In Middlebury, Vt., Teens Train For Careers In The 'A.R.T.'s A successful Broadway set builder took his theater skills back to New England. At the tiny Addison Repertory Theater, a part of the Hannaford Career Center, he teaches all aspects of professional theater to students — some of whom go on to successful careers in Hollywood and New York.
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In Middlebury, Vt., Teens Train For Careers In The 'A.R.T.'s

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In Middlebury, Vt., Teens Train For Careers In The 'A.R.T.'s

In Middlebury, Vt., Teens Train For Careers In The 'A.R.T.'s

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Throughout the entertainment industry, you can find alumni of a tiny high school program who are building sets in Hollywood, mixing sound on Broadway and performing on TV shows, including "The Office." They're graduates of the Addison Repertory Theater, or A.R.T. The program is a kind of incubator for actors and theater technicians in Middlebury, Vt. Julie Burstein went to see what makes A.R.T. so effective.

JULIE BURSTEIN, BYLINE: When the students at Addison Repertory Theater talk about the program, a common thread quickly emerges.

BOWEN ABBEY: If I had been forced to be into the box that the administration of my sending high school had wanted to put me in, I would not be a successful person. Absolutely, definitely not; no, no.

CAMI SHISHKO: I don't think I would have graduated high school if I hadn't come to A.R.T.

BURSTEIN: A.R.T. program director Steve Small knows how hard it can be to imagine a future when you struggle in high school. Small studied auto mechanics at the Hannaford Career Center - though it was called "the Voc" then, for vocational school. After graduation, he worked on cars and in his family's orchard. He spent time in the Army, and then he headed to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts to pursue his passion for acting. A visiting professor gave Small some advice.

STEVE SMALL: And he says, "you know what, Steve?" He says, "you're going to work your way into this business." And my initial internal response was, I don't want to work my way into the business; I want to be discovered. But he's absolutely right - I've been working my way through this business.

BURSTEIN: Steve Small crafted a successful career. He built sets on Broadway. He welded the chandelier for the movie "Edward Scissorhands." He even acted in a few television shows. After moving back to Vermont, Small started the theater tech program at A.R.T. because he knew his students would be able to get jobs.

MEGHANN PATTEN: You're not always going to be the star on the stage. You're sometimes going to be pinning sets, or hacking into some wood and building a platform or something, or maybe running lights.

BURSTEIN: Meghann Patten has been at A.R.T. since the middle of her sophomore year, when she played Wendy in "Peter Pan." Students at A.R.T. spend two hours a day practicing theater crafts in the morning or acting in the afternoon; and academics are woven into everything. The students analyze the plays they perform, and sometimes compose their biographies in iambic pentameter. ]>


BURSTEIN: As opening night loomed, stage manager Bowen Abbey stayed remarkably calm.

ABBEY: If I was a hot mess right now, then I think that would translate to the rest of the cast. And it's very important that I - you know, try to keep a calm, in-control demeanor.

BURSTEIN: Bowen and five other students piled into a van last February, to drive to New York City with Steve Small. They were heading for "the Unifieds," where performing arts colleges from across the country audition regional high school talent. Small has a ritual to combat nerves. Every year, the night before the auditions, he and his students hike to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, where kids perform their monologues, accompanied by frigid gusts of wind and roaring traffic.


BURSTEIN: The next morning, Small works the hallways, getting kids into auditions without reservations, chatting up administrators, showing his students how to network. All six A.R.T. students received offers of admission to their top-choice colleges.

ABBEY: We're looking to see if I could get a walk-in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is where Cami goes.

BURSTEIN: A.R.T. graduate Cami Shishko just completed her freshman year at Cornish School of the Arts, in Seattle. When she decided to enroll in A.R.T. in high school, her guidance counselor told her she wouldn't get into college if she studied theater.

SHISHKO: He wanted me to take a bunch of A.P. classes and all this. He thought that I was not using my full potential. And I'm really glad I didn't listen to him.

BURSTEIN: Her first year at A.R.T., Cami created the costume for Peter Pan. Small says the costume nearly stopped the show because a thread caught in Peter's flying harness when he was fighting Captain Hook.

STEVE SMALL: He's on a double harness and one released, so all of a sudden instead of doing flip sideways, he starts spinning around by one pickup point. The rigging just went (makes sound) all the way up through the whole thing.

SHISHKO: I felt horrible about it, and Candace was just like, meh, it's a learning experience; it happens, and she fixed it.

BURSTEIN: Candace Burkle was the cofounder of A.R.T., an English teacher whose vibrant, creative spirit infuses the program. "Peter Pan" was her last show. She died in 2011. Students tear up when they talk about her and one, Chenoah Small, wore her teacher's dress to her audition for luck. Chenoah is Steve Small's daughter, and studying with her father in A.R.T. was sometimes complicated. But acting offers a place to turn emotions into art. Chenoah chose to audition with this monologue from "Brighton Beach Memoirs," because it gave her a place for her grief after Candace Burkle died.

CHENOAH SMALL: Then I found this coat in mom's closet and I put my hand in the pocket, and it had been emptied and dry cleaned, and it felt cold; and that's when I knew he was dead.

BURSTEIN: In the fall, Chenoah Small is headed to the theater program at Northern Illinois University, along with Meghann Patten.

PATTEN: It's funny that the first show I did was "Peter Pan," and it's about not wanting to grow up and stay a child forever. I was very young, and I feel like I'm coming out older and wiser, and I'm making the decision to grow up and to be something incredible, I hope.

BURSTEIN: In the black box of A.R.T., young actors and technicians learn to create something out of nothing, to build entire worlds out of wood and fabric and words, to imagine themselves into the future. For NPR News, I'm Julie Burstein.

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