BRATTLEBORO >> To mark the 17th anniversary of New England Youth Theater's first-ever performance, and to celebrate founder Stephen Stearns' (a.k.a. Uncle Stevie) new title of Trustee Emeritus, NEYT board members and friends of this beloved man will honor him with a gala dinner and fundraiser on Saturday, March 12 at Dalem's Chalet Proceeds from the evening go toward "Angels in the Wings" program that underwrites a portion of the tuition for many NEYT students. Entertainment by the man himself in the comedy duo Gould & Stearns, by improv impresario and filmmaker Jane Baker, a song by Peter Amidon, a solo performance by Peter Gould, and skits by NEYT teachers and alummi accompany a dinner catered by HardyFoard Catering. But the real highlight of the evening is the unveiling of the three-by-six-foot portrait of Stearns, painted by Catherine Nunn, and destined to hang in NEYT's lobby.
The plan to commission an updated portrait of Stearns was the mission of Prudence Baird who felt a deep sense of gratitude for the kindness, generosity and mentorship he offered her son. Her son, Casey Metcalfe has high-functioning autism. His time working with Theatre Adventure Program under the umbrella of NEYT, specifically for students of all ages and abilities, gave him the courage to seek more. And seek he did. Always setting the bar high for himself, one day he confronted Stearns and asked, "What would it take for me to part of the regular theater?" Stephen asked, "Have you auditioned?" Metcalfe replied, "Well, no." Stearns said, "Well, audition." Metcalfe went on to be in over ten plays before heading off to college in Burlington. When he graduated from Brattleboro Union High School he was given an award for the student who had made the most progress in their senior year. He gave half of the award money to NEYT. Baird said, "Compassion flows from the top, and it is because of Stephen that that tone was set at NEYT. Stephen is really a good person, a lovely soul, a Bodhisattva." Baird spent a great deal of time in the NEYT lobby, waiting to take her son home after rehearsals. She thought there should be a bigger visual presence of Stearns than the two small portraits currently there. Wanting to do something special for Stearns, Baird immediately thought of Nunn, who had recently done an amazing portrait of violin maker Doug Cox.
Nunn said the portrait was fun to do, but it was a little daunting to do a portrait of someone so beloved. Colorful and life size, Stearns is garbed in his signature clown outfit, relaxed, holding his prize possession: a ukulele from a mentor. Most important to Nunn was to capture the kindness in his face. She treasures a passing comment by a viewer, "I've never met him, but he looks like such a nice person." Nunn wanted to thank Zephyr Designs for donating the frame and New England Fabrics for donating the purple velvet used as the backdrop. She said, "I hope I did him justice."
And this was all happening because of a bad experience Stearns had with a theater director in New York City. He came to Brattleboro in 1975 in search of community, but still wanting to be involved in theater. He taught theater to first and second graders in Dummerston and met Peter Gould to become the nationally popular Gould & Stearns. Then he got the chance the do children's theater and had an epiphany. He was the happiest he had ever been. He had always wanted to start a children's theater of his own, so why not start now? He hung posters seeking child actors, hoping for 16 to respond. Thirty five signed up and rehearsals were set for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and over 700 people showed up at the Greenhoe Theatre in Landmark College on March 12, 1999. True to Stearns' fashion, opening night was full of surprises. Stearns bounded on stage in clown suit with a TV in tow and announced that there will be no play, but rather a movie of the audience's choice. With the audience sufficiently off balance, the fledgling NEYT cast extended the iconic giant hook and pulled Stearns off stage, then energetically replaced him strewing rolls of toilet paper at the audience, then commenced with the play. It was a hit. since then over 4,000 shows have been produced at NEYT, boosting children's confidence.
For Stearns, NEYT is always about the kids, for the kids, and by the kids. He makes a point of being fair to all. Early on in the current rehearsals for the "The Blind King and the Sleeping Queen," three girls approached him about their parts as princesses. They said that the roles made them feel like servants, it was silly and they felt foolish, and it needed to be rewritten. He felt very proud that the environment at NEYT gave them the courage and allowed them the freedom to speak up.
His proudest moment of all however was in 2006 when, with all involved clad in Elizabethan costumes, the old Tri-State Automotive property was signed over to NEYT for two million, seven hundred thousand dollars. After years of arranging classes and performances and rehearsals all over town, it was time for a place of their own. Monies to purchase the building came from the smallest of donations by parents of students to the most generous from loyal and wealthy supporters, Stearns' money earned while touring, and a loan.
The gala will also be a time for Stearns to officially step down from the board of directors with the new title of Trustee Emeritus, thus relieving him of the duties of running the theater. He is placing that responsibility in the capable hands of Executive Director Hallie Flower. He is comfortable handing over the reins to Flower, saying that she thoroughly understands the mission of NEYT, knows how to fund raise to keep it afloat, But that doesn't mean Stearns will just stop being involved in theater. He has plans. He wants to become a full-time teacher and work on projects of his choosing. He said he is moving into the relaxed part of his creative life. He would like to create a show about his life on tour and his work with Russian orphans. He is also excited about the future plans to tear down the building next door that had been ruined by Tropical Storm Irene where an outdoor theater and garden park will be created, and really looking forward to spending time with his granddaughters.
Concerning all of the fuss being made about him, he humbly said, "It's embarrassing, but it's wonderful to be appreciated. There are good people that really make NEYT work and it's heartwarming." Recently reflecting on his accomplishments there, it dawned on him that everyone was here because of him!
"It's important to remember that NEYT started with a dream – Uncle Stevie's dream. And today, that dream has grown to support not only our community's children, but to be a cornerstone of our cultural life here in southern Vermont," said NEYT Board President Sadie Fischesser."
The Stephen Stearns: A celebration fundraiser will take place at Dalem's Chalet, 78 South St., West Brattleboro, 5 to 10 p.m. Tickets for are $50 each and may be purchased on the NEYT web site neyt.org.
Contact Cicely M. Eastman at 802-254-2311 ext. 261.