His job may have changed over the years, but his love and passion for the theater haven’t, as this former stage star has found with his latest project.
For years, Steve Vrtol’s name was synonymous with local theater as one of the brightest stars to shine on the stage at New American Theater (NAT).
He was a fan favorite, thanks to the wide range of characters he portrayed. He played Nicely-Nicely Johnson, the highly spirited yet naïve gambling crook in “Guys and Dolls.” In “The Nerd,” he was Rick Steadman, a so-called geek who lacked manners and compassion. In “Little Shop of Horrors,” he was cast as another nerd, Seymour Krelborn, a florist best described as nice but easily influenced.
“Steve’s very open and very human. He always finds humanity in every character and is able to communicate that to the audience,” says Richard Raether, who was the artistic director at NAT and worked with Vrtol. “He’s always been a team player, a very giving person on and off stage, and that resonates with other actors and the audience.”
In all, Vrtol performed in more than 100 productions at NAT, including “Strider” and “Christmas Carol” before walking away in the mid-1990s. Since then, Vrtol has taken on a less visible – albeit important – role in the community. These days, the Freeport native is using his theater skills to help people with mental health issues.
Vrtol works for Stepping Stones of Rockford as director of Stars of Light, a program that uses dramatic and visual arts to promote recovery, educate the public about mental illness and reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health.
In 1995, Stars of Light started as a traveling theater troupe, a program of Janet Wattles Mental Health Center. It became part of Rosecrance before that organization merged with Janet Wattles in 2011. It became a Stepping Stones program in 2017.
Stars of Light, which is comprised of clients who use the Stepping Stones services, has done nearly 300 shows. They perform at schools, churches, Rotary Clubs – “whoever will have us,” says Vrtol.
There’s more. The Stars of Light program has expanded its reach to include a full-length play, children’s book, art galleries, videos on topics such as recovery, depression screening and suicide prevention, as well as a YouTube channel that features personal stories, tour shows and musical numbers. Over the years, Stars of Light has been recognized with several community and industry awards.
Most of the actors Vrtol directs cope with a number of mental disorders, including bipolar, schizophrenia and anxiety. “Performing for people with mental illness is therapeutic,” he says.
“Many times they find humor in what we do, but not always. But it gives them focus, something to believe in. They are making progress that they might not have made otherwise.”
Vrtol was recruited to direct the theater troupe by founder Mary Lee, a Stepping Stones volunteer and co-producer of Stars of Light, who describes her role as a stage mom who books the shows, secures supplies and handles technical issues.
Lee was working for Janet Wattles when she attended a rehab conference in Minnesota and watched a theater troupe perform a skit about mental health.
“We need that in Rockford,” Lee recalls thinking at the time. She got the green light from her boss, the late Frank Ware. The only condition – she had to come up with money by writing a grant. And she needed a director. So, she called Vrtol, whom she had watched perform countless times at NAT. He’s now been in the director’s chair for 28 years.
“What I have always admired about Steve is his skill as a performer as well as his personality,” Lee says. “He’s a very humble person who’s not looking to make money or gain attention for his work. His kindness works well with people suffering from mental health issues. Not everyone can do that.”
Initially, Vrtol says he had a difficult learning curve working with people suffering from issues such as depression and anxiety. But despite directing people who lacked any real acting experience, Vrtol knew he could teach them the ropes and make an impact in their lives at the same time.
“We all have our issues, but it doesn’t always get to the point where we need to seek help or interfere with our ability to function,” he says. “I always enjoy watching our clients develop their skills.”
Vrtol grew up on the outskirts of Freeport, where his parent’s home butted up to an auto parts junk yard and the city dump.
“It’s where I played spaceship,” he says, laughing.
Vrtol graduated in 1974 from Freeport High School, where he split time after school between performing in school plays and playing offensive line for the school’s football team. Despite being named all-conference his senior season, his football coaches complained about the amount of time he spent in theater. Vrtol toyed with the idea of playing college football but opted to stay close to home instead.
He moved on to Rockford College (now University) where he left just hours short of earning a degree in both English and Theater. “I had a wonderful experience, but I didn’t think at the time I needed the degrees,” he says. After college, Vrtol spent the next couple of years working odd jobs while he searched to find his real passion.
But it was at Rockford College where J.R. ‘Jim’ Sullivan discovered Vrtol performing in the summer production of “Oliver.” Sullivan started NAT in 1972 and stayed until 1994. Sullivan offered Vrtol the chance to become a paid staff actor. “I couldn’t believe I could get paid for doing what I loved,” Vrtol says.
NAT is where he met his wife of 29 years, Linda Abronski. Sullivan has called the couple the “heart” of many of his productions and Vrtol says his wife is the best actress he’s ever worked with. But Vrtol and Abronski both left before the 1995-96 season, citing burnout.
“We would rehearse for a show 5 hours a day, take a break and come back later that night to perform a different show. We only got Mondays off. There was no way I could sustain that pace,” he says. NAT closed its doors for good in 2006 due to financial problems.
Vrtol has no regrets about his time spent in the heyday of local theater. “I was lucky,” he says. “I was in the right place at the right time. I don’t miss the limelight and I really don’t like that much attention. Someone once told me, ‘You are where you are.’ I don’t want to go back to that point, but it created the opportunity to be where I’m at today.”
Now 66, Vrtol is showing signs of slowing down. While he still possesses an infectious laugh and his signature wavy – now graying – hair, Vrtol says it’s become more difficult setting up shows and lugging equipment around town. He also suffers from tinnitus, which is a ringing in the ears that affects his hearing.
Still, he managed to play a lead role earlier this year in Agatha Christie’s “The Man in the Brown Suit,” which was directed by Raether, who is now the producing artistic director at Artists’ Ensemble Theater at Rockford University. Vrtol and Raether also partnered to co-direct Jumping to Delusions, a fundraiser that shined a light on mental health through a mix of vaudeville and sketch comedy.
And Vrtol and Abronski teamed up again to play George and Martha, a couple living out a complicated marriage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “
Those who know the affable Vrtol best say the impact he’s made on the clients at Stepping Stones is his best role yet.
“Steve’s always been interested in what makes people tick,” says Raether. “He didn’t care about the glory of being on stage or what happens after the curtain call. It was about exploring the person he was portraying. That’s what intrigued him, and that’s why he seamlessly transitioned into his role at Stepping Stones. He’s transferred that passion into something different.”
Mary Lee agrees.
“I’ve been a professional social worker for 40 years and I’ve never known someone like Steve who can take someone aside and listen to them, whether it’s about the loss of a loved one or why they didn’t show up for rehearsal,” she says. “The way he can relate to people is amazing.”