CANNON BEACH - A new but familiar shepherd will guide the Coaster Theater.

Craig Shepherd has accepted the role of executive director of the playhouse, one of the North Coast's longest-running and most popular cultural amenities. He brings considerable theatrical experience as well as a fondness for the Coaster, where he has intermittently served as a set designer since 1993.

"My wife, Pia, and I have always said if we won the lottery, what would we do? We'd go to a beautiful place and open an little theater," Shepherd said, smiling. "This is a dream come true."

He succeeds Stephen Diehl, who submitted his resignation in March after roughly 20 years at the helm.

The theater's production board offered the position to Shepherd following finalist interviews among eight internally selected candidates. He and his family plan to move from Los Angeles after a month-long business trip to Japan, where he and a partner will oversee the final touches on the installation of a theme park attraction he designed called "The Flight of Wonder."

Observers might offer a similar title when describing 51-year-old Shepherd's background.

Although he has been living in sunny Southern California, stormy Pacific Northwest winters are not likely to faze him, he said. He was raised near Buffalo, N.Y.

He earned an undergraduate degree in art history and majored in painting, spending his junior year studying in Italy.

Shepherd started teaching, and on the side continued designing and painting sets for stock theater. Two weeks before the opening of a production of "Finian's Rainbow," the actor playing the leprechaun quit.

The director kept pointing at Shepherd and asserting he looked the part by saying: "He's short, he's short," Shepherd recalled.

Despite his own protests, the crew tested whether he could match the part vocally, and the next thing he knew they gave him the role. At the end of opening night, a casting director in the audience handed him a phone number to call to arrange an audition for the musical "1776."

For all his inexperience at auditioning at that time, including a snapshot instead of a professional photograph, his abilities and genuine approach landed him the role of the courier.

New journeys

Eventually he was touring with a national theater company and felt so fulfilled he wrote to his school district and exchanged his extended leave of absence for a resignation so he could continue to pursue theater.

He also earned a master's of fine arts degree, having another dream come true with a chance to study art in Greece. He lived in New York 14 years, doing set painting and design whenever performance opportunities dwindled and also rounded out the paychecks from time to time in the orchestra pit to play violin.

Eventually he and Pia sought a change from New York, another place for raising children. He got a role in "Angry Housewives" in Los Angeles and a job he enjoyed with a set company, where he has worked the last 12 years.

The Coaster connection surfaced nine years ago, when he was recruited to replace an actor who had to drop out of the production "In the Woods" at the eleventh hour. Cannon Beach resident Valerie Ryan, a friend of his wife's family from earlier times in Seattle, had heard Shepherd had recently played the same part.

After stepping into the role, he got involved in designing sets - about 15 over the years. "As an actor I think it really helps you to have a great environment."

He and Pia have appeared in performances at the Coaster, and they and their children vacationed in Tolovana Park.

When asked about the possibility of moving to Cannon Beach permanently in light of the job offer, the children were supportive because they have friends here, he said. Their conditions: Julia, 7, wanted space for a garden; Peter, 10, wanted room for practicing with his bow and arrow, and Ian, 12, "just wanted to be in a place where we'd be out of the way of a tsunami."

The family looks forward to living in a small town, he added.

Transition time

"My biggest challenge is going to be dealing with all of the transition," Shepherd said. "But here is a chance to grow a little bit."

The theater's management structure changed when it became a nonprofit organization last year following the death of its founder and longtime underwriter, Maurie Clark. Under the new structure, the executive director position is overseen by a production board.

Diehl's decision to leave stemmed from the reorganization of the company, said Jean White, the director of operations.

He had offered to stay with the Coaster for up to a year while the board searched for a successor. Ultimately, after the board selected Shepherd, "he said he had a great 20 years and wished the theater well," she said.

Shepherd commended Diehl, who had brought him into the Coaster fold. "He's been very helpful in getting me oriented."

On the other hand, he also said he is approaching his work at the theater with a clean slate.

Among concepts he hopes to develop with the programming board are an informal play reading committee and a scene study workshop to aid in putting together a season. To refine a sense of "something for everyone," he proposes offering the audience questionnaires about plays under consideration.

He said he would like to introduce sets of three shows, such as a musical, a comedy and "something offbeat," running at the same time through the summer.

Shepherd said he also would like to consider presentations by actors reading short stories under a theme or author. A summer performing arts day camp already is planned for August and more opportunities will be explored, he added.

He plans to design all the sets and direct at least one show a year. "There are lots of facets of theater that have always interested me."

Jerry Railton, a director and actor who has been involved at the theater nearly 20 years, said while he hates to see Diehl go, he looks forward to working with Shepherd.

"He's a talented person, and he's so dedicated," Railton said. "He knows theater and he has such a love of it. It's a good fit."

Ryan, who serves on the theater's marketing committee, also commended the choice. "I am delighted we are able to hire someone as talented, creative, competent and as likable as Craig Shepherd."

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