Vt Views: The general idea of these interviews is to ask about the inherent qualities or values of people’s work and lives, and also the Spirit of Place. Here we are at New England Youth Theater [NEYT] based in Brattleboro, Vermont with Jerry Stockman, who has been Executive Director of NEYT and you have been involved with NEYT a long time now, not just on this site but before…
JS: Since its inception, since it was no more than phone conversations among a small group of people; the current site has been the location of NEYT for just over 2 years – originally the building was built in 1982 as an automotive machine shop, to extend the premises of Tri-State Automotive, who were in the business of selling cars, machining automobile parts, straightening frames – car and truck maintenance – they folded awhile back and we raised enough money to purchase it as our property; and to rehabilitate and expand this building we are in, and change an auto machine shop into a theater.
JS: That’s our recent history; our last home was a Chinese restaurant which we rehab-ed, using sweat equity; we traded rent for rehabilitating the property and so obtained rent free premises for 6 months; putting on our first performance in one month, then occupied the premises for 5 years.
Vt Views: So… is NEYT about 7 years old?
JS: No, about 10 years old, our first show was produced at Landmark College in 1999; our first audition notices went out late 1998; and in March 99 we produced Mid Summer Night’s Dream; and haven’t stopped since; it took us months to actually find a home, which was the former Taste of Asia Restaurant at 50 Main St. Brattleboro. That restaurant started life in 1938 as the Café attached to the Latchis Complex – The Latchis was built as a Hotel, Theater and Café. And the Café ended in the 80’s, which was then rented to a series of Chinese restaurant operators.
Vt Views: So… in 1998 some people decided to start a youth theater?
JS: In 98 Stephen Sterns who for 20+ years had toured with his partner Peter Gould as … its hard to describe them … they are essentially vaudevillians; and they are accomplished playwrights and actors in their own right; their partnership Gould and Sterns toured for a number of years and each of them reached the time in their lives and in their careers when they started to think about other things.
JS: Peter Gould wanted very much to pursue his education and get a PhD, at Brandeis, meaning he would not be touring so much any more; and Stephen Sterns’ personal and particular ambition was, since he had enjoyed working with young people; was to start a youth theatre company; he had been thinking about it for years and he started exploring it in 1998 which included watching children’s performances in the area getting an idea of how many children might be interested.
JS: As well as talking with people who might like to join him, and I was once of those people. I was here from the first show, MSND which materialized from a phone conversation between Stephen and myself – and I think I said its time to stop talking about it and do a show and see what happens here.
Vt Views: So why do did you both conspire to do youth theater. You obviously found reception in the community, and its currently much more developed with faculty, but was the feeling at the beginning? Rather than for example having a mixed theater group combining youth and adults?
JS: I think that was a confluence of particular personal interests; I had been working at college and university theaters for a long timer – I have a particular love admiration for young people, so does Stephen, and a lot of what we are doing is built upon a concept of mentorship; we essentially try to gather a group of people who are involved in the performing arts because it was one of the loves of their life and you wanted to pass on both that sense of appreciation for performing and the particular skills that we have learned over the years; to others. So in that sense it’s a legacy project as well.
JS: It’s built around sharing and appreciation for and study of performing with young people in order to pass on knowledge and to maintain the art form.
JS: That’s the key element, still is the important part of what we do – there are other important parts of what we do which come out of the original people who started the organization – an important part of NEYT’s essential mission is to give voice to other people. Part of it is maintaining the theater as an art form; we have found over the years one of the challenges, especially for the age group of 11 -15 is to find a way for people to express themselves; it doesn’t have to be necessarily being out there declaiming on stage; it could be in design and managerial aspects of the theater – the theater is a wonderful medium since it incorporates virtually every skill life has to offer so that there are a lot of ways that young people can find to express themselves through this medium as opposed to feeling unheard and unappreciated. In that sense we believe that offering a performing arts experience to young people can be a way for them to achieve success in life.
Vt Views: at about a third the way through the time that seems to state your original and core values very well – so that is the foundation upon which everything then stood.
JS: That’s maybe 2 legs of a 3 legged stool; I think the other leg has an awful lot to do with how people treat each other – another aspect of what we do is create a community where there is mutual trust and mutual support, and that is another core value which I hope will always remain with this organization.
Vt Views: Then to my personal knowledge came a series of tours and Stephen wound up with a lady in Russia who ran an orphanage – two tours to Russia and a tour to England – which moved people out of this community to somewhere else – are you still touring, taking groups off elsewhere?
