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Alleyway Theatre values innovation. You can see it in the theater's productions, including Alleyway's latest, "Naked Mole Rats in Search of Darkness," its ambitious plans for the future, even in its location.

"There's always a wonderful challenge at every turn," says Alleyway founder and frequent director Neal Radice. "Naked Mole Rats" is actually the first play in the theater's 20 year history, he says, in which he has had no hand.

Back in the theater's early days, when it was a nomad among Buffalo theater companies, a determined Radice went looking for a real diner where he could stage a play about hostages trapped in one. He was unsuccessful, so he negotiated with the city for an alternative space, and ultimately produced "Cops" in the back room of a police station that used to be a Greyhound bus depot.

Alleyway Theatre is still housed in back of that police precinct, on Main Street in the heart of Buffalo's Theater District. But now, with a 25-year lease, the theater is poised to take over and renovate the entire building. Once the new police station at Main and Tupper is finished, Radice plans to expand Alleyway's theater, revamp the lobby, and add a restaurant, rehearsal halls and an art gallery.

The Alleyway has grown, too, since 1980 when Radice wandered from the old Pfeifer Theatre to the old Center Theater in search of a stage. It is now an umbrella for Pandora's Box, a theater group focused on productions that address the needs and interests of women; and for Kidshowco, a children's theater group dedicated to theatrical arts education through live performance. In a bold expansion, Alleyway has also purchased the old stone Methodist church at Richmond and Ferry, with plans to transform it into an "Upper West Art Center" and make it a permanent home for Pandora's Box.

Radice, a native of Buffalo and graduate of the University at Buffalo, says Alleyway's primary mission is to be an incubator for new talent. With the exception of its annual production of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the season is comprised of four or five world premiere plays written by emerging playwrights from the U.S. and around the world. As part of the creative process, each writer is flown in to take part in at least a week of rehearsals.

"I create my season around the availability of the playwright," Radice says.

Alleyway gleans its new talent from its Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition established in 1989, named after Radice's friend and mentor. The contest, which Radice describes as "the fuel for our fire," typically brings in 300 to 400 new scripts each year, from California to South America to South Korea. The winning play is produced during the Alleyway's next season.

"I believe in developing the script from the page to the point where it's ready for rehearsal," Radice explains, adding that most of the rewrites now take place in cyberspace.

Radice worked long distance with 1999 Mazumdar winner and San Francisco playwright Kitty Felde for nearly a year before meeting her. The Alleyway produced "A Patch of Earth," her play about war crimes in Bosnia, last October.

Despite the "B" movie image invoked by the title, "Naked Mole Rats in Search of Darkness" is largely a comedy. Written by Michael Foley with a cast of four local actors, it is a collection of eight sketches about love and romance.

"They (mole rats) live their lives without light and the playwright uses that as a metaphor for marriage. It's just a really interesting piece of writing," says director Kevin Stevens, who is also responsible for reading and selecting the Mazumdar winner each November.

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