By Anna Grace Moore

Photos by Lisa Cheek & Kelsea Schafer 

Rare does such a young individual gain a life’s worth of challenges, yet face each one head-on, with a courageous spirit of positivity. Vestavia Hills High School senior Colton Smith is one of these unique rarities, who inspires every person who is privileged to get to know him.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, Vestavia Hills City Schools announced that Colton, who at the time was a junior, had won the Keynote Emerging Artists of Promise Award (KEAP) from the Southeastern Theatre Conference. Colton was only one of four theatre students nationwide to receive this award.

“I was in utter disbelief when I found out I had received the KEAP Award and was incredibly humbled to be a part of such a vital and immersive experience so early on in my acting journey,” Colton says.

Achieving such a high honor did not come without its challenges, however. Colton says his acting journey is but one facet of his artistic personality, and being an arts student in the Vestavia Hills school system has enabled him to succeed thus far.

Born and raised in Milton, Georgia, Colton first became a student in the Vestavia Hills school district when he moved to Birmingham during his fourth grade year. He then moved back to Atlanta for some time, then to Minneapolis before coming back to Vestavia Hills during his fifth grade year.

Colton says he struggled growing up in a volatile family dynamic and relied on the arts not only as an asylum for emotional refuge, but also because he felt for the first time in his life that he could express himself. Colton first began acting in fifth grade, playing the part of Meriwether Lewis in the play, “Lewis and Clark.”

Colton says he only tried out for fun, but getting casted as a lead allowed him to experience his first taste of being on stage, performing.

“Acting became this great outlet [for me] as a young adolescent,” Colton says. “It was my first exposure to having a craft, having an extracurricular activity that you could really have the control to explore emotional depth and themes safely through the existence of other characters that resonate with issues you could be dealing with in your own life.”

The more he became involved with the arts, the more he forgot about his troubles at home and was even able to excel both academically and artistically in school. He says it was if acting, in particular, saved him.

Talking about his theatre teacher, Jamie Stephenson, Colton says, “She has guided me throughout my entire high school journey so far. She’s done a great job of finding ways to make opportunities happen for me. That’s the biggest thing about winning the Keynote Award is that it demonstrated possibilities for me.”

Colton credits not only Jamie, but also his band instructors, Jerell Horton and Heather Palmer, and his choir teachers, Taylor Stricklin and Noah Burns, for their guidance. Without them, he says, he would not have been able to be as successful as he is today.

“I think this is only the beginning of his journey as an artist,” Jamie says. “He has always had the mindset of an artist, but I think that he is now empowered to live an artistic life whether it is onstage, film or a board room.”

Another reason Colton loves acting is because of how the field disciplines actors to become solution-oriented. During his freshman year, Colton performed in a school production of “Night of the Living Dead.”

During one of the scenes not even halfway through the show, another actor forgot his lines and said the cue line for Colton’s death scene about an hour too early. Colton says he tried to improv and get the other actor back on track, but the actor doubled down, saying the line yet again.

At this point, there was no salvaging the scene, so Colton impromptu-faked his death and ran off stage to assist the tech crew in helping the show go on. The hour and a half-long show turned into a 45-minute play, and even to this day, one of the funniest experiences of Colton’s acting journey, he says.

“Our arts departments do a very good job of coordinating with one another,” Colton says. “I’m really thankful to have excellent teachers who are so understanding.”

Colton’s favorite production he was ever in was “The Comedy of Errors,” which was during his sophomore year. Colton, just having had a growth spurt and now towering over 6 feet tall, ended up playing a woman’s part that was rewritten for a man.

Colton’s character was incredibly flamboyant, and with Colton having such a low register, talking high-pitch and acting feminine came as a fun challenge. This show, Colton says, was also a competition show that Vestavia Hills High School performed at Trumbauer.

Although Colton said this was his hardest character yet, he ended up winning best leading performance at the state competition that year. During his junior year, Colton ended up shredding his labrum and was forced to navigate his high school arts career a little differently. He could no longer march in the band, perform in show choir and acting was difficult, too.

But, if there’s anything about Colton that helps him stand apart from the rest, it’s his innate ability to take any tough situation and spin it into his favor. His positivity exudes from his infectious smile.

Colton was selected to audition for the Southeastern Theatre Competition in Lexington, Kentucky, during the fall of his junior year. Having just started physical therapy from his surgery, Colton could barely move his arm and struggled to get into character.

However, like any good actor, he knew the show must go on. Colton performed a Shakespearean monologue and a recitation from “Greater Tuna” for a panel of nearly 100 representatives, which resulted in Colton getting 42 callbacks and winning the KEAP Award.

Richann Stage, who has taken in Colton like one of her own children, says Colton’s ability to overcome obstacles and just shine is an amazing attribute of his personality–one that people are drawn to.

“Colton is a bonus to our family, and we have enjoyed the positive energy he has brought into our home,” Richann says. “He is quick to know his audience. People are drawn to his charisma, and his reputation precedes him. We could not be more proud of him.”

Looking forward, Colton says he wants to double major in acting and pre-law in college. He says acting will always be a part of his life, and while he would like to pursue a career in the field, he is also interested in becoming an attorney in entertainment law, specifically in fighting against AI voice reproduction.

Colton believes that acting is what gave him his voice, so his career should be focused on being a voice for the voiceless–or better yet, helping other people learn that their life’s obstacles are just a few bumps in the road on one’s journey to achievement.

After all he’s been through, Colton says that art–and the people who he has come to know and love through it–are why he’s kept pushing to overcome. Success, he says, is only sweet if one has his loved ones to celebrate with at the finish line.

To learn more about the Keynote Emerging Artists of Promise Award, visit

Acting Out

Colton is quite talented, but he believes hard work still beats talent when talent gets lazy. To improve on his skills, Colton took every chance he could to be in acting productions throughout his middle school and high school career. Here are a few of his latest performances:

fifth grade – Lewis and Clark

sixth grade – The Sound of Music

seventh grade – Mary Poppins Jr. with Red Mountain Theatre

seventh grade – The Miracle Worker

seventh grade – Annie Jr.

ninth grade – Annie

ninth grade – Night of the Living Dead

ninth grade – James and the Giant Peach

ninth grade – Xanadu

10th grade – The Comedy of Errors

10th grade – A Christmas Carol

10th grade – Anastasia

11th grade – The Little Prince

11th grade – Mamma Mia

12th grade – I Bring You Flowers