Throughout the entertainment industry, alumni of a tiny, vocational high school program are at work: building sets in Hollywood, mixing sound on Broadway, performing on TV shows like The Office. They're graduates of the Addison Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), an incubator for actors and theater technicians at the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury, Vt.
When the students at A.R.T. talk about the program, a common thread quickly emerges. "If I had been forced to be in the box that the administration of my [previous] high school had wanted to put me in, I would not be a successful person," says A.R.T. student Bowen Abbey.
"I don't think I would have graduated high school if I hadn't come to A.R.T.," says Cami Shishko, who recently completed her freshman year at the Cornish College of the Arts.
A.R.T. Program Director Steve Small knows how hard it can be to imagine a future when you're struggling in high school. Small studied auto mechanics at the Hannaford Career Center then called "the Voc," for vocational school. After graduation, he worked on cars and in his family's orchard. He spent time in the Army before heading to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, to pursue his passion for acting.
While there, a visiting professor gave Small some advice. "He said, 'You know what, Steve? You're going to work your way into this business.' And my initial, internal response was, I don't wanna work my way into the business; I want to be discovered. But he's absolutely right I've been working my way through this business."
That didn't always mean being in the spotlight, however. Small crafted a successful career building sets on Broadway, welding the chandelier for the movie Edward Scissorhands, and even landing acting roles in a few TV shows. Then he moved back to Vermont, and started the theater tech program at the center where he once learned auto mechanics. He knew his students would be able to get jobs.
"You're not always gonna be the star on the stage. You're sometimes gonna be pinning sets, or hacking into some wood and building a platform or something, or maybe running lights," says Meghann Patten, who has been at A.R.T. since the middle of her sophomore year, when she played Wendy in Peter Pan. She completed the program last week as a member of the Class of 2013.
Students at A.R.T. spend two hours a day practicing theater crafts in the morning or acting in the afternoon; academics are woven into everything. They analyze the plays they perform, and sometimes compose their biographies in iambic pentameter.
A few days before their final show this spring, in A.R.T.'s black box theater near the welding lab, students were still painting sets and flubbing their lines. As opening night loomed, stage manager Bowen Abbey stayed remarkably calm. "If I was a hot mess right now, then I feel like that would translate to the rest of the cast," he says. "And it's very important that I, you know, try to keep a calm, in-control demeanor."
Last February, Abbey and five other students piled into a van to drive to New York City with Small for the National Unified Auditions. At "The Unifieds," performing arts colleges from across the country audition regional high school talent.
Small has a ritual to combat nerves. Every year, the night before the auditions, he and his students hike on the pedestrian path to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. There, kids perform their monologues usually, accompanied by frigid gusts of wind and roaring traffic.
During "The Unifieds," Small works the hallways. He gets kids into auditions without reservations, chats up administrators, and shows his students how to network. All six A.R.T. students received offers of admission to their top-choice colleges.
When Cami Shishko decided to enroll in A.R.T. in high school, her guidance counselor told her she wouldn't get into college if she studied theater. "He wanted me to take a bunch of A.P. [advanced placement] classes ... he thought that I was not using my full potential," she says. "I'm really glad I didn't listen to him."
During her first year at A.R.T., she created the costume for Peter Pan. Small says the costume nearly stopped the show because a thread caught in Peter's flying harness when he was fighting Capt. Hook.
"He's on a double harness and one released, so all of a sudden instead of doin' [a] flip sideways, he starts spinning around by one pickup point. The rigging just went all the way up through the whole thing," Small recalls.
Shishko felt terrible but was comforted by Candace Burkle, the co-founder of A.R.T. "Candace was just like, 'Meh, it's a learning experience; it happens,' and she fixed it,' " Shishko says.
Burkle was an English teacher whose vibrant, creative spirit continues to infuse the program. She died in 2011; Peter Pan was her last show. Students tear up when they talk about her and one, Chenoah Small, wore her teacher's dress to her Unified audition for good luck.
Chenoah is Steve Small's daughter. Studying with her father in A.R.T. was sometimes complicated, she says, but acting offers her a place where she can turn emotions into art. She chose an audition piece that gave her a place for her grief after Burkle died: a monologue from Brighton Beach Memoirs in which a character remembers how her father used to give her treats from his pockets. It ends, "Then I found his coat in Mom's closet ... I put my hand in the pocket, and it had been emptied and dry cleaned, and it felt cold; and that's when I knew he was dead."
This fall, A.R.T. graduate Bowen Abbey will attend the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Chenoah Small is headed to the theater program at Northern Illinois University, along with Meghann Patten. "It's funny that the first show I did was Peter Pan, and it's about not wanting to grow up and stay a child forever," Patten says. "I was very young, and I feel like I'm coming out older and wiser, and I'm making the decision to grow up and to be something incredible, I hope."
Julie Burstein is the author of Spark: How Creativity Works, and the host of the podcast pursuitofspark.com.