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Branching out

Randall Kramer, artistic/executive director of MusicalFare Theatre, calls it a "capacity-building and inclusion campaign."

"That's a nice way to say that we need to diversify both our audience and our performers," he says.

To help achieve that goal, the John R. Oishei Foundation has awarded MusicalFare a two-year, $75,000 grant. Among the projects the grant will help fund, or has already funded, are "Sammy & Me," "A Rainbow Journey," "tick, tick ... BOOM!," "Sophie Tucker: Last of the Red Hot Mamas" (to be co-produced with Irish Classical Theatre in the spring) and next weekend's Paul Robeson Theatre production of "Black Nativity."

For Kramer, to diversify doesn't mean simply adding a few new products, as though a theater was like a factory cranking out the latest brainchild of a creative CEO. A theater must go deeper. It must be alert to age, race and the life experience of its audience.

"If we perform for the same generation from the same area, it's going to get stale," he says. Diversity requires a sensitivity to performers and the performance, as well. Audiences of well into middle age and beyond may be attracted to the world-premiere musical about Buffalo-born composer Harold Arlen, "A Rainbow Journey: The Harold Arlen Story" (April 18 to May 20). But you have to do it right, Kramer says: "To do this without performers of color would be ridiculous."

Last January, "Sammy & Me," the first in the campaign's series, brought up issues of race identity that playwright and performer Eric Jordan Young had to contend with.

"How do I perform Sammy Davis, the next step to Stepin Fetchit," Kramer had Young asking himself, "and reconcile it with my own identity [as a black man]?"

The late Jonathan Larson, whose "Rent" is still going strong, has in "tick, tick ... BOOM!" (Feb. 28 to April 1) a show that Kramer thinks will strongly appeal to younger audiences.

"We need to attract younger people," Kramer says. "But then that doesn't mean we're going to ignore our core audience." It's a matter of balance, he says.

Sometimes telling a particular story requires dumping standard theater ideas and going for a fresh performance format. "Familiar Strangers" (Jan. 10 to Feb. 11) is, Kramer says, "told entirely through dance." Michael J. Walline has used the songs of Joni Mitchell as the narrative source and interpreted them through his choreography.

" 'Black Nativity' is a part of all this," Kramer says. "It's not just about diversity, but about making theater better, about elevating it by bringing together people of different backgrounds, different ages and races. That's what theater is supposed to be."

-- Richard Huntington

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