slice of life

Syracuse Stage colors family traditions with 44 seasons of theater

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Each year, Syracuse Stage attracts over 80,000 visitors. Of university buildings, just the Carrier Dome brings in more people yearly.

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hen Suzanne McAuliffe reflects on the role Syracuse Stage played in raising her children, she recalls one holiday season when she and her husband took their two kids to see Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

McAuliffe remembers with a chuckle that when the ghost of Jacob Marley appeared in Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom, her 6-year-old son Will grabbed her hand, pulled her out of the theater and said, “You ruined my life.”

Will went on to play Jean Valjean in a high school production of “Les Miserables.”

McAuliffe, who now sits on the board for Syracuse Stage, has been devoted to the Stage since it opened in 1974, when she and her husband, Kevin, received a pair of season tickets from Kevin’s father for their first wedding anniversary. The couple have held season tickets to the Stage ever since.

“I’ve always been drawn to stories,” McAuliffe said. “Theater is as close to stories as you can get.”

Syracuse Stage was born in 1974 when Arthur Storch was invited to not only chair Syracuse University’s Department of Drama, but also to spearhead the city’s first professional theater company. Prior to his SU career, Storch directed and performed in Broadway shows, and also found time to work on films and TV shows.

“He really shaped the drama department into the kind of program that it is today,” said Joseph Whelan, director of marketing and communications at the Stage. “He set the foundation for that.”

That foundation has also been set for the Stage, which was founded partially as a way to complement SU’s drama department. Now, the Stage is gearing up for its 44th season, which opened Thursday with “Great Expectations.”

As a professional theater company, the Stage brings big, elaborate shows like “Great Expectations” as well as small, first-run shows to central New York. But the Stage is different from many other professional theaters around the United States because of its close, symbiotic relationship with SU’s drama department — a relationship that’s defined the Stage since its beginning with Storch.

“It really is an incredibly vibrant place to be because you have so many people from early career students to seasoned Broadway veterans, here working together, working in the same building, interacting with each other all the time,” said Robert “Bob” Hupp, the Stage’s artistic director.

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Bea Gonzalez, the dean of SU’s University College, was recently appointed as the president of the Board of Trustees. She said the relationship between SU Drama and the Stage is fundamental.

“The success of one contributes to the success of the other,” she said in an email.

During the day and well into the night and wee hours of the morning, students dot the halls of the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex. They laugh and chatter eagerly with friends, fellow castmates and behind-the-scenes crew members.

“You’ll find people in every corner of the building,” said Jill Anderson, the Stage’s managing director.

Drama students take many of their core classes at the Stage. While at the Stage, they have access to every facility the Stage can offer them. Stage staff members also teach classes, and students can work alongside and even shadow the professionals. Some students take work study or more formalized internships at the Stage.

Kyle Bass, associate artistic director at the Stage, is currently working with one of his former students on a more informal, internship-like project. The student is interested in the artistic side of professional theater production, and comes to Bass’s office three times a week to work on various projects that will help her gain experience in the industry.

“It’s really nice when it can be both very formalized and also an informal kind of opportunity that they can take advantage of,” Bass said.

The professional crew at the Stage and SU drama students collaborate each year on the holiday production, which this year will be “Mary Poppins.” Student actors often make up the bulk of supporting ensemble roles, but depending on the parts available and the age and gender specifications for parts, students may score a more central role in production.

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The holiday production is one of the most visible manifestations of the relationship between the Stage and SU’s drama department, a relationship Hupp — the Stage’s artistic director — qualifies as the Stage’s most important and defining characteristic.

But the holiday production itself also reflects a crucial facet of the Stage: family.

One of the Stage’s biggest goals for “Mary Poppins” this winter is to bring as many families out to see the show as possible, making the Stage a part of families’ holiday celebrations. Hupp and Bass, the associate artistic director, typically choose holiday shows that are likely to attract a family audience, but plenty of families make it to the show regardless.

McAuliffe, who brought her children to see “A Christmas Carol” at the Stage in its early years, said shows like “Mary Poppins” expose a whole new generation to real-life storytelling as opposed to on-screen and on-air storytelling.

McAuliffe said she loved seeing her children react and become emotionally invested in the shows. She said watching plays and musicals as a child is an incredibly important experience.

“It strikes you in a place that you’ll always remember,” she said.

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