Interview by Wendy Slaton
HFM had a chance to catch up with Vivienne St. John who is making it her mission to provide a program to introduce the arts to ALL children in our community.
So, tell us a little about yourself…
I was born in Houston and moved to London when I was three years old. My family lived there until I was about nine years old. When we returned to Houston, I went to St. Thomas More Catholic School until 8th grade and then to St. Agnes Academy for High School. I moved to Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, to attend Webster University for Stage Management. I also traveled to the Berkshires in Massachusetts to work at the Berkshire Theatre Festival for two seasons. While I was there, I got to meet and work with some incredible artists such as Eli Wallach, Calista Flockhart, Sandy Duncan, Joanne Woodward to name a few.
I now live in Sugar Land with my husband and our two daughters, Sarah, 14 and Laura, 10. I love to read books especially WWII, historical fiction and biographies. While I didn’t go to Texas A&M (there was no stage management program there), my entire family consists of Aggies, and I bleed maroon! I also love to watch the Astros. My passion is swimming. Both of my girls swim competitively year-round, and I swim daily for exercise.
What do you love about living in the Houston area?
The diversity. The nightlife. I love that the city is always a live. All of the arts opportunities – Houston Ballet, Houston Symphony, Houston Opera as well as all the theater. I also love the restaurants. We have great food in Houston!
Where are your favorite places to frequent?
My favorite museum here is the Holocaust Museum. I can’t wait for it to re-open. During the summer you can find me most weekends at the beach. My Dad was born in Galveston, and it’s something my family did all the time growing up. A good book and a picnic lunch. Favorite restaurants. I am a huge foodie, so I don’t have a favorite, but I love Japaneiros in Sugar Land for sushi; Alexander the Great is great for Mediterranean as is Niko Niko’s; Lupe Tortilla or Seco’s for Mexican; Cali’s and Pho Ben for Vietnamese.
You work with so many families/children through your programs. Do you feel like there is anything unique about the families you serve?
I love that our families feel the value in introducing their children to the arts. I am a sports fanatic, and my kids are, too, but I firmly believe the arts is just as important. It teaches children from a very young age to think, to experience, to feel, to question, to observe. In our program at Main Street Theater, our productions are mostly based on books, so it also teaches children the value of reading. I try to offer a mix of classics and contemporary shows.
Explain what you do as Theater for Youth Producing Director?
I have worked at MST since 1993 when I was hired as the Assistant Stage Manager for a production of JULIUS CAESAR. Back then we used cassette tapes for our sound cues and in order to play them you had to cue them up with a pencil. Times have changed! After that I worked in many different positions – box office, house manager, stage manager, actress, touring coordinator, production manager, Director of Education. In 2000, I left MST for a year to try something else, and Becky(Rebecca Greene Udden, our Artistic Director) called me and asked me to come back as the Theater for Youth Producing Director. I’ve been doing that for the last 18, almost 19 years.
As the TFY Producing Director, I oversee everything that has to do with the program. I select the shows each season, hire the directors and designers, collaborate on the casting, attend production meetings, create the budget and so much more!
Who do you serve? How many annually?
The Theater for Youth program serves around 130,000 students annually through our in-house shows, on tour, and our character visits. These students come from all over the Houston Metropolitan area from public schools, private schools or home-schools.
Tell us about the free/discounted tickets given to underserved children?
Last year we provided approximately 40,000 free or discounted tickets. It is our mission to be accessible to all children no matter what their economic background. If a child wants to see a show, we do everything we can to make that happen.
What is the Accommodations Program?
The Accommodations Program is our way of making Main Street Theater a Theater for ALL Youth. We offer Sensory Friendly performances for those who may need a less stimulating experience. We adjust the stage lighting, keep the house lights up, provide fidget toys and if things get too overwhelming a quiet room with a live feed. We also offer American Sign Language performances, and once or twice a season, ASL Shadow interpreted performances where the interpreters are on the stage, assigned to an actor, and performing that role. We have Audio Descriptive performances where we provide earpieces for the blind or those with low vision, so they can hear an audio describer detail the costumes, scenery and non-verbal action. We have large print playbills available as well, and in the future, I hope to provide captions and braille playbills.
Your co-workers boast on your ability to connect with school, teachers and families.
We reach out to all schools who visit us with a post-show survey, giving them an opportunity to share their experience and also to recommend titles they would like to see in future seasons. I also try to talk with as many teachers and parents as possible and listen to what their wishes are for the program. I get lots of recommendations of children’s and YA books that allow me to gauge where are children are in this day and age and what speaks to them. I have librarians who work with me to provide study guides that support both the show and the book with pre- and post-performance activities that are aligned with the TEKS. Each study guide is not only based on reading or English but also history, math, science, art. We also have a staff who all love children and put them first.
I love that this job has allowed me to meet so many incredible people – whether they are an actor, or designer or a patron. They have all got stories to tell and their stories are what make Main Street Theater special. The productions are not just entertainment: they are doors to other worlds that we explore together. We have tackled war in The Diary of Anne Frank and The Red Badge of Courage; racism in Jackie and Me and The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963; elections and the power of the vote in Duck for President; adoption in The Great Gilly Hopkins; friendship in A Year with Frog and Toad and so many more. Every day I am humbled by the emails and letters we receive from parents, teachers, grandparents, and most of all children telling me how a show affected or changed them. It’s why we keep dreaming!
Main Street Theater provides theater experiences for all ages. Founded in 1975, our Main Stage produces professional, intimate, literary plays for adults; our Theater for Youth produces professional, engaging productions based on children’s literature for families and school groups, both in-house and on tour around Texas; and we offer Education and Outreach programs on-site and at satellite locations around the Greater Houston area for youth aged four through high school. We perform locally in 2 facilities: our Rice Village home on Times. Blvd., and as part of the MATCH (Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston) on Main Street.