By Laura Barlament
Community,” “support,” “nurture,” “family” — theater alumni say words like these again and again when describing what Wagner means to them.
They have shared this spirit with each other and with rapt audiences through 274 shows during the past 50 years, ever since the department was founded with the hiring of Lowell Matson as chair and professor in 1968.
On May 11, about 260 alumni, former and current faculty, and theater supporters came together to celebrate the program at a Golden Jubilee Gala. Graduates from 1975 to 2018 participated in a revue program that connected the generations.
“It’s like looking at my family photo album,” said Charlie Siedenburg ’95. An arts administration major, Siedenburg has worked in public relations for theaters including the Metropolitan Opera and the Paper Mill Playhouse, and he teaches courses at Wagner as an adjunct professor.
The program also included alumni who participated in student theater before there was an academic program — people like Philip Straniere ’69 M’73. A history major, he became a lawyer and a judge, but continues to perform in local theater.
“Theater is great preparation for anything,” Straniere said. He has often used his contacts in the theater world to find legal assistants, because he knows they will be smart. “If there’s a screw-up, they’re not going to panic,” he said. “Theater training helps you react quickly to unusual situations.”
Yet on the night of the gala, returning to the Wagner Main Stage could be an emotional experience, even for seasoned professionals. Randy Graff ’76 H’01 was one — she had not set foot on that stage since she left Wagner in 1976. “It’s very strange. Surreal,” she said.
She remembered attending WCT’s 1969 production of The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd while she was in high school. “I was transported by that production, and I knew I wanted to come here,” she said. She thrived in the close-knit Wagner community, where she had many performance opportunities throughout her four years and easy access to the New York theater scene — “still strong features of the program,” she noted. She went on to a celebrated career, which included originating the role of Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway and winning the 1990 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role in City of Angels.
Graduates from all eras echo Graff’s words about the opportunities and close-knit community. They are also following in the path blazed by her and many others toward successful careers in theater and other fields, ranging from educators to electricians to executives and more.
Theater director Matt Lenz ’86 said, “I had opportunities here that allowed me to explore. I thought I would always be an actor, but I got the chance to direct as a student. That made me feel, ‘Here’s something I can do too.’ It was having done it here that made me think it was possible.”
Jasmine Canziani ’17 is teaching dance and directing children’s theater in Westchester County while auditioning for shows in New York City. “It’s a special community that you don’t feel when you’re out in the world,” she said. “Now we’re all dispersed. It’s a different community, but we’re still very connected.”
Later that night, Canziani demonstrated that connectedness as she joined more than 20 alumni from the past 10 years, plus two faculty, who tap danced to “42nd Street” (choreography by Patrick Heffernan ’11, who was part of a 42nd Street national tour) from the popular musical.
“We create families during our shows,” said Professor Michele Pawk, who co-hosted the revue along with her co-star from Broadway’s Seussical, Janine La Manna ’88. “Both back stage, and with our audiences.”
Fittingly, funds raised through the Golden Jubilee Gala will benefit WCT’s outreach and inclusive programming.
More than 1,200 individuals have graduated from Wagner’s theater and arts administration programs. Three alumni received Presidential Medals honoring their achievements and service to the art of theater.
Education at Roundabout and Jennifer M. Di Bella ’04
Jennifer Di Bella is the director of education for Roundabout Theatre Company, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that is a leading cultural institution of the city and the nation. It reaches more than 30,000 people annually with education programs including student matinees, classroom residencies, and teacher workshops. Di Bella, one of Wagner’s first theatre education majors, has worked with Roundabout since 2005. She’s also a citywide and national leader in arts education, serving with organizations like the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable and the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.
Kathy Brier ’97
Since her Wagner Main Stage days in roles such as Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Rose in Gypsy, Kathy Brier has created groundbreaking characters on stage and screen. Highlights of her career thus far include originating the character Marcie Walsh on ABC’s One Life to Live, for which she received a Daytime Emmy nomination; playing Tracy Turnblad in the Broadway production of Hairspray; and appearing as singer and actress Sophie Tucker in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Brier attained a bachelor’s in both theatre performance and arts administration from Wagner. She is married to fellow theatre alumnus Jason Munt ’01, and they have one child, Donovan, age 6.
Matt Lenz ’86
Matt Lenz was a leading man during his days on Wagner’s Main Stage, but he also received his first taste of directing at Wagner — a route that led him to a busy career in theater directing on Broadway and nationwide. His Broadway credits include assisting Tony Award-winning director Jack O’Brien on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Catch Me If You Can, and Hairspray. His upcoming projects include new musicals Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz and Grumpy Old Men.
Professor Gary Sullivan
Professor Gary Sullivan received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his many contributions to Wagner College Theatre since 1975. Sullivan began, only seven years after the department’s founding, as the technical director and scenic designer. Famously, he managed to get a car on stage for the 1982 production of Grease. He became department chair in 1987, and he initiated WCT’s popular subscription program in 1988. Currently the director of arts administration, Sullivan also served a term as Wagner’s provost.