New England Youth Theatre
A small theatre realizes a big dream
On a cold night in 1996, Stephen Stearns and fellow professional clown Peter Gould, of Vermont‘s famous comedy duo Gould & Stearns, stood looking at a derelict truck repair center on a corner lot two blocks from the lighted streets of Brattleboro‘s downtown. Putting their heads together, they hatched a dream: To turn the property into a vibrant arts center.
Two years later, Stephen started New England Youth Theatre in a church basement, with 35 kids and a delightful production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later, NEYT was housed in a small black box* theatre created out of the wreckage of a former Chinese restaurant. Soon every performance was sold out as area audiences discovered the incredible talent, energy and creativity coming out of the little theatre on Main Street. As NEYT‘s reputation grew, so did the number of kids who wanted to get involved.
By 2004 it was obvious NEYT would need a larger home. Stephen and Peter thought again of the rundown truck depot on the corner of Flat and Elm Streets. Stephen brought a number of supporters to the site and standing amidst the abandoned machinery he challenged the group to envision a wonderful theatre building. Over the next 18 months NEYT found over 1,000 people and businesses that agreed—and gave generously to help the dream become a reality.
In December of 2006, NEYT performed its last show at the old theatre on Main Street, and actors and audience members picked up the chairs and paraded down Flat Street to the new location. By January of 2007 the building was finished, and classes had moved in.
NEYT is unusual in the ”children‘s theatre” world, in that rather than being about adults putting on plays for children, it is a theatre where all the plays are performed and produced by kids. Founded on the philosophy that children can run their own theatre with the guidance of professionals, children are not only on the stage, but also running the light and sound booth, creating in the costume shop, and working in the wings.
Offering acting classes, summer theatre intensives, a theatre design and production program, and the opportunity to be in over a dozen shows a year, NEYT strikes a chord with many area youth. As one student said, ”At NEYT there is always something new to get involved in, and I like the down times, too, when I can hang out with my cast mates and everyone becomes friends.’
NEYT‘s mission includes providing opportunities for children of all abilities—including those who want to pursue a professional theatre career and those who are simply there to have fun. Many parents realize that NEYT‘s strength lies in providing a safe, creative, supportive social atmosphere where older students are positive role models. One recent graduate said, ”At NEYT I learned how to be confident, not just in pretending to be other people, but in being myself.” NEYT‘s Theatre Adventure Program offers classes and productions for children with developmental disabilities and, in a unique twist, welcomes a few typically developing peers not just as mentors but as full participants.
With a mentor program for promising student leaders and an AcTour program that trains students in the use of theatre to engage peers on topics such as risky behavior, racism and bullying, NEYT students learn skills they can use in their schools and larger communities. As Stephen says, NEYT gives kids the chance to shoulder big responsibility, and when given the opportunity they rise to the challenge.
Even after they graduate, NEYT‘s alumni continue to carry on the lessons they have learned. Some work with disadvantaged youth in inner city neighborhoods or developing parts of the world. Many return to NEYT in the summer to teach and direct. Graduates are accepted into prestigious schools and professional theatre programs in NYC and across the country.
Although students sometimes talk nostalgically about the original theatre on Main Street, everyone recognizes the hugely significant advancement in NEYT programs made possible by the new theatre. With a 12,000 sq. ft. building containing a large stage, seating for 150, a technical booth, lighting grid, costume loft, set shop, green room and three classrooms, lobby and box office, NEYT has been able to expand all its programs and greatly increase the technical aspects of productions. NEYT even held its first annual weeklong ”Salmagundi” theatre festival, in May 2009, inviting theatre professionals to come to Brattleboro and teach classes to the community at large at NEYT.
A dream come true for NEYT, the theatre is also a dream come true for the tri-state area. When not in use by NEYT, the building is used extensively by outside artists and has hosted
concerts, dance performances, film festivals, world premier play performances, lectures, art shows and more.
It took the vision of two highly creative souls and a lot of hard work on the part of many, but the theatre on Flat Street stands as a proud testament to Brattleboro‘s love of the arts.
*The black box theater (or experimental theatre) is a relatively recent innovation, consisting of a simple, somewhat unadorned performance space, usually a large square room with black walls and a flat floor.
Upcoming Shows at NEYT
- Cinderella at the Ball Game
- Picasso at the Lapin Agile
- Theatre Adventure Program
- Willy Wonka, Gala night: Dec. 18
- Dates/times: neyt.org
NEYT Founder & Artistic Director Stephen Stearns (left) with Peter Gould. Together they make up Gould & Stearns, The Clown Jewels of Vermont, and have toured to 42 states and five foreign countries. Their play, A Peasant of El Salvador, has won several national awards including the Denver Global Peace and Justice Award. Don‘t miss the Gould & Stearns 30th Anniversary performances at NEYT May 7-8, 2010.