What’s the future hold for the Irish Classical Theatre?

Jerry Sullivan

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — It was the second week of March, and spirits were soaring at the Irish Classical Theatre, the 30-year-old jewel of the local arts community on Main Street in Buffalo, across from Shea’s. 

A couple of weeks earlier, the company’s annual fundraiser, a mock Irish wake at the Town Ballroom, had been a huge success. Their new play, a black comedy called “The Onion Game,” had opened on March 6 to rave reviews.  

Bryan Delaney, the Dublin-born author of The Onion Game, had been named the ICTC’s playwright in residence at Buffalo’s theater in the round.

“We had a Triple Crown, as the Irish rugby enthusiasts say,” said Vincent O’Neill, the artistic director of Irish Classical and, like Delaney, a native of Dublin. “We shut down the show the next day. Our world was literally turned upside down.”

The first cancellation was March 12. On St. Patrick’s Day, of all days, O’Neill sent out a message to his patrons on the website. Due to the coronavirus, they were shutting down the remaining dates for The Onion Game, which was scheduled to run through March 29. 

The play was finished after five performances. Briefly, O’Neill and his staff held out hope that they might re-open in time for ‘The Cherry Orchard’, April 24-May 17. But as the global pandemic worsened, it became quickly apparent that Anton Chekov’s classic was doomed as well. 

“So we said, ‘OK, at least we’ll get our summer show in’,” O’Neill recalled. ‘Drama At Inish’, a quirky Irish satire set in the 1930s, was scheduled for June 5-29.

“We had to cancel that, too,” O’Neill said. In late March, the ICTC announced that the rest of the season was being canceled due to COVID19. The Irish are dreamers, the message said, but pragmatists as well. The vital thing was that the patrons, half of whom are over 60, be safe.

The message began with a quote from the great playwright Oscar Wilde: “I regard theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

We’ve lost much during this pandemic. Arts and entertainment are secondary at a time when lives are being lost and jobs and businesses put on hold. But for people in the arts community, it’s a profound loss to be denied that essential and immediate need for human sharing.

Of course, perseverance and resiliency are the age-told human story, the essence of theater. Great art springs from the irrepressible creative soul. O’Neill knows all about that.

In 1989, he came to Buffalo with his wife, actress Josephine Hogan, convinced there was a place for a little Irish company in a struggling local theater scene. Family and friends back in Dublin advised again it. They stuck with their dream, despite poverty and disappointment, and built the ICTC  into a local treasure. O’Neill and Hogan became known as the first couple of Buffalo theater. 

Vincent’s older brother, Chris, a noted actor and agent in Ireland (his clients included Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson) was one of the company’s founders, along with Hogan and the late Dr. James Warde, a psychiatrist who was the first Erie County mental health commissioner. 

“The standing joke is that it took a psychiatrist to bring the two O’Neill brothers together,” Vincent said with a laugh.

They were very close, of course. The O’Neill once performed “Waiting for Godot” together in a Buffalo hotel dining room in the mid-1980s. Chris O’Neill died after contracting a mysterious virus in Florida in 1997, leaving behind a wife and daughter.

Hard to believe it’s been 30 years. O’Neill is an acclaimed actor and director, a mime artist and lecturer, and for years a professor in the Department of Theater and Dance. It’s impossible to capture the man’s achievements in a paragraph.

“There are people in life who are so well-known they’re known by one name,” said Chris O’Brien, a personal injury attorney who is vice president of the ICTC’s board of trustees. “Bono. Cher. Pele. In Buffalo theater, there’s Vincent.”

O’Brien and O’Neill have become friends over the years. They share a sad bond, having both lost a brother to a powerful virus. David O’Brien died at 29 after contracting a virus in Bombay while fighting world famine in 1998, one year after Chris O’Neill died. That bond has felt a little tighter these days.

O’Neill, 70, decided a year ago that the current season would be his last as artistic director (he’ll continue to act and direct). He is handing over the duties to Kate LoConti Alcocer, a gifted actress and director who is a full-time theater professor at Niagara County Community College.

