by Benjamin Yeager, '09
In many communities, there are bright lights. They are the people who devote their time and effort to making a difference in the lives of their neighbors, and never ask for anything in return. Two of Olean's bright lights happen to volunteer their time working in the bright lights of the theater.
For more than two decades, St. Bonaventure University alumni Nick and Lesley Patrone have been ensuring that Olean and its surrounding communities are continually enriched by the majesty of the stage. They run the Olean Theatre Workshop, an all-volunteer organization located in the old Swedish Lutheran Church at the corner of Sixth and Washington streets in the city. There, children and adults from a variety of backgrounds are given exposure to the theater through classes and performances.
The cornerstone of the Theatre Workshop is its program for children. At any one time, between 60 and 100 children are involved in acting classes and behind the scenes preparation for upcoming shows.
“And it’s not just acting and singing; they learn to speak in front of people, to have self-awareness, to be able to control the situation when they are in a group,” explains Nick Patrone.
The program for adults, however, is just as successful, with a community season of shows. Both programs participate in Shakespeare in the Park, now in its fourth year.
The Theatre Workshop takes up a great deal of the couple’s time, especially considering that they have other activities in their retirement years. Aside from his duties as the executive director of the Theatre Workshop, Nick manages a statewide database for the New York State Department of Education and serves as a Community Schools Coordinator. Lesley is a coordinator for Americorps.
The Patrones are also involved with the STAR program, a summer enrichment program with the Olean City School District that draws around 350 children from across the area for four weeks of activities that cover a wide spectrum of disciplines, including theater, journalism, and science. One of the highlights of the program is a television show put together by the students for the local cable channel in Olean. It is a showcase of projects featuring the city, the kids’ talents, and interviews with community leaders.
The Patrones also host activities during spring break to give their students extra enrichment. Due to the couple’s background as educators, most of the children who participate do well academically; help and encouragement are there, however, should they begin to falter in their studies.
The Theatre Workshop came about following the success of two community productions to raise funds for renovations at the Olean High School. One of those productions was “Annie.”
“About 40 or so kids showed up for the callbacks to play Annie, and they were all on stage at once singing ‘Tomorrow,’” remembers Lesley Patrone, adding that all 40 were invited to be part of the show.
“Many of them had so much fun that they wanted to learn more about the theater, so we started classes and it snowballed from there,” she said.
Parents of the children involved in the productions were so impressed with the success of the fundraisers and the fun that their kids had, they requested that a permanent program be established, and with a lot of help from the community the Olean Theatre Workshop was born.
Even before the community productions, Lesley had been very active in the theater, especially as a student at St. Bonaventure under longtime theater director the late Dr. Stephen Gray-Lewis. In fact, Lesley credits her Bonaventure education with the impetus to start the Theatre Workshop. She and Nick met as Bonaventure students, were married in the University Chapel, and have sent three sons, David ‘93, Dennis ‘96, and Dominick ‘07, through Bona's.
“None of this would have happened if it weren’t for Bonaventure,” says Lesley. “In fact, that’s the thing we took from Bonaventure that it’s always had: a sense of family… It’s small enough (to be a) community, but large enough that you can do what you want. The Francisican spirit never leaves you.”
Many parents participate in the program with their children due to the importance that the Patrones place on family.
Among the parents who have participated in the Theatre Workshop is Beth Harvey of Olean. Her daughter Kaitlin, 16, began working with the Patrones at age 3. Beth credits the Patrones with being like family to her and Kaitlin by coming to every cast party, always encouraging the students, and dropping everything to help with no expectation of a reward.
“I have no idea how many hundreds of kids they have impacted like they have mine,” she said.
Joy and Wayne Silva of Olean have four children involved in the Theatre Workshop. Their eldest daughter, Nicole, 14, has participated for several years. According to Nicole, “They’re really encouraging with us, they always allow us to make mistakes.”
“Every community has its treasures, and these people are certainly the treasure of our community,” added Joy.
The lessons that the Patrones have taught these families, along with many hundreds of others in the Olean area, have proven to have lasting effects. Shortly before taking the stage for “The Odd Couple,” Beth expressed how nervous she was that she would flub a line. Relating the Patrones’ lessons about mistakes, Kaitlin said to her, “Mom, that’s why they don’t give the audience scripts.”
(Honors student Benjamin Yeager, ’09, is captain of St. Bonaventure University’s College Bowl team, and is a member of Model UN, the History Club, the Volunteer Income Tax Association, and the Bonaventure Accounting Association.)