In Depth: At Humana Festival, the Play’s the Thing

by Graham Shelby on March 2, 2011

When you go to the theatre to see a production of a classic, think Shakespeare or even A Christmas Carol, your focus is probably on the actors. Or the director. Or the costumes and set design.

That’s because those stories are well known and part of the reason people see familiar plays is to see how an old story is being retold.  But that’s not how it works at the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

The 35th edition of the festival opens at Actors Theatre this week. At the Humana Festival, all the stories and characters are new, and the focus is on the playwrights.

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You won’t find a particular theme at this year’s Humana Festival. Not among the actual plays, anyway.  Just ask some of the playwrights:

“It’s a play about three kids who are abandoned on a farm.”
“About a New York couple.”
“A young girl who is sixteen.”
“Bob was born on Valentine’s Day in the bathroom of a White Castle restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky.”
“It’s a comedy.”
“We have zombies.”
“It’s comedic and dramatic. It’s that kind of dark, midway kind of play.”

The plays may not have much in common, but the playwrights are a different story. They come from different places and have reached different stages in their careers, but they’re in Louisville this month for the same reason. During the Humana Festival, Actor’s Theatre isn’t just a theatre space. It’s a marketplace.

“Coming here, it’s like the Sundance Film Festival for new plays,” says Molly Smith Metzler, a playwright from New York City. Her play Elemeno Pea, debuts at this year’s Humana Festival. “It’s as high-profile as it gets. Directors and artistic directors and board members and funders and agents and they all come to Louisville and come see these plays and sort of shop. And for me, this is my first professional production. Ever! So, I’m really excited.”

Theatre professionals come from all over the U.S and as far away as Russia and Bangladesh. They’re looking for plays to fill out their season calendars. Not that the market for new plays is booming. Jordan Harrison wrote the festival production Maple and Vine. He says, “Often what happens with a regional theatre is maybe their season has an O’ Neil play or an August Wilson play or A Christmas Carol. And there’s one slot for the new play.”

Harrison has become a role model for what the Humana Festival can do for a playwright. He had his first professional production at the festival in 2003. Since then, he’s been produced dozens of times and won numerous awards. The start he got at Actor’s Theatre was crucial to helping him become a full-time playwright. Although it wasn’t just the festival. Harrison also got the one thing every playwright wants for their play after its debut.

“You want a second production,” says Amy Attaway, a theatre veteran who works with the apprentice company at Actors Theatre. She’s also co-director of the Humana Festival production of The End. “Playwrights will tell you that the hardest thing to get in the American theatre is a second production.

That’s the key. If you can get that second production, then your play is going to have a life.”
Most Humana Festival plays do find life after Louisville. Since 2001, 85 percent of the plays that have debuted at the festival have been produced later by other theatres. That’s why Actors Theatre received more than 700 play scripts from playwrights hoping to land one of the seven full productions in this year’s festival.

But even for those who’ve made it, success can be hard to measure. Anne Washburn is the playwright of A Devil at Noon. “I’ve had plays that have been done bunches of times and I have plays that have only been done once. And if the once has been a really great time, that’s – it doesn’t make me any money and only a few people have seen it, but it’s part of what helps me to keep writing. Gives you the strength to write on.” A

Devil at Noon is on stage this month at Actors Theatre. Washburn is already at work on her next play.

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