William Owens said he had never seen a movie — much less a play — when he enrolled in a theater class at a Kansas community college.
A year later, the 20-year-old is living in Beverly and is a budding actor and assistant director with Boston Children’s Theatre. He is serving in both roles for the theater’s production, “Of Mice and Men,” running Saturday and Sunday.
“The thing I find most impressive about William is he’s a survivor,” said Burgess Clark, executive artistic director of Boston Children’s Theatre. “And, if you know anything about theater, you know it’s about struggle and survival.”
Owens said he grew up in Pennsylvania where he and three siblings were raised by their mother in a very restrictive and isolated community he called a “cult.”
He was home schooled, then went to work when he was 12, he said, to help support the family, first on local farms and then in construction. He wanted to go to high school and then college, but that was not part of his family’s culture.
Owens persevered, studying on his own and eventually earning his GED at a testing site in Lancaster, Pa.
A year ago, Owens made his way to Kansas to live with his father, who he said had been divorced from his mother for many years.
Looking for an affordable education nearby, Owens found Independence Community College, where he made the honor roll. The college is home to the William Inge Center for the Arts, named for the Pulitzer Prize- and Academy Award-winning playwright who was a native of Independence.
As it happened, Clark was at the Inge Center from September to December as a guest artist and playwright in residence.
Owens, who has always liked to write, signed up for Clark’s playwriting class. While looking for the classroom, he ran into Peter Ellenstein, the Inge Center’s artistic director.
Ellenstein invited Owens to a theater ensemble class. “He popped in and was shy and just listened to what was being said,” Ellenstein recalled.
The next night, auditions were held for “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and Ellenstein encouraged Owens to attend.
“He did not want to read or have any part in it,” Ellenstein said. “We had to take him kicking and screaming under the ruse we needed someone to fill in for the reading. He did it. And the more he did it, the more he liked it. Then he became gung-ho and wanted to do everything.”
Owens said when he first started acting, “I was so insecure. I had no clue what was going on. But by the time I did the first show, I was totally into it.”
Clark became his mentor and cast him in his adaptations of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and “Reflections of a Rock Lobster” at the Kansas college.
Owens also found a welcoming community in the theater. “People are supportive of one another,” Ellenstein said. “He could be unique and stand out and be an individual. Theater may not have saved his life, but it saved his soul.”
Ellenstein and Clark said that what Owens may lack in acting and life experience, he makes up for with hard work, curiosity, an ability to learn quickly, commitment, and passion.
For instance, Owens had never heard of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” — in which he plays the ranch hand Whit — before reading for the part. He since has become a fan of the classic Depression-era story about a friendship and dreams shared by two men.
“The play is very compelling,” he said. “I love that era.”
Sean Crosley, 23, of Middleton, who had gone to Kansas with Clark to appear in “Reflections of a Rock Lobster,” quickly became friends with Owens.
“He was always smiling,” Crosley said. “He was an open book, which is a testament to his character and wanting to be OK. He lit up around people who gave a damn about him.”
Owens said he was ready to leave Kansas, so when Crosley suggested a move to Massachusetts, he was all for it. He arrived in December, is living with friends in Beverly, and works as an assistant director and stagehand at Boston Children’s Theatre.
“I couldn’t be more lucky,” Owens said. “What has most struck me about Boston, Beverly, and the area in general is the common goal of progression. I have never been anywhere where everybody wants to do something with their life. That’s really what it comes down to for me.”
Owens said he is writing a journal, which may become a book. He is going to take voice lessons, and possibly dance.
He plans to work with the Boston Children’s Theatre summer program at Shore Country Day School in Beverly, and is beginning to look into theater programs at area colleges.
But for now, he said, “I feel like just breaking into American pop culture is a full-time job.”
“Of Mice and Men” at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets, $25. Call 617-933-8600 or visit bostonchildrenstheatre.org.
Wendy Killeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.