part of the North Bay theater scene since the late '70s. She was the founder and artistic director of the Western Union Theatre Company, in residence at Petaluma's Cinnabar Theatre from 1985 to 1995. For several years, she has worked here infrequently, skipping back and forth from Sonoma County--where her husband, John Craven, is head of the ArtQuest drama program at Santa Rosa High School--to Knoxville, Tenn., where she has served as associate professor of theater and head of the MFA International Performance Program at the University of Tennessee.

Craven's been back in SoCo full-time since last August, and has been directing plays for several companies up and down the 101 corridor. She just closed The Fourth Wall at the Sonoma County Rep in Sebastopol. She is currently director-in-residence at Porchlight Theatre in Marin. Her connection to Sixth Street began when she was asked to direct Steve Martin's The Underpants earlier this year.

Craven is excited about finding a home at a theater as well-appointed and energetically staffed as the Sixth Street Playhouse. "It's a wonderful, wonderful space for theater," she says of the $1.1 million former warehouse near Railroad Square. "It has great potential to become an increasingly important theatrical home for Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, and I am thrilled that I will be a part of that."

Railroad Square, Craven predicts, will be a major draw for tourists and arts aficionados in the very near future. "The whole Railroad Square area is being redeveloped in some really promising ways," she says. "It is gradually becoming a real center for arts and wine and food, a real potential hot spot for the arts. With New College around the corner doing interesting things artistically, and the Chops teen center just down the street, it feels like a lot of positive creative energy is moving into this area. All of that had a lot to do with my deciding to take on this position."

Asked if she intends to steer Sixth Street in any new or unexpected directions, she laughs. "Of course," she says. "But only to a degree. I think that when new people come into an organization, they always bring along whatever experience and whatever artistic bent they have. I'm not planning to make some drastic overhaul of the organization. I don't think they want that, and I don't think the Sixth Street Playhouse needs that. But I do come in with a fresh kind of perspective. I'm not locked into doing things the same way they've always been done."

For example, Craven hints that in the future, while the Santa Rosa Players continue performing popular musicals with amateur, student and volunteer casts (a financial necessity for a house of its size), the Actors Theatre half of the operation, representing the nonmusical efforts--including the upcoming staging of Michele Lowe's bold comedy The Smell of the Kill--will likely end up going the professional route already taken by Rohnert Park's Pacific Alliance Stage Company and Mill Valley's first-rate Marin Theatre Company.

"When the money's there," she says, "we'd like the Actors Theatre side of things to move closer to a professional situation, where we can pay our actors a good scale and attract an even higher level of theatrical artistry."

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