Steve Small leaving large legacy at A.R.T.

MIDDLEBURY — If local playwright Dana Yeaton were writing the want ad for the next director of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center’s Addison Repertory Theater, known as A.R.T., he’d start with a photo of the person who is about to step down from that position.
“If God were to design the perfect guy to run a vocational theater program, it would be Steve Small,” Yeaton said of the co-founder of A.R.T., who at the age of 61 is preparing to do what he’s taught hundreds of his students during the past 24 years: Go out into the bright lights and perform.
“I want to put myself out there and practice what I’ve been preaching,” Small said of reason to leave the program that serves students at Middlebury, Vergennes and Mount Abraham union high schools.
Small has always been interested in acting. He took to the stage in plays while attending MUHS, from which he graduated in 1974. After a brief stint in the military, Small enrolled at the North Carolina School of the Arts, specifically for acting.
He enjoyed his time there and it only reinforced his desire to become a professional actor. Upon graduation, he kept a promise to himself: He’d spend four years each in the acting hubs of New York City and Los Angeles to ply his trade.
After a productive, educational experience as a working actor, Shoreham — and specifically his family’s orchard — called Small home. But he never lost the acting bug, and got a chance to feed his urge through roles in local and statewide theater productions. He was a regular with the Middlebury-based Vermont Ensemble Theater, and has often taken the stage at the Town Hall Theater.
Then, in 1993, came a casting call for a part he would play to rave reviews for more than two decades.
Small was in Middlebury’s Frog Hollow district one day and bumped into Yeaton, who asked him to direct a show he had written called “Alice in Love.”
“I had never directed before, but I said I’d give it a try,” Small recalled.
It proved to be a wise decision. “Alice in Love” got a wonderful reception, winning local, regional and statewide accolades before opening a lot of eyes during a New England competition.
Yeaton saw in Small some great potential — not only as an actor, but as someone who could impart those skills to those wanting to break into theater.
“He called me and asked if I could sit in on a meeting about putting a theater program at what was at that time called the ‘vocational center,’” Small said. “I said ‘Sure.’”
He listened for a while, but didn’t like the initial talk of the program being geared to “gifted and talented” students.
“I said, ‘Excuse me, that doesn’t mean a lot in the business; everybody’s got gifts and everybody’s got talents,’” he said.
Small agreed to participate when it became clear the new Addison Repertory Theater would be open to all students.
A.R.T. started in 1994 as a half-day offering, co-led by Small and the late Candace Burkle. Burkle was in charge of English instruction, costumes, arts management and producing the plays, while Small served as director, acting coach and supervisor of sets and lights.
It proved a very fruitful collaboration, and the new program caught on. It wasn’t long before A.R.T. expanded from a half-day to a full-day offering in 1996. At one point, it catered to more than 20 students.
“She was an incredible teacher and an incredible partner,” Small said of Burkle, whose life was cut short by leukemia in October of 2011.
Her obituary, which ran in the Addison Independent, stated “her most special years (1994-2011) were spent teaching in the A.R.T. program … It is here she left her mark on hundreds of students who passed through the program. It is impossible to measure the degree to which parents, faculty and students loved Candace, as she created her magic in this role.”
Small recalled how Burkle had calmed his nerves when he was told about the hoops he would have to jump through in his new teaching role.
“Candace tapped me on the leg and said, ‘You don’t have to do this alone.’”
The pair developed a solid curriculum that allowed students to learn how actors move, orate, emote and write. And they’re given ample opportunity to showcase their talents on the A.R.T. stage. There are original shows geared to children, as well as student-written, one-act plays in which each player acts out a colleague’s written material. There’s always a major production in the spring, and this year’s offering is (catch your breath) “The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery,” to be staged at A.R.T. this Thursday through Saturday, April 12, 13 and 14.
“That’s where our actors and technicians really put their money where their mouth is,” Small said of the spring performances.
“Small” is actually a misnomer for Steve. He’s a big, burly dude with a booming voice, which has served him well on the stage. It’s also come in handy while barking directions at the aspiring thespians who each year place themselves in his artistic hands, which incidentally “can literally build anything,” according to Yeaton. Many an A.R.T. production scene has borne the telltale signs of Small’s handiwork.
And Small has a pretty good acting resumé of his own.
“Let’s not forget that he has performed on the Town Hall Theater stage many times, always brilliantly, and people still talk about his magnificent Lenny in ‘Of Mice and Men,’” THT Executive Director Doug Anderson said.
He was on an episode of the “L.A. Law” television show, and was in a film with Jon Cryer called “Hiding Out.”
Small also gained a great reputation for building sets. He did such work for well-known films like “The Abyss” and “Edward Scissorhands.” You also might have seen him in some television commercials.
He’ll resurrect those finely honed skills in what he hopes will be a triumphant return to professional acting and related technical work. Small still has some connections in the industry — some of whom, ironically, are former students.
“I have learned a lot about acting through teaching kids,” Small said.
While he’ll be leaving A.R.T., Small wants to keep Vermont his home base even as he searches for work in the theater and movie industries. Fortunately, many prospective employers allow actors to electronically submit their auditions. He’ll be able to travel to gigs and return to Addison County.
So he’ll continue to be a supporter of A.R.T. and the local theater scene.
He’ll be asked frequently to take a bow for his A.R.T. contributions.
“Here at Town Hall Theater we’ve really benefited from Steve’s contribution to the arts,” Anderson said. “His students have worked here as performers and technicians, some of them becoming regulars, and they’ve always been very well prepared and professional.”
“Steve’s a Vermont original — one of the most inventive people you’ll meet, but totally practical,” Yeaton said. “He knows what kids are capable of when you challenge them, and he knows they sometimes mess up. As a parent, you feel lucky if your child has just one teacher like Steve.”
Lynn Coale, former superintendent of the career center, praised Small for his contributions.
“He always put on professional shows,” Coale said.
“I run into someone almost every day who tells me how (A.R.T.) changed their kid’s life,” he added. “Steve Small is a passionate and compassionate man.”
Quincy Dunn-Baker is one A.R.T. graduate whose life has been changed. The 2000 graduate of the Career Center and Middlebury Union High School earned a degree at Small’s alma mater, North Carolina School of the Arts, and has been a working actor in New York City ever since.
“I’m grateful to have found A.R.T. when I did,” Dunn-Baker said. “Working with and knowing Steve Small and Candace changed the course of my life in a major way. I’m proud to have been part of that program.”
Small has enjoyed his long run at A.R.T., and he thanks the community, parents and students for the long, enjoyable ride. He’ll bring with him some fond memories.
“The greatest thing for me is when a student has an ‘a-ha!’ moment, and you get to be there for it,” Small said. “And I’ve had a lot of those, almost daily.”
He compared teaching to “helping (students) navigate through a thicket. You know where the water is where they need to get to. You could lead them all the way to the water, but all they’ll learn to do is follow. But if you can help them navigate through the thicket and step aside just prior to them breaking through and discovering the water, they will remember the journey and how they got there, as opposed to who they followed.”
The career center is currently interviewing for the A.R.T. director’s position. While enrollment is currently rather low (13), Small said interest is picking up for this fall.
“It’s a great program and needs someone with youthful energy,” Small said. “The program will live on.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
Small has prided himself on the fact that A.R.T. graduates who want to further their drama education — or who want to jump right into the industry — have been able to do so. Click here to read about what some of his alumni are up to now.

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