Little Theatre alumni start their own theater group, Bellissima

Bellissima, a theater group of all Little Theatre alumni, will be performing the show “Meteor Shower,” a Steve Martin production.

Cast members perform a cheers to celebrate their performance in Meteor shower.

Walk into Compass Performing Arts Center on any given Wednesday, and you’ll find Bellissima Productions getting ready for rehearsal. This time, they’re preparing for “Meteor Shower,” a particularly special play. Everyone in cast, crew and directorship are Canisius alumni, having graduated between 2016 and 2019. Sydney Bucholtz, ‘18, is putting her hair in a bun. Maria Ta, ‘16, is shimmying into a dress. Tyler Rahner, ‘17, is not wearing pants. 

The chaos and chatter of the pre-rehearsal is reminiscent of the plot of “Meteor Shower,” which the cast finds hard to explain.

“I would describe it like if a blender could operate without a top,” Jacob Ducoli, ‘17 said, to which everyone agreed. In the show, Bucholtz and Rahner play Corky and Norm respectively, a relatively “normal” couple who are inviting Laura and Gerald (Ta and Ducoli) to their California home to watch a once-in-a-lifetime meteor shower in August 1993. The show jumps between time and space over the course of the evening which grows increasingly flirtatious and absolutely wild. The show was written by Steve Martin, which explains it’s funny dialogue and bizarre scenarios. “Think of the last Steve Martin thing you saw. That’s [the humor of] this show,” Ta said. 

Bellissima Productions was founded by Nicolette Navarro and Matthew Lunghino, who both graduated in 2016. Navarro, a teacher at Kenmore West High School, started the company after she “wasn’t thrilled” by her experiences stage managing in other theater companies around the area. “I missed working with my friends and collaborators on theater,” she said. “And if everyone else could [run a company], why couldn’t I?” Though the cast of the company’s original production, “The Last Five Years,” was exclusively Canisius alumni, Navarro said that of the forty thespians that auditioned for the 2019-2020 season, half were non-Canisius alumni. Meteor Shower is one of the first after “The Last Five Years” to feature a fully-alumni cast and crew. Callie Keavey ‘17 is stage managing and producing, Devon Bradley ‘17 is assistant directing, Jared Westhoven ‘19 designed the lighting, and Emily DiMartino ‘16 serves as marketing director. 

Due to its small size and relative newness to the Buffalo theater scene, Bellissima provides an opportunity for younger people interested in theater to get properly involved. Keavey said it’s difficult to break into the theater scene without a degree in theater or experience, and Canisius offers only a minor which most of those in Bellissima added to their majors. “You can love it as much as you can and you might be the best actor they’ve ever seen, but if you don’t have a degree, a lot of times they won’t give you a chance,” she said. Bellissima’s small size and relative newness to the Buffalo scene offers an “in” for many thespians and crew members. “We’re new, we’re young, so we have this ability to allow all these people that have theater as a passion but maybe didn’t necessarily pursue it as a career,” she said.

The whole production team, cast included, had overlapping experiences in Canisius’ Little Theatre club. Knowing each other in Little Theatre and now in Bellissima means that there’s a comfort level in this group of cast, crew and directors who have been closely knit for five years. The cast can take risks that they may not take in a larger or less familiar company. “It’s a lot easier to try something with the possibility of failing in front of your family,” Keavey said, and many others referred to the group as a family. Rahner originally started as a sound designer, but felt comfortable enough after reconnecting with the group to audition for the show’s lead role. Bucholtz sees a flipside of this comfort because the directors know how she acts, they can push her and the other actors to grow into different roles to expand their skills. 

When asked if there were any downsides, everyone nodded their head and laughed. “We’re good at what we do and we know that when we have to do it, we’ll perform,” Ta said. “But we fool around a lot. Sometimes we veer off track, but the other track is the friendship track, so you can’t hate on it.”

Navarro said that her experience in Little Theatre made her a more well-rounded person. “Not only was I caring about my schoolwork and major and getting my education degree, but I was running Crescendonts and helping run the theater club and directing a show,” she said. “Having [Bellissima] makes me more well-rounded the same way it was at Canisius. It’s nice to have more than just one thing to focus on.”

The connections between theater alumni have proved helpful too. For starters, Bellissima’s first show was made possible by the alumni who Navarro reached out to. Ta landed her current job through an alumni connection, and Keavey reached out to the Little Theatre’s previous advisor Micheal Riccio ‘10 for help designing the set. 

Little Theatre helped Ducoli “from a human being standpoint,” he said, as it taught him how to feel more and recognize others’ emotions more easily. “It teaches you dedication, passion, patience, working with a plethora of different personalities and how to maneuver between each of those and still be collaborative in that,” he said. “It teaches you so much about yourself in an acting role and you can dive into different types of personalities and emotions. Some of that really sticks with you.”

Meteor Shower is presented Feb. 14 and 15 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. at Compass Performing Arts Center on Elmwood Avenue. Tickets are $20 at the door with valid Canisius student ID.

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