Spotlight: All the family's on stage

The Jakiels are the Barrymores of Buffalo

Clockwise, from left: Laura, Steve, Amy, and Mary, with Kelly at center. Photo by kc kratt.

If you’re from Western New York, you no doubt have memories of the Wild West shootout at Fantasy Island. Steve Jakiel and Mary McMahon certainly do: summers of playing Marshall Steve and Miss Mary led to dating, a 1982 marriage, three daughters, and the establishment of Buffalo’s biggest theater dynasty. So entrenched are the Jakiels in the local theater scene that three of them—Steve, Amy, and Kelly—were all nominated for Arties in the 2011–12 season. When Kelly began dating Artie-award-winner Steve Copps (Floyd Collins), her dad had already met and worked with him. And when the couple married over this past Curtain Up! Weekend, MusicalFare suspended its Saturday matinee of Music Man because leading lady Amy Jakiel was the maid of honor.  

Amy did temporarily duck out of the reception for her evening show (along with two other wedding party members and more than a handful of guests) and while Mom had a hard time with that, Kelly understood, and Steve reminded his wife that she left Amy’s graduation early because of a performance commitment. Clearly, in this family, understanding “the show must go on” is a given.

The Jakiel girls began to understand this as preschool children, hanging out backstage while Mary worked various jobs at the Theatre of Youth (TOY); there, they colored, collected programs, and idolized local up-and-comers like Chris Kelly and Brian Riggs.  At home, instead of cartoons, they watched movies like There’s No Business Like Show Business and coveted Gene Kelly roles. And when Mary had coffee dates with other theater moms like Lisa Ludwig and Tammy Hayes Maher, their kids put on plays, including, Amy remembers, Guys and Dogs, a “brilliant rendition of the classic with dogs in it.” Putting on shows led, of course, to being in shows—first at St. Joe’s, where Steve teaches, and later at TOY and Artpark—where the girls came to understand that well-worn theater mantra firsthand.

“Laura reminded me that she was a baby owl in Children of Eden at St. Joe’s, and that I had a sleeping bag out for her in the hallway,” Mary says. “She said, ‘I don’t feel well,’ and I said ‘You have to get up there; you have to do this.’ Steve and I were doing hair and makeup, so we were busy, and at the end of the night, I found out she had a temperature of 103! And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m a horrible parent,’ but the show must go on.”

Laura and her sisters, of course, continued their involvement in theater and would never use the word horrible to describe the parents who raised them as confident children who feel free to express themselves and who appreciate and understand theater’s role in their lives. “When we started doing theater, they said, ‘When you’re doing a show, you’re not going to have as much free time, but you don’t cut out homework, you cut out playtime because theater is your playtime,’” says Laura, who, along with her sisters, thought everybody had such pastimes.

“When Amy was learning to tie her shoes, my mother couldn’t teach her because she had on long nails from being the Snow Queen, but silly things like that were always coming into our lives, so it didn’t seem weird,” Laura maintains. “I first realized that our family was unusual in grade school, when I’d say I was going to see a show and friends would say ‘what movie?’ We’d go on field trips and I’d know somebody in the show. And when the lights went down, I thought it was obvious that you don’t make noise and you applaud at certain points, but then I realized other kids didn’t have that experience, and our family was unique.”

Now is just as good a time as any to dispel any myths that the Jakiels spend Friday nights in makeup singing show tunes around the fireplace; still, they concede that theater pervades their lives. Mostly, it’s because the answer to “what’s up?” generally involves an audition, rehearsal, or show update. Other times, it’s breaking into three-part harmony in the car, or dancing around the house. And sometimes, it’s just pure drama.

“One time, Amy and I brought Chris Howard [who was recently onstage at Shea’s in Billy Elliott] and Kevin Zak home for dinner, and we ended up in my parents’ attic, which is like a treasure trove,” Kelly shares. “We went downstairs wearing hats and came to dinner as different people. We put a hat on my mom’s head, and she started talking differently, and then Dad walks in, and says ‘What’s going on here?’ and left the room, and two minutes later, comes back with his own hat and character. We had a lovely dinner with friends and everyone just happened to be speaking in different accents and wearing crazy hats. Other people do not do this, and that’s what I love about our family.”

What’s not to love? Well, maybe not every single performance. Though Amy jokes that there are days “when I wish my family didn’t know so much and would just think everything I do is awesome,” she and the rest admit that being able to count on simultaneous honesty and support is pretty special.

