My parents met in the Green Room at Hobart-William Smith. She was a WASP from Buffalo, he was a second-generation Irish immigrant and Korean War vet from Massachusetts. They both loved the theatre, and they both loved to drink. It was not a match made in heaven, nor was it destined to endure.
The Green Room, for the uninitiated, is where actors hang out before and after a performance, and during the show when they are not on stage. My father, jovial and out-going, was a wanna-be actor; my mother, literary and bossy, did makeup and other behind-the-scenes sorts of things.
Flash forward a few years. Bill and Nonny now live in an upper on Woodward Avenue and have two small children. Apparently still attempting to have a life while raising a family, my father continued to act. He was cast as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Studio Arena Theatre in the mid-1950s, when the theater was still located on the corner of Lafayette and Hoyt. He wasn't just perfect for the part, he was Willy.
I have very few childhood memories, but this one is as clear as a bell six decades later. I was sitting quietly, watching a rehearsal, when I heard a line misspoken. Instead of saying you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, it had come out as you can catch more flies with vinegar than with honey. My three-year-old self piped up unbidden, setting the actor (it might have been my father) straight. I remember feeling quite smug and proud of myself for catching an error even the adults had missed. There were many smiles and 'atta girls, and it was at that moment that I decided to become an actress.
Founded in 1927 by Jane Keeler, the famous Studio Theatre School was in full swing in the 1950s, and it continued to prepare young thespians for the stage for decades to come. Walking out of that rehearsal, I begged my father to send me to school to learn to act, like him. All smiles, he promised to enroll me as soon as I learned how to read. There's the small matter of learning your lines from a script, he explained.
Gauntlet thrown. Mary Grazen and Bridget Downey, my two best friends, were two years older than me and were thus (enviably) already in school. They spent many hours patiently teaching me how to read that summer on a front porch on the corner of Parkside and Robie, right across from Delaware Park. I entered kindergarten at Campus School at the age of four that fall, already a voracious reader.
I proudly showed off my new skill to my father, fully expecting to start classes at Studio Theatre School that fall, as well. I seem to remember something about an age requirement; perhaps you really did have to be five to attend. But by then I had a new baby sister and my little brother had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. The blame game began, the marriage hit rocks from which it never recovered, and all hell broke loose. Instead of learning to act, I played a role every day, pretending everything was going to be OK. It wasn't, and I never did get to attend the Studio Theatre School.
A decade later, however, I found myself back on the corner of Lafayette and Hoyt. The Studio Arena Theatre had moved to the former Town Casino on Main Street, and the building had been taken over by Rod and Larry Griffis to house the Courtyard Theater. Tagging along with my friends from Mount St. Joes, Mary Kay Dauria and Jodi Civello, I was back in the theater! We sold tickets, ushered, helped with sets, but I don't remember even trying out for a part. I was already working as a page at the East Delevan Branch Library, and there was my brother in a wheelchair to care for. I think the logistics of life, hitchhiking up and down Delevan Avenue, made the stage appear utterly unreachable. Or maybe I was just scared.
Although I still consider myself a frustrated thespian, I have been in only one stage production, and what a heady experience that was. My children were part of the Peanut Butter Players, a children's theatre troupe in Boulder, Colorado. It must have been 1991 or 1992. They were cast as children in The Music Man, and the director asked parents to play, well, parents. Understand, I cannot carry a tune, I cannot sing a note. So with the understanding that I would lip-synch, I agreed. In costume, in character, on stage...it was awesome! And I have not been on stage since.
When I first returned to Buffalo just over a decade ago, I intended to explore theatre opportunities. Where better? I discovered nearly two dozen professional theatre companies -- and Studio Arena was still operating! I looked up auditions, wrote some down, thought about it, and then - as is my wont - very quickly got way too busy. There was Canisius College Press to save, Buffalo Heritage Press to launch, Buffalo Old Home Week to revive, Citybration to create, BuffaloVibe to curate. This is a pattern, and not one of which I am proud. I seem to seek to be overwhelmed. Or maybe I've just never learned to say no.
So my theatrical yearnings continue to be fed from a seat in the audience. And I celebrate theatre in every way I can.
Like at Curtain Up!, the official start of the 2017-2018 theatre season. Grab a bite to eat under the Tent or at Expo, catch any of the eleven shows that open this Friday (I'll be at Irish Classical), and then party down on the 600 block of Main Street. If you've never been, you've got to go. Multiple bands, mimes, magicians, dancing in the street and a ton of fun.
I will also celebrate a quarter of a century of Theater Talk on WBFO. Theater critic and historian Anthony Chase, who for many years co-hosted the show with Buffalo Broadcast Hall of Famer (and my very dear friend and Buffalo Heritage Press author) Jim Santella, will be honored at the 25th Anniversary of Theater Talk on Monday, November 6. It is a listening-must for me every Friday morning on WBFO. The fact that we have a radio program dedicated to theatre in Buffalo and have had one for 25 years underlines the deep and abiding place that theatre occupies in Buffalo's creative fabric.
And in the fabric of my life. Just not on stage. Yet.