LoConti Alcocer, a Tonawanda native, was scheduled to take over as artistic director on July 1. She was a natural for the job. After graduating from UB (where O’Neill taught her as a freshman), she got her MFA at Columbia University, then worked with two of Chicago’s top theaters — Steppenwolf and Goodman — before moving back five years ago to her “artistic home” in Buffalo. 

Over the years, LoConti Alcocer has performed in 14 plays at the ICTC (she’s also appeared at Shakespeare In The Park) Last year, she directed “Hamlet” at ICTC with her husband, Anthony, in the lead role. She and Anthony, who works in education outreach at Planned Parenthood, got married a year and a half ago. They took this year off from acting and directing to devote more time to family, and for Kate to prepare for the transition to artistic director. 

This wasn’t quite the transition she had in mind, preparing to take over after seeing the company lose half a season and about $150,000 in revenue. 

“No,” said LoConti-Alcocer. “Of course, it’s affecting us all so deeply, personally and professionally. Though we didn’t see this coming at all, the really positive thing is that we have such a great infrastructure in place. It’s such a totem of the arts and cultural scene in Western New York and in Buffalo. 

“So having that kind of stalwart foundation in place was such a bonus,” she said. “We also have a fantastic board. They listen and support us and lay out options and talk us through things, in such a loving and supportive way that speaks to our love of our mission. They say if nothing else we should always maintain our mission, our artistic integrity.”

O’Brien called her “absolutely the perfect person” for artistic director, someone who brings a humble Buffalo perspective to the job. 

“She has unique ideas about how to further grow the theater in the future,” O’Brien said. “And I have no doubt that 10 years from now, when people are talking about Buffalo theater and someone mentions the name Kate, everyone will know right away who they’re talking about.”

There’s one benefit to having the season close. O’Neill said it will allow the ICTC to focus fully on next season, their 30th anniversary. It also gave O’Neill and Fortunato Pezzimenti, who is retiring as producing director, time to help LoConti-Alcocer prepare for the ’20-21 season.

O’Neill gushes about LoConti-Alcocer’s acumen for the job. He laughed when he talked about “mentoring” her; this is one woman who won’t need much of it. When the official turnover occurs in July, he said she’ll be “ready to rock.”

He said the six shows have been picked for the anniversary season. Kate suggested one change — reviving The Onion Man, which had just five shows before the crisis intruded.

“It was such an amazing gift to have this year as a mentee to learn from Vincent and Fortunato,” she said. “I felt if I were acting and/or directing on top of that, along with a full-time job at NCCC, I wouldn’t be able to learn everything that I could.”

Oh, she had another new job to occupy her time: Kate become a mother for the first time six months ago at 40. She and Anthony have a baby boy, Santiago.

“It’s life-changing,” she said. “I thought I had a full life. I had been happy with so many wonderful experiences connected with theater over the last decades. But it’s nothing compared with the joy of having a child. We just feel so fortunate.”

With the focus on the 2020-21 season, LoConti-Alcocer’s transition has been accelerated. But she’s accustomed to making decisions as program coordinator of the theater arts program at NCCC. She’s directed. She’s got this, folks.

“But yeah, it’s always good to give Vincent a call and say, ‘What do you think about this?” she said with a laugh. “Absolutely. And he’s been wonderfully supportive.”

Most of the work is done from home now, as we social distance. Actors thrive on connection, but they’re resilient souls. LoConti-Alcocer sees parallels with athletes whose seasons have stopped.

“Up at NCCC, that’s one of our discussion points for our Intro To Theater course, how it’s like sports,” she said. “There’s so many comparisons. One of them is being able to understand rejection and being able to pick yourself back up and dust yourself off and move forward.

“We as artists, theater people and artists in general, are used to that and understand that resiliency is such a huge part of it. There is a lot of glamor to this world, but there’s so much more hard work that we are so used to it. It’s in our DNA.

“As a community, we definitely feel crestfallen. But we’re already talking about ways to get together. We’re creative folk, so we can find ways to get ourselves through. But it’s nothing like actually doing it. We’re just counting down the days now.”

“If we get to Curtain Up (the kickoff to the local theater season in September), my gosh, what a party that will be!”

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