By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Feb 16, 2016 at 1:16 PM

The United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) is one of the top two or three arts fund raising organizations in the country and has an enviable record of raising money for performing arts groups in the city.

UPAF is currently gearing up for the March 1 kickoff to its annual campaign, including commercials featuring Henry Winkler – old and new. Every year, UPAF brings in an artist to help with the kickoff event, but this year it’s a little different. The guest is the music.

Yip Harburg was a lyricist who wrote the words to some of the most famous songs in the American songbook, including "Over the Rainbow" for "The Wizard of Oz." Harburg’s great grandson will be at the event to talk about the songs and the remarkable social conscience Harburg had. UPAF groups will entertain with performances of some of the songs written by Harburg with a series of composers including Jule Styne, Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen.

Other songs he wrote included "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," "April in Paris," "Old Devil Moon" and "It’s Only a Paper Moon."

His song "Over the Rainbow" was featured in last year's campaign video.

Last year, UPAF set a record of just over $12 million raised. UPAF provides major funding for 15 member groups and a number of smaller performance groups. The six cornerstone groups are Milwaukee Rep, the Milwaukee Symphony, First Stage, Florentine Opera, Skylight Music Theatre and Milwaukee Ballet.

This is the 49th year that UPAF has conducted a fund drive, and last year over 22,000 individual contributions helped raise the funds. Last year, I wrote about the impact that UPAF has; you can read that story here.

For example, UPAF funds help keep alive a number of smaller theaters in Milwaukee and enables them to produce some interesting and unique plays. Milwaukee is rich in theater, and as a critic, I look forward to every play I see. I walk into the theater hoping that it will be a magnificent evening of live theater.

It doesn’t always happen, and if I’m disappointed, it’s all part of the game. Some you win, some you lose and some are called on account of rain.

One of the things I always approach with a certain amount of trepidation is a one-person play.

For every "No Child " with Marti Gobel at Next Act or "Under the Lintel" with James Ridge at Chamber, I find one-person plays that are wanting. It could be the actor or it could be the play, but staging a one-person production is a decision fraught with dangers.

I’ve got another one-man show coming up this week when In Tandem stages "Lamps for My Family," by Milwaukee’s own Michael Neville. Neville grew up here, went to New York where he had some success and eventually moved back to his home. He grew up in a large Irish family, and "Lamps" is based on those relatives.

Neville is an accomplished playwright, and Mark Corkins will play all 20 relatives of Jack Duddy, who comes home and hears from each relative – all of whom are dead.

Corkins is one of the best actors in the state and delivered a mesmerizing and brutal performance as Gideon in "Burying the Bones" at In Tandem in 2013. To this day, it’s a performance that will always live with me.

The one man play is just an example of the breadth of theater in this city – not just what is available but the very definition of what theater is.

I was reminded of this recently when I reviewed "Dorian Gray," the creation of Michael Pink at the Milwaukee Ballet. Pink is a remarkable dance master, but perhaps it’s even more striking how wed he is to telling stories. He convinces his dancers that his ballet is about more than steps or movement. It’s about communicating with an audience and telling the story.

Another example is the creativity of Jill Anna Ponasik and her little bitty Milwaukee Opera Theatre. This season, she staged "The Story of My Life" in the Boswell Bookstore on the East Side. Two years ago, she staged a one-man opera about a monkey. Both were as unique and as moving as anything I’ve seen in Milwaukee.

Sure, it is opera and sure, it is ballet – niche art interests to some general audiences. But in a larger sense, it is theater. And it is those productions that help me, and I think all of us, define what theater is.

At the heart of all theater is the story. It’s the telling of a story to an audience.

It can be a huge spectacular, the kind of thing Mark Clements is famous for at Milwaukee Rep, or it can be a one-man opera about a monkey.

Given that definition, it is remarkable how much storytelling is available for Milwaukee audiences. Small dance companies are theater; Ex Fabula, the storytelling group, is theater; and there are a dozen or so small community theater companies that often delight their audiences.

Not only does UPAF provide funding for many groups, it also sets a tone of value for the performing arts. It leads the continual efforts to keep Milwaukee a special home for a wide variety of performing arts.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.