Brent Hallenbeck Burlington Free Press
Published 10:00 PM EST Nov 3, 2019
SOUTH BURLINGTON – Erin Evarts needed to distract herself as she waited at home on a Sunday afternoon in March to find out if she’d be the next executive director of Lyric Theatre.
“I was beyond nervous. I had cleaned my whole house,” she said.
The call finally came from the community-theater company’s board chair at the time, Roz Saunders. She told Evarts she was hired.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, are you kidding?’ and she said, ‘No, this is real life,'” Evarts said. “This is definitely the fulfillment of a huge dream, because I have been involved in Lyric since I was 15.” As she recounted the story in a recent conversation with the Burlington Free Press, Evarts walked across her office floor at Lyric headquarters to a box of tissues and dabbed her teary eyes.
Now 36, the woman who grew up in Burlington and Shelburne is ready to steer Vermont’s largest community-theater company into the future. The immediate future starts with a musical version of “The Addams Family” that opens Nov. 7 at the Flynn Center.
Planning for a longer-term future will happen in and around Evarts’ office at Lyric’s new South Burlington facility, which has finally gathered the 46-year-old company’s rehearsal space and costume and set design under one roof. “The Addams Family” is the first show created at that unified location, a benchmark Evarts compares to the big, rousing number bringing act one of a musical to a close.
“I am thrilled to be stepping in at the beginning of act two,” she said.
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A young Erin Evarts just wanted an audience.
She realized that as a student at Mater Christi School in Burlington. “I loved performing and I loved putting on a show,” she said.
By the time she got to middle school, Evarts realized she wasn’t a great performer. She auditioned for Lyric’s production of “Finian’s Rainbow” and wasn’t cast. (“It broke my heart a little bit,” she said.) A couple of years later she returned to Lyric to volunteer backstage and has been involved with the company ever since.
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By the time she graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School and left to study theater at Emerson College in Boston, Evarts knew her role in theater would be behind the scenes. She imagined being a director or a stage manager.
The Burlington Free Press spoke with her in 2006, when, as a junior on winter break from Emerson, she returned home to stage a musical revue with the theater company she created, Big Red Barn Players.
“It’s a labor of love,” she said then. “It’s what I want to do with my life.”
From Wake Robin to Lyric Theatre
College helped Evarts realize that, beyond directing shows, she really wanted to produce them. That took her partly out of the creative realm of theater, but she saw that her skills came in providing the resources to let performers blossom.
“You get to allow people to do the work they love to the best of their ability” through funding, space to work and the personnel to make a show succeed, Evarts said. “My job is just to give them that leeway.”
Before becoming Lyric’s executive director, Evarts worked for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Wake Robin retirement community in Shelburne, jobs she said taught her the nonprofit managerial skills she needed for her duties at Lyric. She began this spring as Lyric’s executive director, replacing Jose Rincon, who left the top Lyric post after a little more than a year to pursue graduate school.
Evarts’ arrival, coinciding with what she called the first “soup to nuts” production assembled at the new space in South Burlington, heralds a new era for Lyric. “The Addams Family” also represents change for longtime Lyric member Freda Tutt, who for the first time is the lead director on a production, and for Christopher Brown, the assistant director who recently took over for Saunders as Lyric’s board chair.
Tutt, of Essex Junction, said Evarts’ “fresh approach” is the right move now for the company. “It absolutely is a time of change,” Tutt said.
Evarts said she came to the executive-director post armed with plenty of ideas for how Lyric can evolve, but also knows it isn’t all about her. “The board and the volunteer base is going to choose and step into that,” she said. “I’m really excited about those opportunities.”
That doesn’t mean Evarts won’t present her vision — she said she has 100 ideas a day, two are really good and the best one wins — it just means that she’ll listen to suggestions and help decide on a path forward. “That is my job now,” she said. “It’s being the clearinghouse.”
Making Lyric more inclusive
Some of those new ideas Evarts brought include fairly light-lifting such as streamlining Lyric’s logos and branding and updating the theater company’s website. Her longer-term plans involve increasing Lyric’s inclusivity.
Evarts has already started using preferred pronouns in her email signature and other official Lyric notices. She has asked that the wording on audition forms be changed from dance to movement to make people with disabilities feel included. She said Lyric has always been an open, accepting place, but wants to make sure that message is clear.
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She hopes to debunk the perception of Lyric as an exclusive club where a cadre of preferred performers is perpetually cast. Those who aren’t immediately cast in productions can volunteer to help backstage, she said — there are usually four people backstage for every performer in Lyric shows — and learn skills they can apply to theater productions and jobs elsewhere.
Tutt had heard when she started at Lyric that someone coming for an audition wouldn’t be cast unless they knew someone in the company.
“I was a brand-new (Lyric) person when I auditioned in 1998 and that was my very first show and I got in. Lyric has a bad rap for that, but they are very inclusive,” said Tutt, who has been involved in more than 40 Lyric productions. “It’s important to be inclusive. We have a great community that in general is very inclusive, but I think when you’re talking about community theater, it needs to do that.”
Evarts also wants to move Lyric out of the two-big-productions-a-year mindset and spin off into year-round events, which in the near future will include a February performance at the Brick Church Music Series in Williston and a fundraising “prom” in the spring at Higher Ground in South Burlington.
Messages in ‘The Addams Family’
Tutt said “The Addams Family” — to be staged just after the release of a popular “Addams Family” animated film — touches on themes of family, love and acceptance.
“In our current climate,” Tutt said, “we think that all of those things are very important.” The fun, creepy clan at the center of the musical struggles to welcome daughter Wednesday’s “normal” boyfriend.
Evarts, who between 2009 and 2015 directed or produced four Lyric shows, called “The Addams Family” funny and “visually stunning.” She appreciates that the community-theater production lets local residents see the guy who cuts their hair, Don Patrick O’Connell, perform as Gomez Addams, watch their child’s music teacher dance on a table or notice a red skirt sewed by their neighbor.
“That,” Evarts said, “is what makes Lyric special.”
If you go
WHAT: “The Addams Family,” presented by Lyric Theatre
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7-Saturday, Nov. 9; 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9-Sunday, Nov. 10
WHERE: Flynn Center, Burlington
TICKETS: $24-$42. 658-1484, www.lyrictheatrevt.org
Contact Brent Hallenbeck at 660-1844 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.