Honoring Saratoga’s Wonder Women: SPAC’s Elizabeth Sobol, Caffè Lena’s Sarah Craig And UPH’s Teddy Foster

On the cover of this year’s Saratoga Summer Issue, saratoga living wanted to honor the trio of dynamic women who are in charge of entertaining us all: the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s (SPAC’s) President and CEO Elizabeth Sobol, Caffè Lena’s Executive Director Sarah Craig and Universal Preservation Hall’s (UPH’s) Teddy Foster. First, we wanted to have them take the temperature of the arts in the city—and then we fanned out, trying to tell each of their individual stories.

What’s the state of the performing arts in Saratoga Springs right now?

“Saratoga Springs has evolved into a uniquely rich and fertile cultural ecosystem. For decades, the city has been blessed by the existence of extraordinary, historic cultural institutions such as Skidmore, Yaddo, Caffè Lena and SPAC. But with the recent formation of nourishing connective tissue between the organizations, through collaboration and cooperation, the cultural landscape has truly been enriched. Saratoga has blossomed into an unparalleled cultural destination, exulting in its perfect location in the confluence of man-made and natural beauty.” —Elizabeth Sobol, President and CEO, Saratoga Performing Arts Center

“I think that the state of the arts in Saratoga now is vibrant, and I think it’ll become, with the advent of UPH, even more vibrant and exciting and inviting to people.” —Teddy Foster, Campaign Director, Universal Preservation Hall

“Saratoga Springs has woken up to the fact that art naturally springs out of the ground here. It really does. It’s an inspiring and healthy place to live, and when people are at their best, they make beautiful art. So, I think that art is a natural fit for Saratoga, and now that there are a variety of really healthy arts organizations, the arts have got incredible momentum behind them.” —Sarah Craig, Executive Director, Caffè Lena

Elizabeth Sobol
SPAC President and CEO Elizabeth Sobol (Dori Fitzpatrick)

Elizabeth Sobol Rising

Since its opening in 1966, more than 20 million people—Bruce Springsteen, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and myself included—have experienced the magic that is the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). Arguably, though, no one (no, not even Dave Matthews) has been as transformative to the organization—and Saratoga Springs’ arts scene—as current President and CEO Elizabeth Sobol.

Since her appointment in October 2016, Sobol has overhauled SPAC’s programming; introduced its wildly popular concert series, SPAC On Stage; increased its educational reach from 5000 to nearly 40,000 children; and set in motion structural changes to the venue, made possible with $3.25 million in grants, including recent updates to the amphitheater and an all-new concessions and restroom area, coming in 2020.

Sobol has also forged and strengthened partnerships with local organizations such as the New York Racing Association (NYRA), the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce and Caffè Lena, highlighting her true sense of community. “I think that SPAC leading the way with regard to collaboration freed up a lot of other people to go, ‘Right! We could all be working together; this doesn’t have to be like protecting your turf,’” she says. “The cultural community, business community and artistic community are better off if everybody’s working together.”

One thing many locals don’t realize is that SPAC and Live Nation aren’t one and the same—the latter, a for-profit, books superstars such as Cardi B, while the former, a nonprofit, presents the ballet and classical seasons. “We do amazing things with a ridiculously small amount of money,” Sobol says. “I want everybody to realize what would be possible here if we had more resources.”

Over the next decade, Sobol will be looking to drive even more positive change, making SPAC “a place that people come to from all over the world for a unique, transformative experience around art and nature together.” Sounds pretty magical to me. —Natalie Moore

Teddy Foster
UPH Campaign Director Teddy Foster (Dori Fitzpatrick)

Teddy Foster’s Passion

I’ve always been curious about what’s gone on inside Saratoga Springs’ Universal Preservation Hall (UPH), the majestic rose-brick edifice that stands at 25 Washington Street and sports the city’s tallest steeple. I say “curious” because it’s been closed to the public for nearly two decades.

Erected in 1871, the former Methodist church hosted both the faithful and speakers such as US President Theodore Roosevelt and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In a word, it’s historic. When the building was condemned in 2000, concerned citizens helped save it from the wrecking ball, and soon after, its saviors envisioned it being recast as Saratoga’s first-ever year-round performing arts space. But the project needed a leader—someone who could own its narrative and help satisfy a lofty fundraising goal of $5.5 million. In 2006, Teddy Foster, a straight-talker with a can-do attitude, stepped in as UPH’s Campaign Director. Spend just a few minutes with Foster and you can feel her excitement. “It’s a game-changer,” she says, describing UPH as the city’s “missing link,” a place that’s “going to ensure the long-term economic health of Saratoga.”

With Foster at the helm, UPH is zeroing in on that fundraising goal, and the renovation’s moving full speed ahead: UPH’s Great Hall, a 700-seat theater-in-the-round, and first-floor community room, are taking shape; by June, its restored Tiffany-inspired windows will be in, and its new glass entranceway up shortly thereafter. The venue is set to open in February 2020.

So what should Saratogians expect to see and hear at UPH? Music, theater, dance and kid-friendly programming are all in play, says Foster. An affiliate of Proctors, UPH will also be home to Proctors’ School Of The Performing Arts and the Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Awards’ Hall Of Fame. Remember: All of this will be in Downtown Saratoga. And while there’ll be many people to thank for bringing UPH to fruition, Teddy Foster should be at the top of your list. —Karen Bjornland

Sarah Craig
Caffè Lena Executive Director Sarah Craig (Dori Fitzpatrick)

Sarah Craig Rocks On

When you grow up in Saratoga Springs, as I did, you tend to take all of what makes it such a special place for granted. I don’t ever remember feeling that way about Caffè Lena, though. Chalk it up to its résumé. For one thing, it’s the oldest continuously operating folk music venue in the US; and its guest list has included songwriting royalty, most notably Bob Dylan. But something that easily gets lost in the shuffle—and arguably, tips the venue’s scales—is that Caffè Lena has been a woman-run business for nearly six decades.

Original Co-Owner, Lena Spencer, took the reins of the venue in 1962, running it until her death in 1989. Shortly thereafter, it became a nonprofit and from ’95 onward, it’s been Executive Director Sarah Craig’s show. Craig has seen the venue through a near day-night transformation. In the early years, she says, it was very much a one-woman show; she’d book, promote and pay performers and even clean up after hours. She was working on a shoestring budget, too—about $94,000 a year.

Nowadays, after a $2 million renovation, Caffè Lena is a five-person operation, with an annual budget of a little more than $1 million. And Craig’s got giant-sized goals. “At some point, I decided that the way the story’s supposed to go is that Dylan played here in 1961-62, and he’s supposed to play here again before he dies,” says Craig. In other words, the bigger-time acts you’ll be seeing there, such as Grammy winner Judy Collins and famed Tonight Show bandleader, Doc Severinsen, are part of that “if you build it, Dylan will come” ethic.

At the end of the day, Craig sees her job in much simpler terms. “I’m looking to create a really, truly memorable experience with art every time we do a show in here,” she says.

Indeed, but it’d be nice if this story made Dylan agree to do an encore here, too.

—Will Levith

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