REMEMBERING ROZ CRAMER by Anthony Chase

REMEMBERING ROZ CRAMER

Aug 20, 1935 – Apr 7, 2017

For such a modest and down to earth person, Roz Cramer loomed large in the Buffalo theater community. An actor, director, and co-founder of Theatre of Youth, even years after her retirement to Sarasota, Florida, her legend continued to burn brightly. Her death, this spring at the age of 81, hit hard among her friends, colleagues, and former students.

This Sunday, June 25th at 2 p.m., the community will gather at the Allendale Theatre, home to the Theatre of Youth at 203 Allen Street, to pay tribute to one of Buffalo’s theater greats. All are welcome to attend. The event is listed on Facebook as “Remembering Roz Cramer!”

Roz was honored by the Artie Awards with Career Achievement and with a star in the Plaza of Stars in the theater district. The roles she played on stage were numerous. In addition to founding Theatre of Youth, her influence in arranging for MusicalFare to have a home at Daemen College inarguably allowed that company to flourish.

(L-R) Keith Elkins, Roz Cramer, Kurt Schneiderman, and Roz’s close friend actor/playwright Manny Fried at the 2008 launch of Subversive Theatre’s new home, The Manny Fried Playhouse.

Theatre of Youth artistic director, Meg Quinn describes the event on Sunday as “spoken remembrances by friends about Roz as teacher, mentor, Buffalo theater artist; founder of TOY; [as well as] her life in ‘retirement’ when she continued to write and perform.”

Theatre of Youth will use the occasion to announce the establishment of The Rosalind Cramer Memorial Scholarship and The Toni Smith Wilson Memorial Scholarship. Wilson, who died last year, co-founded the Theatre of Youth with Cramer. Funds will be awarded to students from Title I schools to attend TOY education programs.

“Roz’s husband, Stan Cramer said we are under strict instructions to have a good time,” says Quinn. “She would want us to be happy. That’s the plan.”

Originally from New Jersey, Roz had earned a degree in theater from Boston University and had performed in summer stock on Cape Cod and in Maine, before earning her master’s degree in speech and drama at Teacher’s College, Columbia University when she and her husband moved to Buffalo in 1965. Roz took a teaching position at Rosary Hill College – now Daemen. She would remain on the faculty, teaching theater arts, for the next 36 years, while performing and directing numerous local productions.

Roz Cramer on stage with New Phoenix Theatre founder Richard Lambert in  Jacques and His Master at Alleyway Theatre, 1989

In recent years, Roz divided her time between Sarasota where she often worked with the Asolo Theatre, and summers in the Berkshires, where she was often to be found at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Indeed, the last time I saw Roz was in the Berkshires, where everyone seemed to know her.

Quinn remembers meeting Cramer when she was only 18 years old and fresh out of high school.

“I was a freshman at Rosary Hill,” Quinn recalls. “She taught acting in the theater department. Coming from Mount Mercy in South Buffalo, I had never had a teacher like her before. She was open and fun and participated with the students. She went places with us. She was an amazement to me from the beginning, and she knew everything about theater.”

Cramer’s mentorship would change Quinn’s life.

“Theater is what I always loved doing,” she says. “I didn’t’ know if I was any good at it, but it was what I wanted to do. She inspired me and guided me. She helped me figure it all out.”

Part of the legend of Theatre of Youth was a 1972 children’s theater conference in Albany where Toni Smith Wilson and Rosalind Cramer were inspired to found a children’s theater in Buffalo. Quinn was present during this historic episode.

“It was the biannual conference of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People, called ASSITEJ,” says Quinn. “They called five of their students to go, and I was one of them. I remember as if it was yesterday. My mother said, ‘Roz is on the phone. Roz told me I had to go to Albany. Years later, after TOY had been established and needed new leadership, again it was Roz who said, ‘We need you to pick up the reigns.’ She supported me through everything.”

Scene from Fancy Nancy at TOY (Theater of Youth) 2016–the children’s company co-founded by Roz Cramer and Toni Smith WIlson in 1772.

 

Actor Sheila McCarthy also remembers Cramer from her teaching days.

“I met her almost 50 years ago,” McCarthy recalled. “She was a young mother of three, one of them still in diapers when she came to Rosary Hill College in 1968 to teach acting. She was around 32, I was 18. I thought she was stylish, energetic, and completely different from the old-school one-man-band head of the theater department, Sr. Mary Frances Peters, known to all of us as just ‘The Nun.’ Roz took on the job slowly, and by the time I left college, she had totally transformed the theater there and all of us. By the time I returned after three years at Penn State getting my MFA, the TOY Company had been created along with some of my former classmates, Toni Smith (Wilson), Meg Quinn, and others. TOY became her passion until she knew she had gotten it on its feet and it was time to let others guide it on its way. That was Roz. She never held on when it was time to move on to other things. She gave birth to the project and then stepped aside to let the baby grow. She gave of herself with an unerring creativity and enthusiasm. She showered her family and friends with love, encouragement, and respect. We bonded early. She wasn’t just a friend. She was my teacher, my confidante, my sister. We talked for hours on the phone, sat over coffee planning shows and talking shop, laughing and crying over our private and personal joys and pain. I was directed by her and I directed her in turn. We acted together. We went from a student/ teacher relationship to colleagues. She was the single most influential person in my life other than my parents and siblings. She was the one who called me ‘Sheil.’ I hear her voice all the time.”

Lest we run the risk of making Cramer sound like a paragon and saint, Quinn shares a story that shows the impulsive and goofier side of the woman.

“Oh she could be funny and goofy-crazy,” says Quinn. “In the first year that TOY started, one night we were in Daemen Theater rehearsing. The windows were open. Some kids threw a smoke bomb in the window. Infuriated, Roz told me ‘Let’s go!’ and we jumped into her car and took off after them with the headlights off – up over the curb, driving over the grass. And she was not a very good driver! Finally, she gave up. I asked, ‘What were you going to do if we found them?’ We just burst out laughing. That was Roz. Spontaneous. The kind to take action. I’ll never know anyone else like her!”

Indeed, none of us ever will know anyone like Roz. Happily, her legacy will endure. We will celebrate that legacy at the Allendale Theatre on Sunday at 2 p.m.