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STARRING BROTHER AUGUSTINE 25 YEARS OF MAGIC WITH NIAGARA UNIVERSITY'S MAN OF THE THEATER

HIS STUDENTS call him "Bro" or "Daddy Bro."
Officially, he is Brother Augustine Towey, C.M., a Vincentian brother and director of Niagara University's theater studies program.

To a casting director, he's the ideal medieval monk -- portly, hair fringed around a bald top.

To an audience, he is a delight. And why not? Brother Augustine's more than 100 productions have pleased theatergoers for 25 years. For several years he has taken his show on the road to perform on the Artpark stage, where he was an original member of the board of directors.

"You don't feel like a stranger when Bro is around," said Diane DiBernardo, a senior who has worked with him for 3 1/2 years.

Smoking a Marlboro, he often hangs out at the back of Clet Hall, which houses the theater, hugging old friends, talking with new ones.

When Brother Augustine reflects on the quarter-century here, he grins. "I just don't feel the time. I don't feel that much older -- that may be a grave mistake. It's almost difficult to comment. The 25 years is like a wave that just keeps rolling with all the peaks. . . . I hope I've learned a few things. I hope I've helped a few people."

Asked the most significant change from the early days, Brother Augustine comes up with only one: Twenty-five years ago, he drank Scotch and ate pizza. Now, it's clams with Grand Marnier.

"The most I can say is that I'm enormously lucky. I'd be lucky even without the wonder of a religious vocation. I've been doing for 25 years what I love most and also have been able to act and write."

When friends, colleagues and students are asked about the man, they respond so warmly it's almost as if he should be renamed St. Augustine, though he'd cringe at the suggestion.

Typical comments: "I think he's an extraordinary person -- mainly because he has an extraordinary effect on people," said Tim Ward, associate director of Niagara's theater studies program. "It's a kind of grace that brings out grace in others. If I could figure out what it was, I'd bottle it and make a fortune."

Says Joyce Coppola of Williamsville, a retired dancing teacher who played Carlotta Campion in "Follies" this season: "The thing that impressed me the most was that when Brother Augustine had anything to say, he would walk over to you and in a very gentlemanly way he would discuss what he wanted. Yet in his own quiet way, he had full control."

If there's a weakness, friends tentatively say, it's the demands he lays on himself and on them.

"He perceives of us as being indefatigable," said Sharon Watkinson, who played Anne in "The Diary of Anne Frank" as a student in 1965 -- the first year of Brother Augustine's Niagara productions. She is now associate theater director. "Sometimes by the end of a given year, we're all a bit exhausted."

Miss DiBernardo, who was Blanche in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," agrees. "He really drives us. That's the only way you grow, but it's had its drawbacks. At times you feel you've missed out on something, because the theater absorbs you."

On a lovely spring evening, Brother Augustine sat on the front steps of Clet Hall, greeting his actors as they arrived for rehearsal: "Hi hon"; "How ya doin', darlin' "; "How was your test?"

A native of Hempstead, Brother Augustine received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from St. John's University. In 1973 he received a doctorate degree in theater from New York University. He was 24, teaching full time and in the middle of his Ph.D. work, when he decided to enter religious life, sensing that there was something more important than theater in his life.

He reminisced about his first days at Niagara; it was an era when members of the religious usually were assigned to a place for six years.

When he arrived, he remembers thinking: "Thank God only six years in this Godforsaken place. I thought I was being sent to the provinces. By the following year I was saying, 'Oh, God, I'll have to leave here in only five more years.' " He was thriving in the Niagara atmosphere, which allows for the quiet he needs for his poetry and writing and the energy he gets from working with students.

At that time, the "theater" -- a stage at the end of a gymnasium -- smelled of sweat socks rather than greasepaint. At one end were students eager to study theater; at the other were players shooting hoops.

Today, students perform in an intimate, newly refurbished theater and their audience has come to expect fine performances. Niagara has produced "Death of a Salesman"; "Waiting for Godot"; "Macbeth"; "Cabaret"; "Endgame"; "Man of La Mancha"; "Sweeney Todd"; and "I and Albert," which Brother Augustine says was "like doing Genesis in three days."

Mildred Paella, the theater music director, considers Niagara's theater program, under Brother Augustine, the best in the country. "Students don't get this kind of training anywhere else," she said. "I know the State University of Iowa and Cornell have better facilities, but the program here is wonderful."

Lynn Kurdziel Formato, who directed "Hair" at the University at Buffalo this season, calls Brother Augustine's work "extremely meticulous."

"His students have a real good work ethic," she said. "Everybody contributes. Students don't just stand on the stage and become a star."

Graduates include Dawn Marie Church, who had a lead role in "Starlight Express" on Broadway; Dale Sandish, who will be in "Peter Pan" in the Soviet Union; and Bob Leary, who is in the movie "Stella" with Bette Midler.

Niagara Gazette theater reviewer Ted Hadley, who has watched NU productions for about 15 years, calls Brother Augustine "a very quiet man of God" who has an uncanny sense of theater, casting, and a nearly unerring eye for talent.

"I'm sure he has an ego like most theater people do, but he's never let it interfere with relations with students or audiences. I've never seen his ego get in the way of his productions."

"It's really bodacious for him to mount the productions he does," said a person affiliated with area theater, "but he doesn't back away because he's there to give students a chance."

Brother Augustine is generally pleased with the fare he has offered local audiences, though he admits that there have been some "Augie Awfuls," as they've dubbed the not-so-glorious productions.

Critic Hadley said the flaws in Brother Augustine's professional work are in directing his own plays, "The Common Room," which centers on the life of priests and brothers in a Catholic university; and "Vincent in Heaven," about St. Vincent de Paul, founder of the Vincentians.

"Those two are so personal that he didn't know where to cut or how to cut," Hadley said.

As Brother Augustine looks ahead, he simply wants more of what he's already relished. A chance to direct, to experiment with the French cooking he robustly enjoys, to finish writing his book of poetry, "Waiting for Snow in Lewiston."

"I hope that doesn't sound smug. I don't mean it to. And I guess I hope that things would come easier, but I've learned they never do.

"I'm not ambitious for certain things. I'm not longing for a huge theater, a $2 million budget. In a way, I think I'm missing an ambitious streak. Others used to encourage me to be an actor, for example, but it never quite thrilled me as much as training people."

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