Dayton’s professional theatre company talks past, present and future
By: Sara Mastbaum
photo: Scott J. Kimmins Pictured [l to r]: scott stoney and kevin moore
In the late 1980s, Dayton’s cultural landscape was just beginning to flower. ArtsDayton (now CultureWorks), the Dayton Visual Arts Center and Cityfolk were all in their infancy. It was during this time, in 1986, that the city’s permanent professional theatre company arrived on the scene in the form of the Human Race Theatre Company.
Filling the gap
Prior to the founding of Human Race, Dayton lacked a professional, locally-based theatre company. Touring shows came through the area on a regular basis, but a gap remained. “I believe that this area had been cultivating very talented theatre artists,” said Kevin Moore, Human Race’s Producing Artistic Director and the company’s first executive director. “[The universities] were creating theatre artists, but there was no industry to keep them here. So basically, we kept losing them to other cities.”
To combat this and enhance the city’s cultural scene, three Dayton women – Caryl D. Philips, Suzy Bassani and Sara Exley – joined together to provide the area with a professional theatre company.
“They looked at the need, the hole in the community, and were able to bring the resources together to fill that need of theatre,” Moore said. “Having working actors in the community just made a lot of good sense.”
Early on, the company staged its productions in whatever locations could accommodate them. In 1991, Human Race moved to its current home in the Metropolitan Arts Center’s Loft Theatre in downtown Dayton.
The name “Human Race Theatre Company” would ultimately come to define the organization’s mission and programming choices. “Suzy was very clear that she didn’t just want the ‘Dayton Something or Other’ [as a name],” Moore said. “She wanted it to be bigger than just Dayton.” As the story goes, the founders settled, perhaps somewhat jokingly at first, on the entire human race.
“In the early years of the company, having the title ‘The Human Race’ was thought of as maybe not the best choice for a theatre company,” Moore said. “Through the years, it started to really stick because it talked about the type of theatre that we wanted to do. It was theatre that somehow looked at what made us human, that allowed us to hold up the mirror and look at ourselves, to see both the good and the bad.”
Tied in to the idea of highlighting the human race is the company’s mission of serving individual cultures within the Dayton community. “It’s absolutely part of our play selection,” said Scott Stoney, a resident artist and founding member of Human Race. “It’s looking at our community and being sure we serve the various cultures that are here. And there are a lot of them, which means balancing. It’s a real balancing act. There are so many different cultures and groups that need to be served. When you’ve got a title like ‘Human Race,’ that makes it tough.”
“The type of shows we would select became encompassed in [the name],” added Moore. “It became a very sort of broad image of who we are as a company.” For example, this season, the company is producing ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ the well-known musical that explores aspects of Jewish culture and Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Torch Song Trilogy,’ which deals with a number of issues particularly relevant in the gay community.
Along with serving Dayton’s various cultural groups, a large part of the Human Race’s mission deals with education. In fact, founder Suzy Bassani also founded Muse Machine in 1982. Muse Machine, an arts education organization focused on bringing the arts to schoolchildren, has enjoyed a long-standing partnership with Human Race.
The joint program is called Theatre in Context. It is a curriculum-based initiative, which seeks to provide connections between subject matter covered in schools and the productions staged in the Loft Theatre, which, along with the Victoria Theatre, now houses Human Race’s productions.
“We would find a thematic connection [to the current shows] to build the in-school tour for Muse Machine,” said Stoney. “In terms of show selection, we look over the curriculum in schools, look over the literature, see what plays are being taught. Can we provide a connection? The idea was, ‘How do we take a piece we do here, and tie it to the pieces touring at the schools, and, at the same time, build lesson plans using the state standards that teachers are required to have … how do we make that fit together in one big package?” The end result is a cohesive set of lessons that teachers use to facilitate discussion with students.
On the menu for this year’s Theatre in Context program is a return to musical roots. Although perennially popular with youth, musicals have enjoyed even greater notoriety in recent years, and Human Race hopes to use this to get young people excited about theatre. “‘Glee,’ ‘Smash’ and ‘High School Musical’ have regenerated a whole new interest in musical theatre, particularly among young people,” noted Moore.
From its roots working with Muse Machine, the Human Race’s education initiatives have evolved to include classes taught directly by the company and even a specific building to house them, the Caryl D. Philips Creativity Center, located in downtown Dayton.
Stoney, who teaches several classes for the company, explained, “The Dayton area is saturated with theatre … a number of community artists who are striving to get better. What better way to do that than to offer classes in improving their audition skills, because we do hire non-equity in our company. Those non-equity can come from the community as well, which is a great plus for us.”
