ART’s new leading man takes the stage, filling role left by Steve Small
MIDDLEBURY — Eric Reid-St John. A name befitting a member of the aristocracy, one would think.
Not in this case.
Reid-St John’s accent is neutral Mid-American, but he’s a “Southern boy” by pedigree, having been born in Virginia and spent most of his life in North Carolina and Alabama.
He’s made his way across the Mason-Dixon line to take over as the new director of the Addison Repertory Theater (ART), based in the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center. He succeeds Steve Small, who co-founded ART and departed the program this past spring to find work as an actor.
Reid-St John, 48, has been involved in the theater since he was a 16-year-old high school student in Alabama. A self-described “quiet” kid who always sat in the back of the classroom, Reid-St John’s extra-curricular life before theater was built around an imposing tuba that enveloped his slight, skinny frame as a member of his high school band.
A band mate advised Reid-St John to join him in theater class as a convenient way to pick up some course credits. He took his buddy’s advice, but found theater to be far more than a change-of-pace elective.
Sandra Taylor, the woman who taught the course, instilled in Reid-St John a lifelong appreciation of the stage.
“She had this exceptionally deep voice with that Southern accent,” Reid-St John recalled. “She was a force of nature.”
So Reid-St John found himself putting his all into the theater course, and it paid off. A nearby college was looking for high school students to fill out the cast for one of its plays, and Reid-St John landed a role that gave him three lines.
While he didn’t spend much time in the spotlight, his contribution was noted by Taylor and the play director.
“They said, ‘You need to keep at this,’” Reid-St John recalled.
And he did.
He studied theater at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, then co-formed a troupe of young actors that offered performances of children’s plays in the area. They soon realized their fledgling “Alabama Children’s Theater” group couldn’t compete with the much larger Birmingham Children’s Theater, so the troupe disbanded and Reid-St John moved on to odd jobs to pay the bills.
He would break into teaching in 1999, first as an English educator in France for one year, then doing the same thing in Japan until 2004. Along the way he earned a master’s degree in education, setting himself up for a return to his first love. He began teaching theater to Alabama teens in 2004 — first at Chelsea High School just south of Birmingham and then, most recently, at Spain Park High School in Hoover.
Reid-St John’s stewardship of the Spain Park High School theater program would give him a solid foundation for his eventual transition to the ART. His students put on four shows each year and, as with ART, were schooled in the technical aspects of theater as well as the finer points of acting.
He established a group called “S’Park Theater” for Spain Park youths wanting additional opportunities to shine on stage. S’Park was inspired by the Brattleboro-based New England Youth Theater, Reid-St John explained.
“It was youth-directed theater,” he said. “We took shows to fringe festivals. It allowed us to do a little more than would have been allowed in school.”
Participants earned nice acclaim and wide exposure for their work. They took one show to the Atlanta Fringe Festival and another to a performing arts festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said.
Reid-St John is a devotee of “devised theater,” through which students create their own original scripts based on source material. For example, his students created their own play, set during World War I, titled “Pals.” It was about the experiences, trials and tribulations of British army regiment from the town of Leeds, England. It was inspired by a collection of letters between a young soldier and his fiancée back home, Reid-St John explained.
“Pals” won an award in the 2016 Atlanta Fringe Festival.
“It was a wonderful experience,” he said.
Last year, S’Park actors put on an original play about suffragettes in England. Reid-St John won a grant to travel to England to do research that he brought back for the students to craft into their original play.
“It’s an interesting way to use theater to explore history,” he said.
“It has been the most artistically satisfying work that I’ve done,” Reid-St John said.
It was in March that Reid-St John learned of the ART job opening. He saw it as an opportunity to take the reins of a creative program and move to Vermont, from whence his wife Su hails.
“We’ve been together since 2001 and we’ve wanted to move up here for a long time, but the situation never really presented itself,” Reid-St John said.
Until now. He threw his hat in the ring and was thrilled to get the job.
Career Center Superintendent Dana Peterson said Reid-St John was a great fit for the ART job.
“First and foremost, Eric is a student-centered educator who knows how to empower students and guide them towards autonomous learning and practice,” Peterson said. “Secondly, Eric has a proven track record of professional accomplishments from his previous school. And third, Eric knows how to promote a high-performing program and make connections in the community. In the course of my observations of his work with students, he has demonstrated a strong ability to turn over the learning to his students and help them take a leadership role in their own growth and performance.”
Reid-St John has only been on the job for around three months, but he’s a quick study. And he’ll have a much easier time memorizing the names of his 17 ART protégés than the more than 80 students who were part of his theater program at Spain Park High School.
“I would like to grow that number,” he said of the ART group.
Reid-St John wants to add enrollees from among the many students who take part in very popular seasonal plays staged at all three of the Addison County high schools.
“Our students are the best recruiting tool we have,” Reid-St John said.
He noted those who study theater find the skills useful, even if they don’t choose to pursue careers on the stage, in films, or as a techie in those fields.
Some of Reid-St John’s past students have parlayed their theater studies into jobs as lawyers and electrical engineers.
“(Students) are able to be challenged and succeed because they know how to approach problem solving,” he explained. “It’s more about the devotion to a work ethic, and learning how to learn.”
That said, Reid-St John said most of his ART students this semester seem committed to theater-related vocations.
“It’s a very self selecting group of students,” he said. “The seniors this year will all have theater in some form or fashion in their lives.
He wants his ART students to immerse themselves in the same “devised theater” creative process, which he said encourages young people to take ownership of their learning.
“These kids are fantastic — nice, funny, hard working and very talented,” Reid-St John said.
Area residents will be able to see those talented students in action next week in three performances of the play, “Almost, Maine.” Created by John Cariani, “Almost, Maine” is made up of eight vignettes in which characters explore — comedically and touchingly — the hazards often encountered in the pursuit of love.
“Almost, Maine” will open on Thursday, Dec. 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the career center. It will be staged at the same time and location on Friday, Sept. 14, and Saturday, Sept. 15. Tickets cost $10 for adults and $8 for students. Call 382-1036 to book your seats.
Maine and Vermont are known for their cold spells. Reid-St John saw more snow last month in Addison County than most Alabamans see in a lifetime.
And he likes it.
“I want more of it,” he said with a smile. “I’m sick of the summer heat in Alabama, so I’ll contend with the cold.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]