July 23, 2008

The Show Goes on: Studio Arena Looks to Its Theatre School Roots in an Effort to Reorganize After Financial Turmoil

By Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 23--Studio Arena Theatre is beginning to show signs of life. Its stage, empty since the lights went down on its co-production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" in February, is finally feeling the patter of new feet. Despite all the troubles of the woebegone institution, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this year, the Studio Arena Theatre School's 81st season is in full swing.

About 50 students, ranging from first-graders to college freshmen, are nearing the end of their monthlong studies in three separate educational workshops. Their efforts will culminate at noon Friday in a showcase performance on the Studio Arena stage.

Kathleen Gaffney, the theater's CEO and artistic director, is leading the school's summer programs. She teaches the oldest age range (about 14 to 18) with the assistance of local dancer and choreographer Andrew Delo, while Iain Campbell, the theater's managing director, teaches children in elementary and junior high school. Local actor Kelly Beuth teaches the youngest group of children, from first through fourth grades.

Gaffney's group of 13 students (11 girls and two boys) are hard at work on a 45-minute adaptation of Shirley Lauro's play "A Piece of My Heart," a group of stories from women who served as nurses in Vietnam. The piece, a favorite of high schools and theater programs, includes several musical numbers, plenty of dancing and substantial degrees of challenging acting and physical exertion.

Gaffney sees the theater school, one of Buffalo's oldest consistently running educational institutions, as the center of a reinvented Studio Arena, one that places education at the center and lets its productions exploit and flow out of it. The school was around for some 30 years before a genuine theater company grew out of it, and in Gaffney's mind, a return to that model, bolstered by a potential collaboration with Buffalo State College, would move the theater back to relevance and solvency.

"We need to become what is needed again," Gaffney said. "As we are going through this big process of Chapter 11, I knew that to bring [the theater] back to its core was the most essential thing, that if we did that, it had a chance to spring back to life again."

At a rehearsal on Monday for "A Piece of My Heart," it was clear that Gaffney's influence was rubbing off on the students. Their performances, some polished and some a bit reticent, were the result of three intense weeks of theater exercises.

Audre Bunis, a Studio Arena board member and longtime local arts supporter, watched the performance from a seat in the theater's second tier. Bunis attended the theater school in the '40s and studied with the school's cofounder, Jane Keeler.

"I spent a lot of time onstage with Ms. Keeler, sitting like Kathleen does," Bunis said. "Except Ms. Keeler always had a frown on her face."

Stephanie Dale, who plays a hippie-turned- combat nurse in "A Piece of My Heart," praised Gaffney for her extensive theater background, the professional way she treats students and what she called "brutal honesty." Dale, a recent graduate of the Buffalo Academy of Performing Arts who is attending the school for the first time this year, said Gaffney taught her the focus required to act in a space like Studio Arena.

"When you're on such a small stage . . . your face can be read by the audience," Dale said. "Not only your facial expressions, but your thoughts, your inner thoughts. If you're an actor who does not commit entirely to the action or to the emotion, if you're thinking about what you're going to have for dinner or your wife, it's going to completely read onstage."

For Luke Allgaier, a junior at Clarence High School, this summer's school marks his first foray into theater. As one of only two boys in the group, Allgaier plays a number of roles in the production and gets to use plenty of the physical techniques he learned in the school's first few weeks.

"I actually do a back roll over a table and get shot with a gun," Allgaier said.

Asked about the immediate future of the theater, Gaffney was hopeful as usual. She said she has established an artistic advisory board that includes University at Buffalo professor and actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, Buffalo State theater department chair Drew Kahn, and Gaffney's former classmate, the television writer and producer Tom Fontana.

"We raised enough money to do a series of [staged] readings and a benefit, and when we raised enough money from the benefit, we'll be producing again," Gaffney said. The benefit, still in the planning stages, is tentatively slated for October. Gaffney said she does not expect to mount a full production this calendar year, but hopes to start the reading series and put on "one or two" full-scale productions before the end of the 2008-09 season.

As for the continuation of the storied theater school, the excitement in Gaffney's voice is palpable.

"They're bringing me back to life," Gaffney said of the students. "They're healing my broken heart. Because when you take away everything, there's just the work. And the work is why I got into this."

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