The connection to local schools helps strengthen other educational programs within Human Race. “Being so closely connected to the Muse Machine, we know a lot of kids in the schools, so consequently, if we hear there’s a lot of interest…we’ll create a class,” Stoney said.
Dayton and beyond
Although Human Race is committed to serving the Dayton community, it has also become a player at the regional and national levels. “It makes me feel good that we are recognized within a small pool, among a number of organizations that are developing new work,” Moore said. “I think that makes us a strong company locally, but increases our attractiveness when it comes to artists who want to work here. When we go to New York […] it’s amazing how many people want to come to Dayton, Ohio to work.”
“The outside actors – the New York actors, the Chicago actors who come here – leave, and they are ambassadors for the city,” Stoney added. “They are amazed that this town has so much art. They are just astounded that they can have a kind of New York City, urban experience here in middle Ohio. I think that’s why we have a fairly successful audition record.”
In fact, Human Race has been so successful at the regional level that in 2010, Moore and the company’s late artistic director, Marsha Hanna, were jointly awarded the Governor’s Award for Arts Administration. The Human Race was the first theatre company to receive the honor. “That was a great recognition of what this company was doing and working for,” Moore said.
Human Race continues to work toward strengthening its programs and defining its role within the community. Nearly every non-profit and arts organization was hit hard by the economic downturn in 2009, and the recovery process continues four years later. “We survived through it,” Moore said. “And I think the quality continued to maintain and continued to grow.”
The changing economic landscape has brought a new consequence to the arts. “We’re dealing with audiences right now who as teens in high school had so many programs slashed because of funding cuts. We’re finding people who are new and fresh and have no exposure to [live theatre],” said Moore. “There’s a misconception that it’s really expensive and you have to get dressed up … we try to be more casual here.”
Although people can certainly expect to be entertained, Stoney emphasized that it’s perhaps a new way for people to experience entertainment and stories. “If you make people think, they’ll entertain themselves,” he said, quoting Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. “We’re offering the chance to come up with your own ideas. To engage the audience in some healthy discussion – maybe with their friends, their neighbors, their circle of friends, and that becomes the entire experience.”
“We always say entertaining with a capital ‘E.’ It’s more than just ‘Oh, I had a good time,’” Moore said. “It takes you out of yourself for a period of time, it makes you think, it makes you angry. People may not like the ideas, but it’s well-crafted and well-done. They can’t negate the quality of what they just saw.” Stoney added. “Theatre is a journey … you might find that it’s not as offensive or shocking if you allow yourself to take the entire journey.”
Despite the unpredictable economy, plans for Human Race’s future are alive and well. “Part of where we’re headed is in the development phase,” Moore said. “Continuing to develop new works here, to make this a haven for writers both musical and non-musical, so that we can continue to make our contribution to the art form. I don’t want to necessarily just do the shows that everybody else does.”
To that end, Human Race recently launched its Marsha Hanna New Play Workshops program in honor of Hanna, who passed away in 2011. “Marsha Hanna had always wanted to do it, and we finally got it off the ground,” Moore said. “[Playwright] Michael Slade has been working with us pretty much on a regular basis and that relationship is very important to our theatre, to have a playwright who is interested in what you do.”
Slade’s drama ‘Gingerbread Children,’ a look at child abuse and human trafficking, was the inaugural piece in these workshops, with staged readings in March 2013.
In addition to fostering connections with playwrights and artists, Moore hopes to continue to establish Human Race’s reputation outside of the Dayton region. “I hope we can take the work that we do and expand beyond the boundaries of Dayton, to maybe look for collaborations with other theatres and other communities,” he said.
In the immediate future, the 2013-2014 Eichelberger Loft season revolves around the loose theme of families in change. “Becky’s New Car,” written by Steven Dietz and directed by Marya Spring Cordes, is a look at the effect of a woman’s midlife crisis on her family. Margarett Perry will direct John Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” the story of a family with a secret past. Moore himself will be directing both “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Play It By Heart,” which features a book by Pulitzer and Tony winner Brian Yorkey. “Torch Song Trilogy,” the story of a man’s struggle for self-discovery and acceptance, will be directed by Stoney.
A key to Human Race’s success has been its audience. “We have a very dedicated core of patrons that have been with us from the very beginning,” Stoney said. “I think that’s the reason we’ve been able to maintain and keep going. There was an expectation that we would keep going.”
For more information about the Human Race Theatre Company’s
upcoming season or ticket information, please visit humanracetheatre.org