Setting Sail: An Interview with The Pirate Princess Director Allegra Libonati

DEC 7, 2015

For director Allegra Libonati, the new family musical The Pirate Princess provides an exciting array of challenges, ranging from puppetry to sword fighting on the high seas. These elements are perfectly suited to Libonati, who trained with Tut’Zanni, a physical theater company that focuses on traditional commedia dell’arte mask-work. At the A.R.T., she has directed The Light Princess, Hansel and Greteland The Snow Queen, and is the Resident Director of The Donkey Show at OBERON.


This is your fourth family theater production at A.R.T. What draws you to this kind of theater? 

I love the fantasy and allegorical elements of it. The supernatural is very much at play in a lot of children’s theater and that automatically creates a directorial challenge. Much of the work is also about creating a poetic language for the central conflict of the story, and in many of my productions that language is physical.

Much of your recent work has been creating adaptations of classic tales and, as you said, a lot of the work is physical and poetic. What are your influences and sources of inspiration for these productions? 

I am deeply influenced by U.K.-based company Complicite. Their ensemble-based work is inspiring, as is the depth of their imagery, and imagination, and the way that they unpack a story, which is not entirely dependent on text, but also on the full sonic and visual world. Another influence is Bread and Puppet Theater. I have always found the huge, oversized spectacle of Bread and Puppet to be magical. And Pilobolus, a dance company that creates imagery with just their bodies, is my third major inspiration. The Kuperman brothers, who did our flying choreography for The Light Princess, worked with Pilobolus.

Oversized puppets show up in your work from time to time. There was a gorgeous puppet in The Snow Queen and another large puppet in your production of The Magic Fish. 

Yes, that was the same puppet designer, Michael Kane (A.R.T. Institute class of 2012), who is going to be making the Kraken, our enormous sea monster in The Pirate Princess. He specializes in oversized monsters.

Does puppetry require a different skillset from a director? 

To have something come to life that is not a real person can be an incredible way to experience a character. If you watch puppeteers manipulate a puppet and bring that puppet to life, you really experience what it is to be alive—the breathing, the grounding. It’s a very beautiful, empathetic process.

This is a season of adaptations at A.R.T. and The Pirate Princess is inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. What draws you to that source material? 

What I love about Twelfth Night is the idea that everyone thinks they are one thing and must come face-to-face with the fact that they are another. Everyone is living within clearly defined gender, social and life rules that the world says you must fit into because you look this way or are this gender; but then everyone in our story breaks through those into a different, new life.

As the resident director of The Donkey Show at OBERON you work on a different style of storytelling than in the family shows. However, like The Pirate Princess, music is a central element of The Donkey Show. How would you describe the role of music in your work? 

For me, music cuts deeper than text on an emotional, intuitive level. Music bypasses the thinking brain and hits you on an emotional level, whereas text is primarily received intellectually. Mike Pettry’s underscoring in The Pirate Princess, for instance, is masterful—it makes the show lift off.

This is your third show with the playwright Lila Rose Kaplan and second with composer Mike Pettry. What interests you about working with these two artists again? 

They are so good at writing shows that appeal to adults and children at the same time. Not only in the same show but in the same joke, which is rare in children’s theater. Lila Rose’s text is deep and short. She’s able to say a lot in very few words and she’s always editing it down and distilling the language to its essential parts, which, for a family audience, is critical. Also, Mike’s music is really accessible without being formulaic.

It’s one of the things that I love about good family storytellers, like Pixar. They are telling us that stories can be complex and still touch everyone. 

And they’re usually about major life transitions. Fairy tales are often about getting from one phase to another, and everyone needs help with that, no matter what age you are. I think family theater does a big disservice to audiences when it doesn’t show how profoundly frightening and challenging and heartbreaking that can be, as well as the great joy and love that can come through facing those challenges.

Interview by James Montaño, a first-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. 

Michael Kane, creator of the puppets for the upcoming production of The Pirate Princess, also created puppets for The Snow Queen (pictured here, 2011).

The Pirate Princess brings the creative team behind last year’s The Light Princess (pictured here) back for a swashbuckling, puppet-filled re-telling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

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