Emerson Steady is graduating with the class of 2022, but if you look at his transcript you would think he had been here for more than three years. From theater production, to vice president of ASB, a singer in the SBHS Madrigals choir, editor in chief of The Forge and even a semester in gardening, there is little Steady has left unturned at Santa Barbara High School.
“I really like to say yes,” says Steady with a sheepish smile. Steady says his excitement for things really began showing up when he was in elementary school and he actually got sent to the principal’s office for it quite a bit. “I got in trouble a lot…I think that often in elementary school excitement kind of shows itself in ways that aren’t necessarily helpful to an elementary school teacher…” However, when Steady began to do theater productions, this extra-excited energy was able to be put to good use. “Theater is a place where you are rewarded for being excited and for caring really deeply and for being a perfectionist, which I definitely am.”
When entering high school in 10th grade (Steady came from Santa Barbara Middle School, a junior high that goes through 9th grade) Steady explained that he didn’t go in with the intention to be involved with so many programs. The only thing that Emerson really knew he wanted to participate in was the theater program. “I was particularly excited about entering the theater program because I had heard good things about Otto Layman.” Steady was involved in theater outside of school for his entire childhood as well, and when he entered ninth grade he joined Lights Up! Theater Company. Steady was with them for their first season and performed Big Fish The Musical as the younger version of Edward Blum. “That was a really important experience for me because that was the first time I really got to play a big role like that and have so much control over a big character. I just really felt like the director believed in me and I think that is what gave me the confidence to continue doing theater in high school.” Steady continued, “That was really daunting because it was such a big program and I knew there were a lot of talented people.” Steady later explained, however, that the theater program at the high school soon became a second home to him after he joined. It was a central part of his life. “I was always eating lunch in that theater, during every passing period I walked through just to see who I saw because it was such a close family and I made so many friends so quickly. I didn’t have many friends in middle school so it was an extraordinary thing.”
The close knit theater community brought Steady to other parts on campus as well. Steady explained that a lot of his theater friends were taking choir his sophomore year, so he talked to Mary La Face, the choir teacher, and has been a part of it ever since. Otto Layman, the theater director at the time, was also adviser of The Forge newspaper. Steady happened to have a free class period during the time journalism was given, so again, he joined and a year later became editor in chief. “It was kind of all a really happy accident,” says Emerson.
Within every program Steady threw himself in, he put in 110%, always looking to better SBHS and to start up new exciting projects. “In journalism specifically, I would take on a lot of projects,” Steady laughed, “I just like built The Forge website kind of randomly. I don’t think I actually told anyone. I just kind of decided it would be cool. I was like, “Hey, you guys, I built this website, do we want to use it?’” to the editors at the time. And The Forge has used it since. Steady credits the ability to execute these big projects to his supportive teachers. Steady especially gave a shout out to Joanne Cloutier, The Forge adviser who gave Steady opportunities and support in The Forge to make these projects happen. “I specifically think about when we did the home delivery last year, during the pandemic, we mailed The Forge to every single family and put postage and address labels on 2200 copies of The Forge.” Steady continued, “I think that there were a lot of people thinking, ‘It’s the pandemic,’ we should do the bare minimum for now. But for Mrs. Cloutier and I, it was a matter of ‘what is this opportunity? How can we take the fact that people are living through weird times and give them a way to stay connected to the school and stay connected to each other?”
It was this kind of thinking about community and connection that also inspired Steady to become a part of ASB leadership and involve himself as a leader in the school. “I really wanted to be part of ASB so I could hopefully make SBHS a place that was more inclusive and more fun for people who have a ton of different interests… We have such a diverse student population and it’s hard work to provide opportunities and representation for all of them. ASB is also a place to connect with people who are really different from me and come from different backgrounds and it is an opportunity for all of us to collaborate on how we can make this school work for everyone.”
Steady’s motivation to connect to people and the community also heavily comes from his love of getting to know a person’s narrative and celebrating that story with others. As a journalist, an actor and a singer songwriter, Steady is always digging deep into a story. For example, he says, “In a lot of ways theater is looking at people’s lives. A lot of people view their lives as kind of simple and mundane, but when you pick apart a person and their situation and their obstacles, everyone’s life is really complicated and I really like examining that part of it.” Steady then confirmed that not only is that why he loves journalism and acting but it is also why he loves writing musical theater so much. “There is kind of a stereotype of musicals, you know, big production numbers, flashy lights, all of that, but there are also a lot of musicals that use music as a tool for looking at people. Especially Stephen Sondheim musicals are a huge influence for me because they use music not just for the sake of the music itself, but to serve a purpose of examining people.”
Emerson Steady began writing his own music at the start of COVID. “They were songs about me, not for a musical. But I think that was my leaning anyway because I have done theater my whole life…Even when I wasn’t trying to write a musical, I was realizing that a lot of the stuff I was writing could be in a musical, that’s when I started to connect those things. I was also in a young playwright’s festival, so I wrote a play with them because obviously I love writing and that’s when I really put those two together. I was like, ‘Oh, I love the storytelling part of journalism. So I can combine that with my love for music and my love for writing songs and then have it all directed out of my love for people!”
Emerson Steady is taking all of that love to Northwestern University where he will study theater and continue writing musicals. He says that he could not have done it without the support of his friends and family or teachers. “I feel so lucky that I get to major in theater. That was not something that I ever really thought was possible…but I had theater directors who really believed in me as an artist and made me feel like it was not just something I could do but a part of who I am. The more I thought of it like that the more I realized that it was something that I have to do. I feel like I have this opportunity in front of me to work with really incredible theater artists on this really specific thing that I know I love to do. And I just feel like I can’t pass that up.”
Finally, when asked what advice Steady would give to incoming freshmen he said, “I would say, don’t take anything too personally. Everyone in high school is figuring a million things out that they don’t want to tell you that they are figuring out. It’s really easy to feel like you are the only one figuring things out. And that is not true at all.” He continued, “I also think it’s really important to get involved and honestly, I wish I had been a little more focused. It’s hard because when you start high school you don’t necessarily have a clue what you want to do. But I recommend digging deep wherever you end up. Instead of being a part of a bunch of different programs, it’s better to find a couple that you think are really important and then just figure out how you can contribute in every way you can. Just be there as much as you can. Presence is important. Figure out how to be present in a place where people share your values.”