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Devouring the Humana Festival A front-line report from one of America's most important new play festivals

By CLIFFORD LEE JOHNSON III

I touch down in Louisville, Kentucky on a Friday afternoon and board a van that whisks me to my hotel. I drop my bags and rush to make an 8:00 curtain for Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them by A. Rey Pamatmat, a traditional family play with non-traditional, Filipino-American characters.  Then I file out of the theatre, down a cocktail, and file back into the same house, which now features an entirely new set for my 11:00 show, The End, a play about the end of the world co-written by five playwrights.

It's 1:00 AM when I return to my room, and Day One of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays is in the books.

Over the next two days, I join 150 producers, literary managers, agents, journalists, and academics who are attending Industry Weekend. We will attend five more productions before heading home.  During that time we will also gobble down theatre-supplied breakfasts, snatch lunch and dinner whenever possible, talk to people we wish we could escape from, search vainly for those we promised to find, strain our voices shouting over the roar of parties, and, for a few hours each night, sleep.

Why do we do it?  As Annie MacRae, the Literary Manager of the Manhattan Theatre Club, succinctly puts it, “If you’re in the new play business, you must go to Humana.”
Now in its 35th year, the Humana Festival has become one of the country’s premiere launching pads for plays and playwrights, as well as a must-attend social event on the theatrical calendar.

Humana has earned this attention with its extraordinary reputation for uncovering new works and new authors.  If you are a dedicated theatregoer, then you have probably seen at least one of the 400 plays---representing the work of over 200 writers---that have been part of the festival since its inception in 1976.  In the last decade alone, Humana's roster has included successes like Ominum Gatherum by Alexandra Gersten-Vasillaros and Theresa Rebeck, After Ashley and Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, The Ruby Sunrise by Rinne Groff, and This Beautiful City by The Civilians.  In the years before that, playwrights like John Patrick Shanley, Tony Kushner, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Jose Rivera were all on the bill.

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By 9:00 AM on Saturday, I’m back at ATL for a complimentary breakfast and as much coffee as I dare drink, considering that the first play of the day is a long one-act.  The Edge of Our Bodies by Adam Rapp is a quiet but intense piece that electrifies the intimate Victor Jory Stage.  This is what we came for, a crackling new drama that exhilarates and inspires, and for some of my colleagues it justifies the entire weekend.

Afterwards, I rush to Kirsty Gaudel, ATL’s Public Relations Manager, to pick up a CD of photos for use in this article, and she has it waiting and ready.  One of the miracles of the Festival is the efficiency of ATL’s staff at handling visitors and at managing the requirements of seven separate productions. 

ATL maintains three theatres, and all run simultaneously during the industry weekends to insure that VIPs get to see every show.  The staff manages to make it look easy.

It is not easy, however.  I know because several years ago I was the Assistant Literary Manager at ATL and participated in three Festivals.  Behind the scenes, there is an army of over 160 staffers, technicians, apprentices, and volunteers working to keep the Festival humming. Their efforts are invisible, but no choreography on Broadway can match their precision.

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At noon I return to the Bingham Theatre for, appropriately enough, Anne Washburn's A Devil At Noon, a play based on the work of noted sci-fi author Philip K. Dick.  As I study the in-the-round space, where we saw our plays on Friday, I’m impressed that the design staff has crafted so many sets that can be dismantled and installed in a matter of hours.  Paul Owen, who was ATL’s chief set designer for many years, was a master at this, and I’m glad to see the tradition continue.

I lunch at a nearby pizza parlor with Rafael Martin, the Literary & Humanities Manager at Soho Rep, and we discuss what we’ve seen so far and which piece might have a future. 

This kind of handicapping is encouraged by ATL. “Our goal is that the plays we produce are produced elsewhere,” says Marc Masterson, ATL’s Artistic Director, adding that 85% of them have gone on to multiple productions.  Three---The Gin Game by D. L. Coburn, Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley, and Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies---have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Masterson is in his 10th and final season at Actors Theatre.  (Next year he takes over as the Artistic Director of South Coast Repertory.) During his tenure, he’s maintained both the machine constructed by his predecessor Jon Jory and ATL’s partnership with the Humana Foundation, which has given the Festival approximately $20,000,000.

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After lunch, I make my way to the Pamela Brown Auditorium, where I will see BOB by Peter Sinn Nachtreib.  I take my seat and turn around to tell Beth Blickers, A. Rey Pamatmat’s agent, how much I liked Edith, which is easy to do because I really did.

Most plays submitted to Actors Theatre come from agents. Others are recruited from past participants; commissioned, often in partnership with other theatres; and suggested by industry professionals.  No particular style is preferred.  “We produce a spectrum of work to suit the different parts of the American theatrical spectrum,” says Masterson, and this year’s selections, which includes Nachtreib’s comic amalgam of Brechtian epic theatre and vaudeville, supports that assertion.

After BOB, I wolf down dinner at a restaurant recommend by a colleague and head back to the Pamela Brown for Molly Smith Metzler’s Elemeno Pea, a bittersweet comedy that perfectly caps my day of playgoing.  I put in an appearance at the Industry Weekend soiree, where I regale ATL’s young literary staff with tales about what things were like “back in the day,” and then fall into bed.

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Day three of the weekend finds me breakfasting with old Louisville friends.  At 2:30 I take my seat in the Bingham for Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison, a provocative piece in which people sick of the 21st century move to a community where life is lived as it was in the 1950s.

When the curtain comes down, I realize with a start that the weekend is over.  I step into the lobby, where the staff has lined up my luggage, blink at the bright afternoon sunlight, and almost before I know it, I’m winging my way back to New York, tired but deeply satisfied.

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Clifford Lee Johnson III is a consulting producer and writer living in New York City with his wife, novelist Jane Kelley, and daughter, playwright Sofia Johnson.