People person: Tucker loves theater lovers

In the battle for the soul of Charlottesville, Betsy Tucker just joined the front lines.

However high the rents went in Belmont, however much Route 29 made you think you were in Fairfax, you could count on the arts to remind you that deep down, Charlottesville was the same small, hungry town it was a decade ago.

Until now. The dark windows of Water Street at night have given way to a scrolling marquee and the purplish gleam of the $4 million City Center for the Contemporary Arts (C3A). And when the renovation of the nearby Paramount Theater is complete, we'll have Broadway-scale touring shows in a nearly 1,000-seat venue smack dab on the Downtown Mall. Are the days of the inspired amateur a thing of the past?

Not if Tucker can help it.

"I do this because of the people," she says, "the process of making something together. Times when that collaboration has been the funnest mark the best productions."

With all eyes on Live Arts' first main stage production in their new 200-seat space at C3A, Artistic Director John Gibson needed a director who would be the calm at the eye of the storm. He chose Tucker to direct The Grapes of Wrath, which opens December 5.

"I have seen her deal with great chaos," Gibson says. "I was sure that creating this piece in the midst of the move would mean creating in great chaos. Betsy is fearless, imaginative, and she stages beautifully."

The range of Tucker's experience makes her commitment to community theater all the more remarkable. After receiving her MFA in directing from the University of Minnesota in 1973, Tucker worked as a director and teacher in the Chicago area. When she first moved to the Charlottesville area in 1986, theater took a backseat to the responsibilities of motherhood and country living– but not for long.

She now directs regularly at Live Arts, UVA, and Heritage Repertory, in addition to teaching drama at UVA.

Tucker lights up when describing the excitement that amateur actors bring to a production. Among the cast of her production of Love's Labour's Lost for Four County Players this summer were a mother of four as well as an aging college professor who had never set foot on the stage before, and who commuted hours to be part of the show.

"He loved Shakespeare that much," she says with a grin.

But can that kind of spirit survive in a town with a 1,000-seat theater and a scrolling marquee?

"That's a real danger to be aware of," says Gibson, "but one that need not be self-fulfilling."

Especially not with Tucker's direction.

"There are a lot of talented people here," she says. "I think it'll work itself out."

Betsy Tucker