Earlier this month, Jon Owens readied for a job that demanded the utmost concentration.
“I’m very detachable,” he said, laughing as he waved several spiraling limbs of paper duct tubing in the air while practicing his best kraken (“a big scary monster with a solid heart of gold,” Owens said).
But the actor-in-training’s session in the space next to Oberon was serious business, helping him prep for some of the toughest critics there are. Soon, children filled the room for a rehearsal of the American Repertory Theater Institute’s production of “The Pirate Princess,” a high-seas reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Owens and his cast-mates didn’t disappoint, wowing their young audience with swordfights, songs, suspense, and silliness.
Engaging a young crowd isn’t as easy as it looks, said the show’s director, Allegra Libonati.
“A kids’ show is the most physically demanding, the most vocally demanding, the deepest acting you have because maybe you are a tentacle and you have to figure out how to put your best acting work into that,” said Libonati, who has led numerous shows at the institute since landing in Cambridge with Diane Paulus, the A.R.T.’s artistic director, six years ago. “That’s actually what creates the resonance on stage.”
Learning how to connect with your audience, young or old, is key at the graduate-level A.R.T. Institute, whose two-year program launches careers in acting, dramaturgy, and voice training.
The Institute’s program has it roots at Yale University. When Robert Brustein took the helm of the Yale School of Drama in 1966, he quickly established the Yale Repertory Theatre in part to bring students studying the craft into contact with some of the best talent in the business. Brustein, a Harvard professor of English emeritus, founded the A.R.T. in 1980 after leaving New Haven for Cambridge. Eager for the type of synergy between students and professionals he’d seen at Yale, he launched the A.R.T. Institute in 1987.