BRATTLEBORO, Vt. - It's easy to think that the kids performing with the New England Youth Theater have come from a vaudeville troupe when they pull off expert pratfalls or contort their bodies into curious positions.
Physical comedy is a signature style of this group, which lights up its Brattleboro stage for as many as 10 shows a year. And the offerings are diverse. Think French farce, Shakespeare, Broadway musicals, or American dramas.
NEYT offers conservatory-style classes and workshops in topics such as drama, dress-up for young children, and lighting design. Jerry Stockman, managing director, says the theater draws students from as far as 50 miles away. A summer program attracts young people from across the country and beyond.
Area professionals are a huge asset. "Our voice teacher is one of the top teachers at the Yale School of Drama," says Stephen Stearns, the artistic director, who founded the theater in 1998. Among the instructors are acrobats from the New England Center for Circus Arts, musicians from the Brattleboro Music Center, and choreographers from the Brattleboro School of Dance.
Ask just about anybody involved with NEYT and they'll tell you the excellence on stage begins with Stearns.
"The kids get pulled in by the magnet of Stephen," says Rebecca Waxman, an actress who's directing the upcoming production of "Guys and Dolls." "Every kid goes through his classes. I work with the older kids, and by the time they get to me they are so big and brave and fearless."
Stearns has a background as eclectic as the shows the group produces. He has a doctorate in Shakespearean drama from the University of Washington and has done advanced studies at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. He has spent decades on the road, giving thousands of performances around the world with Peter Gould as the professional clowning team of Gould & Stearns. Gould now directs shows and teaches at NEYT.
"I love working with kids," says Stearns, about why he started the school. He had taught theater before, primarily for older students and adults. He got a taste for teaching younger students through touring with Gould, as many of the shows were for schools. "Peter was going back for a doctorate, so I did a summer program with kids for two weeks. I got up happier than I'd ever been in my life."
They began working with elementary school students. At first, he recalls, "the high school kids wouldn't have anything to do with us. But as those first kids got older, they all stayed with me for 7, 8 years."
One who stayed is Sean Fitzharris, 17, who started when he was 9. "He's gone to Russia with me three times," says Stearns, "and done a lot of clowning in hospitals."
"The physical stuff I've always found kind of easy," says Fitzharris. "I'm a lot better at comedy. The serious stuff, the drama, that's the harder part."
Fitzharris is playing the romantic lead in "Guys and Dolls," and says that looking serious while the female lead sings to him can be a challenge. "My mind kind of wanders," he admits.
"Sean has an incredible capacity for physical energy," says Waxman. "He helps me figure out the physical comedy sometimes. That's inherent in the way we work with the kids. They are part of the process. They expect you to take them seriously and implement their thoughts."
According to Stockman, the kids run the show backstage and in the front of the house. "They're also involved in the scenic design, lighting, costuming, stage managing. They can usher, learn about PR, advertising, ticket sales. There's no aspect they can't be involved in."
After renting space for several years, NEYT renovated a former automobile machine shop and opened its own theater in January. It seats up to 175 people, depending on the size stage they need. "Being in a small space," Stockman says, "never stopped us from doing challenging things - restrictions can be a good imagination engine as well. But it's much easier now."
"They just can't get enough of the place," says Waxman of the ever-growing number of students who make their way over to the theater after school. "They spend all their time here. If they're not in class they're rehearsing. If they're not doing that, they're in the costume shop, or baking cookies for the next performance. They're often just hanging out making up sketch comedy bits for each other. It's amazing, two kids walked into rehearsal this afternoon carrying instruments. There's no pit band here. . . . I asked what they were doing. They just came to hang out."