The velvet evolution

NEYT founder Stephen Stearns discusses the process of founding an arts organization, and then letting go

BRATTLEBORO — In 1998, New England Youth Theatre began downtown, in a former Chinese restaurant next to the Latchis Hotel and Theatre , with a mission of educating “the hearts, minds, bodies, and voices of youth of all abilities through the dramatic arts.”

Two decades later, NEYT has its own theater on Flat Street and serves hundreds of young people taking a variety of classes ranging from improvisation, movement, and ensemble building to learning the arts of stage managing, scenic design, lighting, costuming, and makeup.

The common thread between those two points was founder Stephen Stearns, who functioned as the de facto artistic and executive director.

Stearns is no longer involved in the day-to-day doings of NEYT. It has a full-time executive director, Hallie Flower. She is the first person to formally hold that position.

In the wake of the recent turmoil at the New England School for Circus Arts, the memory of the transition at NEYT came to mind. The Commons reached out to Stearns for his thoughts on arts organizations - and transitions.

When he was interviewed by The Commons in the fall of 2015, just after Flower took the job of executive director, he spoke of the need to delegate and not take on too much responsibility.

“After starting NEYT, I found myself doing everything from fundraising and teaching to playwriting and directing,” Stearns said. “I did whatever was necessary to get the job done.”

But as NEYT grew, it became clear that Stearns' serving as jack-of-all-trades was no longer feasible.

“We now have a $700,000 annual budget servicing 500 students and so necessarily NEYT has gotten to have a cooperation feel to it,” Stearns said. “No one person can do everything.”

So he helped the NEYT board find someone who could fill the role of leader of the organization.

First, an executive director needs to put together the season's classes and productions. Second, that person works up a budget and joins the development department to raise necessary funds. Finally, that employee would need to manage the staff and students.

Long term, an executive director would gradually begin strategic planning and consider ways to move NEYT forward.

In Flower, NEYT got a well-known person in the southern Vermont theater scene, most recently as one of the founders of the Apron Theater Company. And Stearns helped Flower along with the transition.

“My transition to emeritus was a long and drawn-out process over a three-year period but, almost always, a most happy one,” he told The Commons earlier this month.

“Any organization can have power struggles,” he said. “I've had very few, fortunately - perhaps because I always gave people the power to create their part of NEYT after the fashion that worked with their talents and interests, be they with sets or costumes or administration.”

As far as Stearns was concerned, the most important thing was that, no matter what people did, they acted in a way that “fit with NEYT's mission as a life school to teach heart, mind, body, voice of young people, and teach them to show up, stand up, speak up, and use their brain for the benefit of many.”

“We've kept it simple,” he said. “If it's not fun for everyone, we don't do it, and that means fun for everyone, including all students and all adults, staff, board, volunteers, teachers, and children. Everyone!”

But any organization still has to deal with the legal obligations of nonprofit status, and NEYT was no exception.

“Jerry Stockman and I made NEYT a long-form 501(c)3 nonprofit back in 2000 and I put myself on the board as a voting member,” Stearns said. “I wanted to keep the founder seat so that no person could come along later with ideas and plans and ego counter to the school's mission.

“If that occurred, I would be there to stand up for what I created in the first place and help guide the 'ship' through the shallow, turbulent waters. I've done that from time to time, but not needed to often, also because I always had a hand in choosing board members, and all of those board members had been vetted over years and years, they were all people known to me or to others of our board, staff, and faculty.

“We have had a process of bringing people onto the board - a process that, over time, I was not needed to have a direct part in.”

At times, Stearns said, “the new-board-member nominating committee turned down a person who wanted to be on the board for this or that reason and it was kept very direct and open and fair.”

Ego and power can also be issues that trip up an organization, Stearns said.

“Power trips bring on the bully in people, playground behavior, and it is always very disruptive and destructive. It can kill an organization,” he said.

“The ego zone has to be watched and managed carefully when an organization takes on a new multi-million-dollar facility with much more revenue, more students, more faculty, and more paychecks,” he added. “That can bring fear into the mix: fear of debt, of failure, of some people getting too much and some too little of the benefits of the organization.”

When it comes to management, Stearns said that his years as a teacher and performer had taught him that most of what happens in life happens in what he called “the interesting zone.”

“Everything is a door to go through,” he said. “In the interesting zone, there are no winners or losers, no heroes or villains, no good or bad. It's all just interesting. That is the space we live in each day.”

How one deals with the “interesting” is what often determines the success or failure of an organization.

Stearns' way of dealing with it all?

“Be humble. Don't just expect the unexpected, but celebrate it and roll with the changes. Be part of the 'we,' but be cognizant of the 'me.' And nothing ever happens without trust and buy-in from everyone you're working with.”

He said he was confident that NECCA would recover from this crisis.

“They must recover. They can recover. And they will recover,” he said.

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