Small makes a big impression in theater
MIDDLEBURY — When it comes to the world of theater, Steve Small is a veritable man for all seasons. He is a first-class actor, directs productions every year, is a whiz with the technical side of stagecraft and even knows how to create prosthetic zombie hands.
Last week the 57-year-old director of the Addison Repertory Theater and active actor was recognized not only for those skills, but more importantly for helping a generation or two of students to find their own way in the theater.
Small was named the first recipient of the Herb Lockwood Prize, a $10,000 award given to honor passionate Vermont artists whose work shapes their Vermont communities.
Those who know Small’s work weren’t surprised to hear of the honor.
“Steve Small is one of the most talented and caring teachers I have ever known,” said Lois Rood, one of Small’s A.R.T. students, who is now studying music at the Wheaton College of Music in Illinois. “He more than deserves this award.”
The award, which was presented this past Tuesday at Burlington City Arts, will be given annually by Todd Lockwood in honor of his late brother, Herb Lockwood. Herb was a musician and artist who died 27 years ago in an accident in Burlington at the age of 27.
The Herb Lockwood Prize is a celebration of artistic excellence at a level that inspires other artists and enriches the community. The prize goes to one Vermont artist whose work demonstrates a high level of artistic achievement and innovation; whose creativity, drive and philosophy inspires other artists; and who has had a beneficent influence on the community.
Steve Small grew up in Shoreham on his family’s apple orchard. After graduating from Middlebury Union High School, where he studied welding at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, he went into the military before enrolling at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He spent the next few years acting and working in theater — on stage and behind the scenes — in New York City, then in Los Angeles, where he met his wife, Shannon Bohler Small.
He currently resides in Shoreham with his wife, and two children, Chenoah and Eamon. He has been the director of the Addison Repertory Theater, commonly known as A.R.T., at the Career Center in Middlebury for 20 years.
After returning to Vermont, Small became involved with the initial proposal for A.R.T., which, he said, was originally intended to be a program for “gifted and talented” high school students. Small advocated for a more inclusive program, whereby students with a true passion and interest in theater could have the opportunity to hone their skills.
“Everybody’s got gifts, everybody’s got talents,” he said. “If you have somebody that absolutely wants to be there and has their hand on the curtain rope ready to pull it five minutes before they need to be there, that’s somebody who works.”
In a 2005 interview in this newspaper about his role as a teacher and actor, Small explained how he came to teaching
“I love to watch a student find a passion; to help them get to the point where what I’m teaching them becomes their own,” he said.
Melissa Lourie, artistic director of Middlebury Actors Workshop, has known Small for 14 years, and directed him in many local productions. She said she could see how his skills as an actor — “he’s incredibly grounded and relaxed; he’s a very deep-feeling person and he can just evolve and transform into a different character in a natural way” — could translate into the classroom.
“The students adore him, and he is a mentor to many,” Lourie said. “Even with some kids he is a father figure of sorts.
“At the same time, he’s also no-nonsense, very direct and kind,” she added, “But he doesn’t pull any punches. You know where he’s at.”
Lourie said Small knows “a ton” about theater tech, a key component taught to A.R.T. students. At Middlebury Actors Workshop’s “Summer Shorts” production, which opens Thursday at Town Hall Theater, he will be working with his daughter, Chenoah, on prosthetics that will tap one of his areas of expertise.
“He’s going to make a prosthetic hand that can fall off a zombie,” Lourie said.
Small spent many years at A.R.T. working with longtime English and theater arts teacher Candace Burkle. He described Burkle, who died in 2011, as an invaluable role model for him.
“Theater is such a collaborative art form, no one person is the star. That makes it a very interesting way to educate people, because they have to support each other,” Small said. “Candace (Burkle) used to say that the most important person on stage is your partner, and if you put your energy into your partner and your partner puts their energy into you, you have something that’s really magical.”
According to Rood, Small puts that sort of energy into his students every day.
“I was blown away by his incredible talent and ability to bring the best out of his students,” Rood recalled. “He continues to show support to A.R.T. alumni after graduation.”
In the 2005 interview, Small explained why it was important for him as a teacher to also get on the stage and act.
“The best way to know if you have a skill is first to learn it, then do it, then teach it, then do it,” he said. “Teaching shows you what you actually know. And teachers have to be willing to do what they ask their students to do. You have to put it on the line in front of an audience with all the commitment you ask of your students. And it is uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be.”
Small said last week that he was deeply honored and humbled to be the first recipient of the Herb Lockwood Prize, describing it all as “mind-blowing.”
“I hope that as they continue to do this,” Small concluded, “that more and more people recognize the value of the arts in Vermont.”
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