Sandi Dollinger performing her piece, “Paesano” at the Albany Barn. Photo by Adam Wilson
I’m walking to a café on Madison Ave. It’s been over a year since I last saw Sandi, not since I starred as Max in her production of “On Greyhound,” a play written by two friends of hers. When I contacted Sandi about doing a profile on her, she was only too happy to finally catch up on old times at our usual hangout.
It’s 12:50 p.m. I’m ten minutes early. As I approach the café, I see a woman standing outside the front door. A blue knit beanie covers her wispy gray hair. It’s about fifty degrees out and she’s bundled up from head to toe, her arms held tightly against her. A scarf is wrapped around half her face, and dark sunglasses hide her eyes. She could be anyone. And yet, I know she’s Sandi the second I see her because of the knit beanie she’s wearing. I’ve never seen Sandi without one of her signature beanies.
“Labas, Sandi!” Sandi taught me this Lithuanian greeting during my time as Juras, a character in her play, “Make Bread, Not War.” That was back in 2014, when I first met her.
“Stephen! Labas!” We hug and go inside. Sandi insists on treating me to lunch and will hear no arguments from me about it. Over sandwiches, we talk about the rest of the Rosebud Theatricals. Sandi came up with the troupe name for our ragtag group of performers back in 2014, when we were doing “Make Bread, Not War.” She’s fallen out of contact with most of the group. One member, Viviana, moved to New York City to attend Hunter College, and that was the last Sandi heard from her.
When we finish eating, we decide to go to a quieter setting. Of course, we go to the attic on Western Avenue that we both know so well. The room is used as an office space for adjunct professors at The College of Saint Rose, but Sandi and I will always remember the attic as the place where the Rosebud Theatricals spent many long evenings rehearsing scenes together.
At the time of writing this, a quick Google search of “Sandi Dollinger” yields very little. On the first page is an outdated LinkedIn profile, a ratemyprofessor.com listing for her position as an adjunct professor at The College of Saint Rose, and the event details for a reading of one of her plays (“Yours ’til Niagara Falls”) from 2008. Further down is an article about a play she appeared in last August. There’s also a theatre program for Anton Chekov’s “The Marriage Proposal” which Dollinger directed for Albany’s Theater Voices in 2007. There’s not much else beyond that, though. Hardly anyone knows about Sandi Dollinger.
Sandi describes herself as one of the “small potatoes,” which is her endearing term for the local theatre community. Her long history of writing and theatre experience suggests otherwise, though. She started writing during the 1980s and has been doing theatre for even longer than that. Sandi studied Theatre Arts at Marquette University, where she received her MA in 1976. As a playwright, Sandi has a unique style that draws from her rich cultural background.
Born in a primarily Polish neighborhood in Buffalo, NY, Sandi has strong ties to her Polish ancestry. Her parents came from Warsaw, and Sandi visits Poland regularly to teach. She taught a theatre class the last two summers in the University of Warsaw, as well as at a language camp in Poland through the Kosciuszko Foundation.
“I like teaching there because I’m very familiar with the language; it’s not a barrier for me.”
Previously, Sandi spent three weeks in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where she did research for her play “Make Bread, Not War” and taught theatre to teachers who couldn’t speak English.
“I needed a translator since I couldn’t speak Lithuanian, which is a more difficult language, but a lot of the people there speak Polish too, so I can get by pretty well.”
After knowing Sandi for two years, I can say with confidence that she definitely values a face-to-face connection. She’s someone who’d much rather meet with someone for coffee than send an email or text. And, for better or for worse, this carries over into her passion for theatre.
“I like small, intimate theatres. Even when I perform.”
“Does bigger theatre intimidate you?” I asked her.
“I just like little groups of people.”
One such group was the Rosebud Theatricals, which I was a part of with Sandi in 2014. Our debut production was a reading of her play, “Make Bread, Not War” at The College of Saint Rose. Putting on our show came with a number of obstacles, though.
Stage time in particular was something we hardly ever had, despite the college having several venues available year round, such as the St. Joe’s auditorium, and even an actual theatre on the campus. We never got the theatre, and the auditorium we could only have a couple nights throughout the month. February 20 was the only night we could get to put on our first performance. There was no rain date.
For a “small potato” like Sandi, getting space to do theatre is very hard. For weeks, she made requests to the college to let the Rosebud Theatricals use one of the college’s stages for rehearsal, and they turned Sandi down again and again.
“I had to really prove that we were doing this, that this was welcome for the Saint Rose community. Remember we got like, five rehearsal days in St. Joe’s auditorium? But in this attic on the coldest of nights, we were up here rehearsing.”
Sandi was often told that the spaces were already reserved, but Sandi and I walked by those “reserved spaces” every night after we’d rehearsed in the attic. We often found that nobody had actually used them that night. When Sandi actually got the auditorium, the doors were locked.
“The college would always say, ‘You’re welcome. This is for students.’ But did they make us welcome? I don’t think we ever felt welcome.”
Advertising was also a disaster. We had a blurb about the play prepared for the college’s event calendar, which never appeared, and the coverage we were expecting from the college’s newspaper, The Chronicle, never happened either. The only publicity our production received was from the flyers we distributed.
“Do you think that our difficulty was related to you being an adjunct professor?” I asked Sandi.
“It could have been. I’m not totally sure. I think I’m just largely unnoticed.”
Part of the reason for this may be Sandi’s “small potato” attitude. On one hand, her modest nature makes her very approachable and easy to work with. On the other hand, it makes it hard for Sandi to get her way when she wants something, such as access to a stage.
Still, Sandi says she’s content with where she’s at in theatre. Being a “small potato” doesn’t seem to bother her at all.
As an adjunct professor, Sandi maintains an active teaching career in New York’s Capital Region as well as overseas during the summer. However, unlike some full-time professors who have done theatre in the past and have now settled more into their role as teachers, Sandi has a more “When I can, I teach” approach to her career, keeping theatre as her number one priority.
“I do love teaching, but what I’m teaching is theatre.”
With her unique writing style and long-standing theatre experience, Sandi could easily set her sights on bigger productions, but her decision to stick with community theatre is not without its rewards. While some playwrights build their reputations on LinkedIn and in Broadway theatre reviews, Sandi makes her mark on the people she meets in person. That’s why students who have taken Sandi’s classes continue to recommend her to others year after year.
Sandi is unwavering in her preference for small theatre over big productions because she recognizes the communal aspect of small theatre that you simply won’t find anywhere else. It’s what brought Sandi and me together in 2014, and it’s what keeps us connected after nearly two years.
“I’ll never stop doing theatre,” Sandi says. “It’s my home.”