JS: We do occasionally – virtually every year in different shapes and forms, we have taken tours to local schools, invited local schools in to see performances here, we went to the UK 4 years ago to establish interests with other people who have similar interests, and found kindred spirits at the Birmingham School of Acting; and those relationships have been maintained over the years, some of them have returned here from the UK every year since the tour; and have helped us with our efforts here: we hope to tour abroad again when the opportunity presents itself.
Vt Views: I noticed outside I took a photograph of your faculty, some 8 or 9 individuals; I remember about 6 years ago a lot of it just seemed to be Stephen, so this is a significant expansion into faculty proper; what functions do faculty members play in the life of the theater? What do they do?
JS: Besides producing shows which is the core of what we do, we also offer classes in various skills akin the performing arts; obviously acting and movement and all the other important elements of public performance. And although extraordinarily skilled and gifted, and with a lot of energy, Stephen can’t do it all and we have expanded our operation to supplement his efforts.
JS: One of the reasons for NEYT’s success and longevity is that we live in a marvelous area; there are a wealth of folks with performing and visual arts skills; there are artists and musicians and performers and directors; blessing this valley we live in and we try to take advantage of all those great folks and [!inaudible!]
Vt Views: With all these film makers surrounding you has there ever been talk of making a film from your productions, or a documentary about you? No talk of that sort of production?
JS: That presents a certain number of challenges because many of our shows which are in the public domain have been videotaped and have been broadcast via public access television; obviously all the Shakespeare plays – there are issues with licensed products; if we produce a play we have to pay in terms of licensing and there are many restrictions to such productions and you can’t video-tape those and put them out on the air-waves; or you must pay additional money for additional licenses for doing that. That boxes us in to what we can, cannot do.
Vt Views: I see; but if it were to be a documentary about yourselves, would that be a possibility?
JS: Absolutely, yes.
JS: We internally for our own development purposes produce documentaries about what we do. We do one every year or two because that is an important adjunct to grant writing, and we have internally done such internal documentaries and also promotional documentaries about us, which if anyone wanted to see, we could forward.
Vt Views: Producers out there! I think we just heard an invitation. I was just talking with Indy videographer Michael Hanish and we said sure – someone would make a Burnski – that is, after Ken Burns
JS: [Laughter] – I am familiar with the gentleman
Vt Views: And you know, Ken is himself busy, he told me once busy for 10 years. But this is such a rich factor in the community that a product like that could inform the local community and also stimulate people elsewhere.
Vt Views: Anyway, Michael and I thought making a film about organizations such as yourselves a good thing to do – especially since the qualities or values you represent would seem to be directly interesting to American families; rather more so in performing arts than what top professionals are doing in NY City; this is more about them, ordinary people – much more directly addressing what would enrich their own children’s lives.
JS: We would love to serve as a model to other communities – we have had folks visit us from all over the country and a remark we hear frequently is that “O! I wish we had something like this where we are,” and although there is a considerable amount of youth theater I think there is not enough such organizations with our particular focus and energy. It would be nice if other communities would start something like this. Its an important outlet for young people.
Vt Views: Other places have film festivals and maybe …
JS: A Youth Theater festival? We have been talking about that for a while. Of all the individuals who come to us with ideas for projects, coupled with the ideas we come up with internally for projects; we have a plethora of ideas but we only have a very small staff, coupled with ambitious programming so there is only so much we can do.
Vt Views: Talk about your current range of projects – and looking forward 6 months what sorts of things would you be putting on?
JS: The average now involves about 10 production per year which is somewhat ambitious, we racked up to the that number in some ways because we now have a larger theater and obviously we need to make enough production to take in our income to pay our bills and pay the staff. That’s one challenge.
JS: There are only so many people in the immediate area to support this amount of programming, and probably no more than that. One thing we talk about frequently is that we have to make sure we are not so busy we are competing with ourselves. That we rob one of our productions to pay another.
JS: So we are in the process of producing what an ideal programming schedule would look like. From now its about 10 shows per year which includes the Summer program and those vary in scale and scope – smaller ones tend to involve younger performers – although we do large scale productions, usually our holiday production, which involves a wide age range.
