All of Buffalo’s a stage
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 22:02
The essence of theater in Buffalo is more than just putting on an amazing show, but instead inspiring young artists to pursue their work in theater. In some circles, there is something about Buffalo that makes it more than just wings, sports and snow. To thousands of people, Buffalo is synonymous with a flourishing theater community.
Buffalo is home to two dozen theaters and various universities. Of those, five offer a theater program to undergraduate students, including Buffalo State College, Niagara University (NU) and UB.
Allison Monaco, 20, a senior theater major at Buffalo State College, transferred from Rochester Institute for Technology (RIT) to pursue her love for theater.
“I took a few theater classes at RIT. I stage managed, acted, directed; I had these kind of crazy, whacky professors,” Monaco said. “They told me if it’s something I loved, it’s something I should pursue – and so I did!”
Monaco faced the fears of pursuing something different and of disappointing her family members who had graduated from RIT before her. She worried she would be letting her mother down by choosing to get a bachelor’s degree in theater instead.
“It was the right decision, but a very tough decision,” Monaco said. “I had my entire desk covered in Post-its with every school that had a theater department, a number for that school and an email address. I made some calls. I did the research.”
During her search, Monaco remembered attending a performance of Dog Sees God at Buffalo State College when she was in high school. Her memory of watching the show helped in her decision of which school to attend.
“I remembered how I felt when I saw that show and I thought, ‘That’s the school I want to go to,’” she said.
Buffalo State offers a theater program that balances work in both technical and performance work. Donn Youngstrom, chair of the school’s Theater Department, happily voiced his pride for his students.
“Some of these kids are the first in their family to go to college,” Youngstrom said. “They’re very truthful and hard-working students – they’re raw and honest.”
About 90 percent of his students are on an acting track in the department, according to Youngstrom. In addition to acting, there is a critical literature track and a design track, as well.
Andy Anselmo, a former singer and voice teacher at Buffalo State, gives a yearly grant in order for the college to produce a musical each year.
The department is co-produced with student-run production company Casting Hall, which receives money from the United Student Government and from within its own foundation. This way, the students have input into what shows are being done each season.
Students at Buff State have the opportunity to perform, write, design and critique several times during the academic year. The college even has a special part of the day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, called Bengal Pause, when no classes are held and students have time to study and eat. During this break, many students find the opportunity to perform short plays or scenes. It can be an opportunity for the students to do what they love to do, regardless of the curriculum.
NU also has its own eclectic theater program.
“We offer a conservative approach to actor training within a liberal arts curriculum,” said Sharon Watkinson, professor and chair in the Department of Theatre & Fine Arts, in a phone interview.
Watkinson has been teaching at Niagara University for over 40 years.
“Every day, our students are in an acting class, diction class, voice class,” she said. “Our students come out with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts [BFA] degree and a bachelor’s degree. It’s a full liberal arts curriculum and intensive training.”
NU theater students are in class approximately 15 hours a week, but they rehearse 21-24 hours a week. Last year, the average freshman in the program took a Theatre 101 class, which includes three hours of acting, three hours of dance movement and three hours of voice or singing class.
This semester, NU will be performing the musical Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Watkinson will fulfill the role of the narrator, at the request of the director, Doug Zschiegner. She will be one of a few professors to participate.
“It’s wonderful to share the students’ life for a period of time,” Watkinson said. “With rehearsals, class, and this and that – you forget their lives. This helps me get back in touch with the students. It’s a very humanizing thing.”
The University at Buffalo’s own theater department is separated by interest. Students have the option of pursuing concentrations in theater performance, theater design and technology, musical theater and dance.
Although there are separations between the sub-departments, there are numerous opportunities for students to take a class in an unfamiliar subject. In fact, students are required to take classes outside of their concentration in order for a broader understanding of the different facets of theater.