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Student actors learn from the pros

When Nicholas Cocchetto played the lead role of Robert in Niagara University's production of "Company" earlier this month, he got so into his character that it terrified him.

It reaches this scary moment where you're wondering -- 'Where is the line, where is my boundary' " said Cocchetto, a senior musical theatre major. "How do you push beyond the scary part, because you know that it's your job, and where do you say, 'This is too much?' "

Cocchetto couldn't have asked this heartfelt question in better company. In the cramped space of NU's Leary Theatre on Monday, more than 50 students had the opportunity to pour their hearts out in front of four of the most sought-after names in theater.

Actors David Hyde Pierce, Karen Ziemba, Debra Monk and director Scott Ellis -- all involved in the current Broadway production of "Curtains" and with lengthy stage and screen careers behind them -- sat down for an intimate question and answer session with students before receiving honorary degrees from the university.

In response to Cocchetto's question, Ziemba -- who has appeared in dozens of musicals and television series, including "Curtains," "Chicago" and "Law & Order" -- was floored.

"How lucky for you that you got to experience that," Ziemba said. "That's what you want. That's what it's about."

The actors came to the university amid a stagehands' strike that has shut down much of Broadway, including "Curtains," and dispensed advice ranging from snarky to poignant before a group of students all preparing for careers in the theater.

The four all talked about moments that gave them confidence as young actors and directors, moments that all young practitioners of theater and life alike look for on a daily basis.

Ellis, who directs "Curtains" and recently received an Emmy nomination for his direction of an episode of the NBC comedy "30 Rock," recalled a time when John Kander complimented him on his debut directorial effort, a revival of Kander and Fred Ebb's "Flora the Red Menace."

"I think you're very good at this," Ellis recalled Kander whispering to him. From that moment, Ellis said, he knew he was in the right line of work.

For Hyde Pierce, that moment came in the two-person show "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks," in which he appeared opposite Uta Hagen. After a particularly harrowing scene, to which Hyde Pierce took a rather unorthodox approach, Hagen said to him, simply, "That was interesting." And off Hyde Pierce went to pursue a wildly successful career.

But not without meeting some distasteful people along the way.

"As young actors and directors, you don't get to have choices," said Hyde Pierce, revealing that same endearing snootiness that made his 11-year run as Dr. Niles Crane on the sitcom "Frasier" so popular. "You will absorb a lot of what it's like to work with a butt-head."

Hyde Pierce went on to say that a young artist's experience in the theater will put him in contact with people ranging from the genuine but talentless to what he dubbed "prickly geniuses."

He also talked about his beginnings in television and the challenges he faced in improving his skills on-screen.

"I had a gift for taking small parts and making them smaller," Hyde Pierce said.

For one student, who asked whether an actor can ever achieve perfection, a surprise response came from the audience. "No!" screamed an audience member, later identified as John Kander himself, the man instrumental in the careers of the panelists and a close friend of Brother Augustine Towey, director emeritus of Niagara University Theatre.

After Kander spoke up, the panelists all fell in line and echoed his responses.

At the convocation that followed in NU's Alumni Chapel, the unmistakable chords of Kander's "All that Jazz" could be heard, along with adulation and applause from NU faculty, including Towey, theater department chair Sharon Watkinson, new NU Theatre Director Gregory Fletcher and Doug Zschiegner, associate director of the university's theater department.

Addressing the honorees at the convocation, Towey said, "You've made this world a better place. In the words of Scripture, you renew the face of our world."

Cocchetto, who has attended plenty of question-and-answer sessions, said he came away from the experience with a sense of validation that he is following the right career path.

"Getting somebody who's in the business, someone who's been through what you're about to go through, someone who's still going through the things that you're going through, even though they've quote/unquote 'made it' -- it gives you such a good feeling of calm and that you're doing this right."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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