June 2007 Issue
Mixing It Up
The Human Race Theatre Company brings innovative works to Dayton.
If, as Shakespeare put it, "all the world's a stage," The Human Race Theatre Company is deeply committed to tending its little corner of the globe.
For 21 years, along with traditional favorites such as "West Side Story" "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "A Christmas Carol," the Dayton-based troupe has dared to push the theatrical envelope. Ranging from such cutting-edge works as Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife," based on the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a male antiques dealer who survived the Nazi regime living as a woman; to Jane Martin's "Keely and Du," a gripping take on the right-to-life vs. right-to-choose debate, The Human Race prides itself on making sure that theatergoers -- regardless of background or beliefs -- feel they are a part of the experience.
"We do sort of mix things up," admits the troupe's executive director, Kevin Moore. "The trick is to make sure that you're serving the entire audience, and the longer we've been around, the wider the net has become."
The stage was set for this precedent at a lunch 21 years ago, as the three women who would ultimately found the company -- known affectionately by troupe members as the "sugar mamas" -- discussed what its mission should be.
"The arts in Dayton have always been very, very good," says Human Race co-founder Suzy Bassani, "We had a wonderful philharmonic orchestra, two exceptional dance companies, the Dayton Opera andÂ excellent community theater. But we did not have a professional theater."
The trio knew what was needed: a place akin to New York's off-off-Broadway, where young playwrights could flesh out ideas and gauge audience reaction. As Bassani's husband, Pino, listened to their sky's-the-limit way of thinking, he suggested, with tongue in cheek, that the new company be known as The Human Race Theatre.
Bassani remembers the hubbub surrounding the troupe's name: At first, everyone raised an eyebrow at the boldness of it. But that changed as the audience heard and appreciated the play on words.
"When Sara Exley [one of the founders] welcomed our first audience and introduced herself as president of The Human Race, everyone diedlaughing," recalls Bassani. "They were on the floor. It was wonderful."
Through the years, it hasn't been just newly minted playwrights and theatergoers in search of something different who have benefited from The Human Race embrace. Seven years ago, Moore created the company's Musical Theatre Workshops, inviting writers of new musicals to come to Dayton to develop their work.
"So many writers create their stories but can't know what they sound like because they can't get a group of people together to actually perform them," Moore explains. "We have the interest, we have the facilities to be able to accommodate that process and we also have a lot of local talent who's able to help."
In 2003, Cameron Mackintosh, producer of such mega-hits as "The Phantom of the Opera," "Cats" and "Les MisÃˆrables," was looking for a stage upon which to tweak "Moby Dick!
The Musical," a satire taking place at a girls' school and based loosely on the Herman Melville classic. Music Theatre International, one of the country's foremost dramatic licensing firms, recommended The Human Race because, says Moore, "we were brave enough to do it."
"We took it and developed it, and now it's being performed in auditoriums across the country," Moore adds proudly.
Stephen Schwartz is also placing faith in The Human Race. The composer of the Broadway blockbusters "Godspell" and "Wicked" has chosen the company to be among only three in the country to premiere "Snapshots," a bittersweet musical about a couple's 30-year relationship that seems about to end. The play will take center stage September 20 through October 7.
"Kevin Moore and his theater have long been pioneers in the development of new and unusual musical theater," says Schwartz. "The Dayton area is lucky to have had such a creative resource for so many years."
But the troupe and its intimate, 219-seat performance space, The Loft Theatre, are not just a stellar training ground for shows on their way to international acclaim. They also serve as a beacon for their own community. For instance, instead of being required to purchase tickets on Pay What You Can Night (which takes place at the final dress rehearsal for each show), patrons are asked to bring nonperishable food items for Dayton's Foodbank.
"The Human Race has found an innovative way to feed the body and feed the soul," says Foodbank director Burma Rai. "They've developed a creative way to make an impact."
For resident artist Bruce Cromer, that impact comes via the challenging roles he's been called upon to play for The Human Race, which have been among the most intense of his career. To better understand the emotion behind his part in Tony Kushner's ground-breaking AIDS epic, "Angels in America," the Wright State University theater professor interviewed a physician who treats those suffering from the disease and spent time with a patient.
"It was such a moving experience," Cromer says. "There are people struggling with AIDS every day, and the last thing I wanted was to make it the Hallmark disease of the month."
It is this commitment to craft and resistance to conformity that enables The Human Race Theatre Company to leave an indelible mark on the arts in Dayton.
"It's the mix that keeps The Human Race separate from other companies," Cromer says. "The philosophy is we're going to let you sit back and be entertained on this production, then there's going to be another one that really might upset you a lot, then there will be another one that will really make you think.
"We're going to offer them all at some point."
In addition to Stephen Schwartz's "Snapshots," The Human Race playbill includes the following:
June 14-24: "Take Me Out," Richard Greenberg's adult drama about a baseball player's conflicted relationship with his teammates.
Oct. 25-Nov. 11: Cormac McCarthy's "The Sunset Limited," poses the question, "Is life worth living?" after a professor on the brink of suicide is rescued by an ex-convict, and engages in a debate about truth, fiction and belief.
Jan. 31-Feb. 17: "Romeo and Juliet," the quintessential love story by William Shakespeare.
March 13-30: "Rabbit Hole," David Lindsay-Abaire's poignant exploration of grief, follows the thoughts and feelings of a family coping with the accidental death of a 4-year-old.
The Human Race Theatre Company
The Loft Theatre
126 N. Main St., Dayton
Box office: 937/228-3630