By Connie Berry
Sister Nicolette Vennaro, OSF, has directed theatrical
productions in Catholic schools for nearly 50 years. Peter Pan is her latest masterpiece and on Friday night, April 1, approximately 100 Blessed Sacrament students from pre-k to sixth grade will perform on stage at the Palace Theater in Eastwood.
There are adults and young people all over Central New York and beyond who are better at public speaking, retain poise under pressure and still enjoy theater, dance and acting because Sister Nicolette introduced them to performing. Even though she couldn’t imagine herself acting, singing or dancing on stage, Sister Nicolette said she loves her annual productions.
“I love working with the children. One boy I had when he was seven at St. Rose of Lima is on television now,” Sister Nicolette said. “I follow the children when they leave here and many of them go on to do more theater.”
At not much over 5 feet tall, Sister Nicolette is a tireless bundle of energy. She doesn’t like to sit still, which makes for some interesting staff meetings at Blessed Sacrament where she currently teaches third grade.
Besides directing plays for decades, Sister Nicolette is also a long distance runner having competed in marathons for years. Her most recent one was last year in Hawaii. She is 70 years old.
Andrea Polcaro, principal of Blessed Sacrament, said Sister Nicolette arrived one summer day 10 years ago to get her classroom ready for the students coming that September.
“She showed up when we were getting ready for the school year,” Polcaro said. “She had run to school so I asked her, ‘Where did you run from?’ and she told me, ‘Skaneateles.’ My mouth almost hit the floor.” Skaneateles is more than 20 miles from Syracuse’s east side neighborhood where Blessed Sacrament is located.
So it came as no surprise to Polcaro when Sister Nicolette refused help from the janitor and began lugging bookcases up the stairs by herself.
While Sister Nicolette teaches third grade now, she has also taught first and second grades at schools in New Jersey and in the Syracuse Diocese. Sister Nicolette hasn’t produced 50 successful musicals and dramas incorporating a large portion of the student body by being a pushover. She knows exactly how to get a good performance out of the children. Sister Nicolette knows who is going to be best for each role before she begins the production. Her drama class begins in the fall so she has time to observe the students’ expression, movement and speaking. “Some of them I’ve had longer than others so I really get to know them,” Sister Nicolette said.
She said students and their parents are often amazed at how they are able to perform on stage. Some of the students begin as very shy preschoolers and after a couple of productions, they are fearless on stage.
Janet Dwyer’s son Joe is a 10th grader at Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) but he began acting in Sister Nicolette’s third grade class at Blessed Sacrament. Janet Dwyer is the costume maker for the productions, a role she shares with her 80-year-old mother.
An interior designer by profession, Dwyer said she began doing the costumes eight years ago.
“When my son was at Blessed Sacrament I offered to do some sewing for each classroom,” Dwyer said, “and when I got to Sister Nicolette’s room she didn’t want throw pillows or anything like that. She wanted costumes.”
Dwyer shows Sister Nicolette the fabrics before she begins making the costumes and the two have come to an easy collaboration over the years.
“She’s great to work with,” Dwyer said. “By now we’re kindred spirits.”
Meanwhile, Dwyer said her son has gone on to participate in theater at CBA.
“Sister Nicolette got him to do things he never would have done. Now he’s doing mock trials, presentations. What he learned from her plays out in every aspect of his life,” Dwyer said.
Dwyer and Sister Nicolette both agree that parents are sometimes amazed to see their children on stage.
“It brings out a lot of talent that they didn’t know they had,” Sister Nicolette said. “I think it’s good for them to practice music, dance and public speaking. At this age, they aren’t self-conscious.”
Sister Nicolette lives in community with the Sisters of St. Francis, and, she said, they are very supportive of both her running and her theatrical productions. Sister Michaeleen Cabral helps her with some of the music and choreography. This year she will play guitar and help the “mermaids” with their dance parts. Peter Pan will even feature a bubble machine, Sister Nicolette said.
“Michaeleen helped them with their hula and she’s singing in Hawaiian in this production,” Sister Nicolette explained.
Sister Nicolette’s dedication to the children and to her productions is legendary. She even spends the February school break building and painting the sets.
One of her greatest desires is to see former students come together to do a play on stage. They do sometimes return to watch her latest productions, Sister Nicolette said.
“I had Chris Celentano in class — he’s a priest now. And Maria Ianolla. They were leads together one year. I’d love to have all the kids I’ve taught come back and do a play at Blessed Sacrament,” Sister Nicolette said.
A couple of her performers who will be graduating from sixth grade this year said they think Sister Nicolette’s plays are a lot of fun.
Mr. Darling, played by CJ Carbone, said he’s been working with Sister Nicolette for a few years now.
“It is a very fun thing to do,” CJ said. “Sister Nicolette is a good director. She knows what she’s doing.”
For Mr. Smee, played by Jonah Cummings, Sister Nicolette brings a sense of excitement with her productions.
“I love it,” Jonah said. “Sister Nicolette comes up with great plays and she’s always confident that we’ll be great and that’s what I love about her.”
At the end of the production, Sister Nicolette said she always says, “Thank God it’s over and then it’s time to start track,” Sister Nicolette said.
Between working out at Planet Fitness three times a week, running in her neighborhood, teaching at Blessed Sacrament and undertaking a huge theatrical production every year, Sister Nicolette stays busy and puts her abundant energy to good use. The principal couldn’t be happier.
“The productions build self-confidence,” Polcaro said. “The drama students have excellent academics, they are great public speakers and it fits the New York State learning standards. Most importantly, they get to use their God-given talents.”
“Peter Pan” is on stage at the Palace Theater, James St., at 7 p.m. on April 1.