“We’re very blunt,” Steve says. “When a critique comes soon after a performance, all of us are a little defensive, but I value their criticism. Maybe they sugar coat it a bit to start, but then they’ll tell you flat out, and I do the same.” As a recent example, Mary says that while she found Music Man to be a very creative adaptation, she told Amy “I’ve liked you better in other things,” primarily because Amy was cast against type and in a soprano role.

“They can be honest because they have informed opinions,” Kelly says. “I had a friend in college whose parents came to every performance and told him ‘that was wonderful, the best you’ve ever done,’ and he knows that’s not true. I love when my parents and sisters come to see things because we can sit down and talk about it. My parents don’t lie, but they’re very careful to be supportive. I love watching all of them. It’s not like that weird step-cousin who keeps doing plays and everybody’s like ‘Who’s going to tell her she’s no good?’”

With such mutual admiration, it seems natural that the Jakiels would have a dream project that would allow them to work together, but not so much. Though they’ve romanticized a Jakiel-centric August: Osage County—“the Kavinoky is doing it ten years before we’re ready,” Kelly notes—they admit the reality might not live up to the fantasy.

“It would be fun to be in a show together but I get impatient,” Steve says. “I get frustrated with myself so it’s not even a good thing for Mary to run lines with me, because I’ll want to say ‘that’s close enough.’ And sometimes you need to vent, and if you’re venting to someone in the same show … I wouldn’t count it out, but it might be tough.”

“We might drive each other crazy,” concurs Amy, who didn’t let that stop her from working with Laura on a recent production of Legally Blonde. As lead Elle Woods, Amy had nineteen quick costume changes and Laura, who’d been missing theater life, volunteered to be her dresser. “She was great, but there were days we’d yell at each other, or she’d make faces because the mike was on and we couldn’t talk; I’m pretty sure I hit her one day,” Amy says. Counters Laura:  “She was under a lot of stress and I knew not to take it personally. We had a good time and it was a lot of fun. If I haven’t [worked on] a show in a while, I kind of get the bug.”

It’s a family affliction. Though Steve said he didn’t have the skin to pursue theater professionally, Mary did. “My parents said ‘do what you like,’ so I went into theater,” she says, “but I wish they had also said ‘know that you have to have a way to make some money, too.’” And because her parents didn’t, she made sure she did, advising her kids that they should pursue theater, as well as anything else that interests them.

Though all three daughters say their lives will always include theater, Laura has a dual major degree in psychology and animal behavior, ecology, and conservation, and is currently pursuing grad school. Amy majored in special education because, as she explains it, she has two passions, and only one requires a degree. Kelly has a degree in musical theater because she thought, “I’ll keep doing this until I figure out what I really want to do. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet, so here I am.”

“Here” is not a bad place to be when your family is close by and you’re getting theater work. In fact, Amy was offered an ideal teaching job in Virginia, but having family and a theater foothold in Buffalo, she turned it down. “It keeps us together,” Steve says. “We probably talk more frequently or see each other more because of it. Kelly called a couple times when she was doing costumes for The Dead English with ‘Do you have this or that? Can you make this prop?’ If you’re having a tough rehearsal period, your family gets it. There’s just a lot of something to talk about. It’s a common interest and it helps us understand each other.”            




Day job: English teacher, St. Joe’s
Shows per year: Two to four
Aside from acting ... Makes props, does hair/makeup
Family liked him best as: Arthur in Superior Donuts
Coming up next: August: Osage County, Kavinoky









Day job: Runs Nails ... Naturally salon
Shows per year: Two to five
Aside from acting ... Does costumes, hair, and makeup
Family liked her best as: Mrs. Shaw, The Hardy Boys (kids), Adelaide, Guys and Dolls (Steve)
Coming up next: The Clean House, Road Less Traveled










Day job: Teaching dance/house managing
Shows per year: Two to three
Aside from acting ... Does costumes
Family liked her best as: Lisa, Collected Stories/Annabelle, Lucky Stiff
Coming up next: Seeds, Road Less Traveled









Day job: Program manager at People, Inc.
Shows per year: Up to six!
Aside from acting ... Directs, choreographs
Family liked her best as: Lucy/Kate in Avenue Q
Coming up next: Rent, MusicalFare









Day job: Group home at People,  Inc./pursuing grad school
Shows per year: At least two
Aside from acting ... Costumes, dresses, stage manages
Family liked her best as: Narrator, Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Coming up next: Not sure ... and grad school applications








Donna Hoke’s play, Seeds, starring Kelly Jakiel, opens March 1 at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

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