Highly Awarded Theater Crew Eyes 35th Season
Posted: Saturday, February 1, 2014 11:02 pm | Updated: 3:52 pm, Sun Feb 2, 2014.
By Kelsey M. Boudin | Olean Times Herald
OLEAN — One click on Olean Community Theatre’s (OCT) website unveils its acclaimed history.
The site boasts nearly 200 times the Theatre Association of New York State (TANYS) has honored OCT’s directors, cast members, musical ensembles, choreographers, and costume and set designers.
And that’s just since 2001. Indeed, OCT Board President Mike Schott says the group is one of the most frequently awarded community theaters in the state.
This accomplished collection of amateur theater enthusiasts, who pride themselves on professionalism, will soon open their 35th season in mid-February.
“I really think to be around for 35 years in the Olean community and be supported by the community to the extent that we are certainly says a lot for the people of our productions and the people of the community,” Mr. Schott said before a recent dance rehearsal at Olean’s Dance Arts. “Without them, obviously — the people and the businesses — we wouldn’t be here.”
The theater group will stage “Funny Girl” — a widely loved Broadway musical credited with launching the career of Barbra Streisand half a century ago — at the Allegany-Limestone High School auditorium Feb. 14, 15 and 16. It’s under the direction of longtime board member Minna Badanes, herself a recipient of numerous TANYS awards for direction and set design.
“It’ll be the perfect date night,” Mrs. Badanes said. “Take your sweetie out to dinner and then bring her to the theater.”
Olean Community Theater has scheduled a spring production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” also directed by Mrs. Badanes. The popular comedic musical will be at Jamestown Community College on dates to be announced.
But Mrs. Badanes cautioned theater-goers, don’t let the name fool you.
“It’s very funny, but we wouldn’t want people coming in with their 5-year-olds thinking this is a show for kids — because it isn’t,” the director said.
And in the fall, OCT’s Kathy Malick will direct the play “Good,” a heavier story of World War II-era Germany with a specific focus on the Holocaust.
“It is kind of a somber piece,” Mrs. Badanes said.
Mrs. Badanes remembers vividly the first meeting in 1979.
A common love of the arts prompted a group of friends to string together a fiscally constrained operation. And Olean Community Theatre was formed.
“We had absolutely no money, but we had a board of directors,” Mrs. Badanes said. “We jumped in feet first with the first season and said, ‘It’s sink or swim.’”
And from there they swam — “unfortunately,” she quipped, noting her service on the OCT board for 34 of its 35 years in various capacities, including stints as president and vice president.
But with the help of a consistent patron base and some friendly area businesses stamping their approval in the form of sponsorships, it didn’t take long for the community theater to begin thriving.
“We’ve just continued to build through the years ... and we’ve actually become one of the most awarded community theaters in the state of New York,” Mr. Schott said. “People love to come to Olean to see our productions because they are at a professional level. They’re amazed at the amount of talent that we have in this community and bring to the stage.”
Mr. Schott said sponsors including Ried’s Food Barn, Allegany Beverage and Redemption Center, Olean Medical Group, Community Bank, Olean Area Federal Credit Union, CUTCO and more have helped keep ticket prices low.
Fast-forward to today and local theater enthusiasts have relished quality entertainment on the cheap, easily finding tickets for between $10 and $12. The combination of ticket sales and donor funds have yielded average annual operating budgets of a shade over $30,000, split up more or less evenly between a standard three shows per season.
“We just look to give the audience the type of show where they’re going to leave saying, ‘Wow, I only spent 10 or 12 dollars for that?’” Mrs. Badanes said. “If you go see professional theater, if you go to New York, you’re going to be lucky if you get away with $250.”
Even in recent memory, a handful of OCT performers have gone on to professional experiences on Broadway and other traveling theater ensembles. Most recently, Broadway took in Portville’s Heidi Giberson — her sister, Laura, as a child also played on Broadway. Additionally, local names like Boris Van Druff, Kevin Leary, and Jessica, Danielle and Alexa Campbell have achieved professional ranks, Mrs. Badanes said.
Pride in professionalism — after the 9-to-5
Laurie Donner was hesitant to jump on board the 2009 production of “Peter Pan.”
A professional ballet dancer for 20 years and an admitted perfectionist, she didn’t want to come across too harshly on the performers — most of whom attend to their theater passions after the 9-to-5 grind.
Five years later, Mrs. Donner has herself garnered Theatre Association of New York State recognition for excellence in choreography.
“I think when you walk into a community theater situation, it’s a banker and it’s a person who works in a different common job that comes to the theater to take part,” Mrs. Donner said roughly 10 minutes before a dance run-through for “Funny Girl” cast members at Dance Arts. “Sometimes the person can sing and is probably a closet singer — beautiful voices. Some train all the time on their voices.”
“It kind of brings together your true community,” she added. “I think that the biggest part of the community theater is the family essence.”
Mrs. Donner has encountered many first-time dancers through her theater choreography endeavors. Their confidence frequently jumps within a few short sessions, she said.
“I think people that come in most commonly will say they can’t move. My job is to make them realize that movement is all kinds of things,” she said. “Maybe they can’t do what a ballerina would do, but they can try some lifts, try some group things they don’t think they can do. Lo and behold, there are lots of surprises — very pleasant surprises.”
Mrs. Badanes said, when the curtain rises, those amateur dancers often bring a pro zeal to the stage.
But there’s more to the professionalism, she said.
The group spares no expense in many productions — particularly musicals — sometimes renting backdrops and select costumes from professional theater companies. A majority of the preparation, however, is done in-house by some of the area’s skilled artisans.
OCT has frequently leaned upon Ken and Charlotte Roberts for local set construction. Monica Kellogg also has earned numerous TANYS recognitions for outstanding costume design. Art and music teachers from surrounding school districts often become set painters and members of the pit band.
“Where did the musicians come from? They’re all professionals; they’re teachers.” Mrs. Badanes said. “Sure, we do have some students — if the conductor feels they have students of the caliber that can handle the material — but the bulk of the musicians are professional musicians.”
Notably, Mrs. Badanes directed Titanic the Musical in 2006, featuring a massive ship that actually sank at the end of the show.
The curtain drops — was it a success?
There’s a certain energy associated with a terrific theatrical performance, Mr. Schott and Mrs. Badanes explained. You can feel it from the audience; you can feel it from the stage.
But nothing’s ever perfect.
From the board’s perspective, financial results — usually just enough to begin work on the next show — are a strong motivator.
“We couldn’t do these productions if we didn’t make enough money to generate the next production,” Mr. Schott said.
From the director’s perspective, following the vision from beginning to end makes for an exciting experience.
“I’m always at the back of the theater during performances, just sitting back there and watching,” Mrs. Badanes said. “I think if what I’m seeing come off the stage is that vision that I initially started with — where I’m like, ‘Gee, I hope I can pull this off’ — and realizing that we did, that for me is what makes the show a success.”
And from the artist’s perspective, the goal is to walk away with a sense of accomplishment.
“Yes, your friends are coming, your family is coming, you’re going to hear all of these comments following the show,” Mrs. Donner said. “But that sense of pride in yourself, I think, is more exciting than all of that.”
(Contact reporter Kelsey M. Boudin at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @KelseyMBoudin)