JS: The artistic choice depends an awful lot on what our stable of directors are inspired to do and what is feasible for us to do; what we can afford, what we think the community might be interested in. When deciding on programs there are a number of elements to consider; besides the obvious ones of cost and energy we need to maintain an income but at the same time we need to put interesting and challenging things out there – so there are some shows that we choose anticipating that we are not going to get a huge response; because they are more challenging to the audience.
JS: That’s just find if they are balanced by things which have more mass appeal; like virtually every arts organization worth its salt goes through the same decision making process.
JS: Let’s not do guaranteed successes every time and be totally bored; let’s doing something interesting and off the wall or maybe a little bit darker or satirical, and let’s at the same time be esoteric to let our audience dry up and go away.
Vt Views: That seem like a good synopsis of the middle path – the first part of this conversation was about your foundation, early history and values, the middle about current practices, problems opportunities – a similar conversation as with Alex Gyori at the Co-op, their moving from Flat St to the current building, and the decision-making basis for the next step, the new store. You already have a new building and in that sense a step ahead. Alex continued to address the evolution of the coop, and the next step ‘the Regenerative Business’, plus other factors that the coop performs for growers and food producers; as well as being a community center for the entire town. Your future may be somewhat different – what sort of new departures will be envisioning at a strategic level? What is in view, on the horizon, for the next 10 years which is a significantly new factor combined with your existing mix of functions?
JS: I think that question is more an economic question; what we would like to do is stabilize what we do now so that we know that we can continue to perform our primary function within our mission; again as for a NFP organization especially, you are mission-driven and almost every decision you make has to go back to your mission – and are you still supporting that? – To support our mission and to perpetuate it what we really need to do now is achieve economic stability, such as having raised enough money to pay for the property that we sit on; that’s the good news, the bad news is that now we own a big fat mortgage, and there are some derelict building on it. What we would like to do is to sell them and/or rehabilitate them and have the property that we occupy turn into an arts complex. That’s something we have been working on every since we took over the property that we occupy. Once that’s done, once the building is rehabilitated and the property is sold, and other arts organizations are able to join us and be our neighbors, and we reduce the debt and no longer have a mortgage, then we will be in a much better position to plan our future.
Vt Views: Do you feel comfortable talking about your annual current budget?
JS: Since we are a NFP Organization our annual budget is available because we file a tax return every year – the annual operating budget for NEYT is around half a million dollars.
Vt Views: So where would it be more comfortable and stable for you to relieve the anxiety of financial matters?
JS: If the amount that we pay for property ownership is reduced or eliminated – the mortgage is currently right now #30,000 dollars per year and property taxes which is essentially an equivalent amount; and the more property you own the more expensive your property liability insurance is; if all those things associated with property in the middle of down-town could be reduced then we would be in a much more stable economic environment for ourselves.
Vt Views: Again, with Michael Hanish I was discussing with him where any film-production studio was hereabouts?
Vt Views: Michael has worked with Michel down at Cotton Mill Hill, and that is largely educational work with the High School – but if someone wanted to come to town, base here, and make a film here, use equipment which is here or use an editing suite, use a studio here; you might not mind in this example selling that building beside NEYT to someone who could provide those facilities? To a compatible artistic venture – which would reduce your fixed expenses?
Vt Views: Some outfit which would share in another medium many of the values you have expressed here?
JS: One of the limitations that any NFP or small business has is the size of the market – though we are culturally rich we do live in a 13,000 person town and effective market reaching out 50 miles – we are not in a high polulation areas; the federal government considers us a rural area and you could make a case for that, therefore what’s the potential for making income in such a sparsely populated area?
JS: It takes an awful lot of investment to put together the people and equipment to make movies for instance – more than to put plays on stage, so what’s the potential for income from any of this; from sales and from grants from foundations can you get – these are all things which enter the mix to determine whether you are viable.
Vt Views: But I guess that if you can become established, like for example Yellow Barn or Marlboro for music; and people come from Europe not just from New York City, they come a long way to see an unusual quality of work you can produce.
Vt Views: Without an endowment or a speculative large amount of money to try things out then its hard to experiment much beyond the local margins – nomatter how good your product.
JS: The last item you mentioned at our time limit to talk of 30 minutes is a good one… and if you can manage to enhance your reputation so that you can attract people from long distance because they admire the quality of your work, then that’s an enhancement which is to be desired. You have named some organizations in the area that have succeeded in doing that. Our friends in the Circus Arts have done the same thing – their programs attract people from far away because they are unique, they are very high quality.
JS: That’s something we talk about; trying to establish programs that are unique and are of such quality that people would be int