BRATTLEBORO -- Touring New England Youth Theatre with Stephen Stearns a few years ago, folk icon and activist Pete Seeger was suitably impressed ... but had one cause for concern.
"Stephen, there's one thing you have to worry about -- founder-itis," Seeger told Stearns.
In the 15 years since he founded NEYT, Stearns has built an empire of love an started dozens of programs both in New England and abroad. He's also come up with a pretty good way to treat the condition of founders who exercise too much control and stay on too long.
Last week, Stearns announced that he is stepping down from his role at artistic director at New England Youth Theatre. In the interim, as NEYT prepares for and conducts a national search for a new artistic director, Sandy Klein, NEYT's costume director, mentor advisor and head of faculty, will fill Stearns' big clown shoes as interim artistic director.
For his part, Stearns, who turned 70 on March 29, downplayed the significance of the announcement. It turns out, it's not a sign of the apocalypse or a signal that he's finished with everything and wants to ride off into some distant sunset. It's just time for him to do everything else he wants to do, including continuing to be a constant presence at his beloved NEYT.
"In many ways, there never was an artistic director. I faked it pretty well," said Stearns in an interview last Thursday. "I was definitely the founder, but I get too much of the lion's share of the credit."
From the get-go, Stearns has tried to foster an organization where everyone's talents are nurtured and everyone's input is valued. Because of that, he said, the structure is in place for NEYT to function quite well without him.
There has been, Stearns said, complete buy-in from all on NEYT's guiding principles: endowing youth with the responsibility to direct their own lives; giving youth a vehicle to show up, stand up and speak up, while teaching them to blend their "me" with the larger "we."
"For a long time, I've worked horizontally, harvesting ideas from everybody," he said. "The genius is there are a lot of geniuses. ... All these other people were under my wings, lifting me up.
"Giving up artistic director really doesn't mean anything," he added. "I'm moving on. I'm a surfer. I catch the next wave."
Fortunately for all, the surfing is pretty good inside the NEYT building at 100 Flat St.
Stearns will continue to serve on the board and direct plays and musicals there; he wants to devote more time to developing and nurturing the faculty; he wants to connect with playwrights to make NEYT an incubator for new work; he hopes to travel around the country and the world, talking with alumni and donors about NEYT's work; and he wants to do more teaching at NEYT -- alumni, he said, have been begging him to teach Clowning 101 again.
"One of them said ‘Uncle Stevie, you're wasting your time here. You've got to get back to the classroom,'" he recounted.
Stearns is bubbling over with other creative endeavors. He's working on a book about his life, a memoir, he says, of "all the times when I learned to fail magnificently."
He's also in conversation with a Hollywood screenwriter about turning the NEYT story into a film. Can you picture "Fame" meets "Mr. Holland's Opus"?
In his spare time -- what's that? -- he hopes to refine the three melodramas and four musicals he's written or co-written and publish them, and he's trying to put together a touring musical/comedy show he's calling "Uncle Steve: A Life in the Interesting Zone."
All this, and more. Maria's Children, an organization which provides orphaned Russian kids with arts programs, would like Stearns to become more involved again. He once was very active but had to scale that back to focus on NEYT.
Then there's work on the Brownfield site. On NEYT land adjacent to the theater, soil and two buildings -- the white brick Tri-State Auto building and the red, wood Livery Building -- were found to have contamination from their industrial pasts.
Aided by a $400,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency's Brownfields Program, cleanup work will begin this spring, and in August after camps end, bulldozers will arrive to begin bringing the buildings down and cap the site.
Stearns plans to be actively involved in studies to determine future uses of the site. He'd like to get NEYT alumni involved in creating something which might help draw younger artists to the state.
"A lot of them are saying they want to do art in Vermont," Stearns said. "Vermont is the happening place in the country. Everybody should be proud to be part of this."
His hopes for the cleaned-up Brownfields site include a Pete Seeger Singing Garden.
Which brings us back to Stearns' friend, Seeger, the late folk singer and pied piper who meant so much to so many.
On Friday, May 2, at 7:30 p.m., New England Youth Theatre will presents a sing-along tribute to Pete Seeger, "How Can We Keep From Singing."
Stearns will welcome a galaxy of singers and songwriters, many of whom knew Seeger, in a show which follows Seeger's life through stories and songs.
Performers include Peter Amidon, Ruth Pelham, Sarah Pirtle, Andy Davis, Scott Ainslie, Peter Siegel, Becky Graber and the Brattleboro Women's SingAbout Chorus, John Ungerleider, Bill Conley, Mike Miller, Val Mindel, Nick Apollonio, Keith Murphy, Becky Tracy, Jim Anderson, Molly Gawler, Ian Stearns, Al Stockwell, Jerry Stockman, Gould & Stearns and, of course, all who attend, who will be given plenty of chances to sing-along.
Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students, and proceeds benefit NEYT's Angels in the Wings scholarship fund. For information and tickets, visit www.neyt.org.
To accommodate demand, a special Children and Family Pete Seeger Sing-Along event has been added. All tickets are $5, and more details will be announced.