Let’s put on a show! Nellie Cravens is crazy for theatre

“I am India.”

Plenty of people have their first theatrical experiences in school productions, but not everyone takes to the stage like a fish to water. That line, spoken in her fifth grade geography play, hooked Nellie Cravens into acting for life.

Not all roles are equally glamorous. Cravens narrated a play about cream puffs in her next effort. She’s since learned, “There are no small parts, only small actors.”

“I was taken to see Katherine Cornell perform in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” when I was a child,” she recalls. “My grandmother, Kathleen Norris, was a well-known novelist through the 1930s and 1940s. She knew all sorts of people, including Noel Coward, so she got us to theatre quite early.”

Cravens continued acting at an all-girl high school in San Francisco. The days she had her drama classes, Tuesdays and Thursdays, were (and still are) her favorites because she enjoyed acting so much. She also appreciates the opportunity the school afforded to play some male roles.

In the 1950s, Cravens majored in English literature at Stanford and continued exploring her thespian passions. However, as much as she loved acting, she never considered it as a career.

“In those days it wasn’t really okay to be an actress. It was considered mildly risqué and suspect. People who were in the shows were majoring in things like speech therapy and elementary education and stuff like that, because they didn’t want to admit that in their hearts they were actresses.”

Cravens immediately took on the role of wife and mother. She had five children in seven years. “I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Not a hair on their heads.” She is also extremely proud of her eight grandchildren and her great-grandson, “Miracle Michael.”

After 36 years of marriage, Cravens went solo, and went back to acting with a group that brought plays into schools to entertain children. Playing the Evil Queen in “Snow White” didn’t quite appease her theatre bug; she was hungry for more.

Through a workshop on makeup and costuming, Cravens got to know Ross and Lou Ann Graham, the couple who started the Young Conservatory at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (ACT). She studied acting and improvisational theatre with them at their company, San Francisco Attic Theater, for five years. They performed at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, in the round, basement theatre with cherubs painted on the ceiling.

Finally, the day came when the Grahams needed Cravens to teach a children’s improvisation class. With her bible in hand, Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theatre,” she began teaching what she loved.

When that company went out of business in 1983, Cravens was heartbroken. “What am I going to do? My life is over,” she cried. “’No,’ they said,  ‘Get your photographs and résumé together, get out there and start auditioning.’”

Cravens gave herself three years, promising that if it didn’t pan out, she’d quit and open a boutique or something. Within three years she belonged to all three professional actors unions: The Screen Actors Guild (SAG); the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA); and the Actors Equity Association (Equity) for stage actors and managers.

One fateful day Purina Cat Chow needed a certain type for its commercial — an upscale woman, wearing a fur coat, to hail a cab on Maiden Lane while carrying a cat. It was down to Cravens and another woman for the role, when the cat relieved itself down the front of the competition’s coat. Her reaction hardly characterized someone who loves cats, so Cravens got the job. She was given the option to join the union, and within the week she was signing up at the SAG office.

Over the next two decades Cravens acted in countless commercials for Tylenol, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Mercedes Benz, to name but a few. She also did voice overs, made dozens of industrial teaching films and three motion pictures, including “Metro” with Eddie Murphy. Her passion, however, has always been the stage.

Cravens appeared in “Shear Madness,” the long-running comedy-whodunit at the Mason Street Theatre in downtown San Francisco from 1996 through 1997. It is the original mystery play where the actors break “the fourth wall,” turning to the audience at intermission to ask them to solve the murder mystery. In the farce she played a client, Mrs. Shubert, and had her hair washed (in cold water) and styled on stage, eight times a week.

In 2000 Cravens started having strong chest pains, which forced her to retire. “They put a stint in my heart and I decided I was dying and was going to move to where it was warm and was going to garden and die. That was my plan.”

Instead, her move to Kenwood brought her back to health, and in 2007 she began exploring the local theatre scene. She was disappointed to find there wasn’t much going on in Sonoma.

“Why doesn’t this wonderful town have more theatre?” Cravens asked Nancy Noleen, a friend who had been involved with Sonoma theater back in the nineties. Cravens learned about the controversies leading to the demise of the theater scene. They decided to do their own show. “It was totally Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, ‘Let’s do a play. We can do it in a barn!’” Cravens says, clapping her hands at the thought of it.

They then realized they’d need more than a barn; they’d need insurance, too. “In 2008 we incorporated as a non-profit, we got the lawyer, bylaws, articles of incorporation, filed with the state and got a board of directors. We made the bones strong and off we went,” said Cravens. Their theater company, Silver Moon Theatre was born.

Noleen directed their first show, “Gaslight,” in the Backstage Theatre at Andrews Hall. It sold out. Next, Cravens took her turn and directed “Born Yesterday.”  Soon after Noleen left the company due to work pressures, SMT moved into Andrews Hall for “Murder on the Nile,” “Treasure Island,” a couple more mysteries and the world premiere of “Dogs! It’s the Musical.”

“This fall’s production of ‘No Sex Please, We’re British’ was the eighth, and most successful show we’ve done. We sold out. I’m so proud of it, the professional quality. The set was so gorgeous and beautifully built. You could slam a door and nothing would happen. Sometimes,” she says, “you slam a door and the set falls down.”

“The costumes were superb. But my biggest pride was the actors, because they delivered a fabulous, professional show. It took a lot of work and rehearsals. We found out what we do well,” says Cravens with a wide grin.

Cravens hasn’t yet decided on Silver Moon Theatre’s next show. “I like to do thrillers, and would like to do straight drama, like ‘All my Sons’ or ‘Separate Tables.’ I’d also love to do Shakespeare. Maybe down the road.”

Regardless, she says, “I want to be able to keep doing this. Finally, in my life, I can fully give myself permission to do what I love. Instead of thinking, ‘Nice girls aren’t actresses. Oh, you can’t do that, Honey. What will people think?’

When she was first working, Cravens says she had the feeling she wasn’t a being a good mom, that “Maybe I should be sending more time with my grandchildren… all of the traditional second-guessing. Now it doesn’t matter what people think. I can be ‘that strange blonde woman who is crazy for theatre.’ And I am.”

Nellie Cravens will teach two eight-week classes at the Sonoma Community Center beginning in January: “Scenes from Tom Sawyer,” for young people, and “Scene Study Intensive” for adults, which will focus on the finer points of acting. Beginning actors are welcome. Silvermoontheatre.org. 707.483.5582.

One Response to Let’s put on a show! Nellie Cravens is crazy for theatre

  1. Cover photo and teaching photo courtesy of Adrian R. Hyman Photography. Thanks, dear Adrian!!!