OLEAN, NY – At the Olean Theatre Workshop and at Olean High School, poetry is big this month.
Thursday through Sunday, the theater will be staging “The Spoon River Project," a play adapted by Tom Andolora from Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 book of poetry “Spoon River Anthology.” On Dec. 16, Poetry Out Loud is scheduled to take place at the high school.
The dramatization and the poems tell the various stories of deceased residents of the fictional, early-20th Century American town of Spoon River as they reflect on their lives.
“Spoon River Project” director Lesley Patrone explained that the theater selected the play to support Poetry Out Loud, during which students present two poems and are judged by a panel. Their judgment is moved to the state level and eventually to the national level.
Patrone, who works at Olean High School as the coordinator of the Liberty Partnership Program, also is one of the directors of Poetry Out Loud.
“We decided that this would be something that we could both extend the curriculum and be relevant to what the high school is doing,” Patrone said. “‘The Spoon River Project’ presented itself, and we decided that this would be a good fit.”
Patrone explained that because there are characters in the play whose lives were parallel, the actors have to make sure that they are making them different from each other.
“There are two doctors and women who have similar struggles,” Patrone said. “How do you make them different from each other? That’s been the challenge for them, but they really like that challenge.”
Olean High School senior Peyton Kunselman said he experienced these challenges firsthand. He plays four roles: Elmer Karr, a murderer; Richard Bone, whose job was to inscribe on gravestones whatever families paid for; Zenas Witt, who spent all his short life worrying and had nothing to show for it when he died young, and Clarence Fawcett, disowned by his family after confessing to a crime.
The range of characters has proven to be an interesting obstacle for Kunselman.
“It’s a very different style than what I’m used to so it’s fun,” Kunselman said. “With having four different characters, you have to make sure that all of them are different and that’s really difficult,” Kunselman said.
“When you memorize, you’re like ‘oh, I can do this,’’’ he added. "But then you have to think about it as multiple characters instead of just one character. They all have different personalities, characteristics and ages.”
“The Spoon River Project” is Kunselman’s 15th show, and he said that it is very different from any play he has done in the past. He added that having such a wide variety of talented people to work with has helped to make the experience enjoyable.
Andrew LaBorde, 25, is another cast member who has struggled with taking on four roles: Willard Fluke, who married a prostitute and suffers guilt that their daughter is blind; Daniel M’Cumber, who feels guilty for leaving his wife; Roscoe Purkapile, who ran away from his wife, and Searcy Foote, who gets away with murdering his aunt.
LaBorde, who is doing his second play at the Olean Theatre Workshop, said he has enjoyed trying to differentiate his characters.
“Doing multiple parts within one production just makes it fun,” LaBorde said.
He noted that making sure the characters are different is difficult.
“I need a different tone and attitude for each one and not just being the same person for four different people,” LaBorde said.
Other cast members are Sandra and John Mulryan, Julia Rakus, Maria Welka, Bethany MacNeill, Marianne McCarthy, Stephen Ahl, Mike Kayes, and William Taggerty. Mark Lungershausen will play piano; Kim Whitney will play violin. Paula Swier is the set director; Whitney of the Southern Tier Symphony is the music director.
Patrone said that her favorite part of the rehearsal process has been seeing how much the actors have developed.
“I have loved seeing how the actors are reacting to it and how excited they are about what they’re doing,” Patrone said. “Seeing every character evolving a little bit more at each rehearsal has been really fun.”
Patrone said that she expects the play to be well attended.
When playgoers enter the theater at 702 Washington St., they will see a sketch completed during rehearsals by local artist Peg Bothner and hear recitations by local poet Helen Ruggieri and two winners from last year’s Poetry Out Loud contest.
“Peg and Helen have a lot of people who like to come and see their work,” Patrone said.
The show will be done without an intermission.
“I hope people come to it and enjoy it,” Patrone said. “I’m really glad we picked it. I think it’s challenged everybody, so I think it’s going to be good.”
She added, “Our mission is family and theater. It is also to have arts education for kids.”
Tickets for “The Spoon River Project” are $10 and available online at www.oleanworkshop.org or by calling 716-373-Show (7469). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.