It starts with a script that fights its way past nearly 1,000 competing stories to the top of the stack and onto the final bill. It ends with the thrill of discovery, as audiences experience the new work for the first time. The 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays opened Wednesday at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where every spring, new plays are born.
Ten plays by fourteen playwrights will make their world premieres over the next five weeks. The annual showcase of new work, underwritten by the Humana Foundation, has introduced more than 400 plays into American theater. These include recent hits like Gina Gionfriddo’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist, “Becky Shaw,” and Jordan Harrison’s entry last year, the acclaimed “Maple and Vine.”
The Humana Festival celebrates a diverse slate of American playwrights working in a variety of styles and perspectives, with bright-eyed hopefuls enjoying their first prominent premieres alongside award-winning veterans. And it attracts a wide audience as well — during last year’s festival, Actors Theatre filled nearly 40,000 seats with local patrons and out of town visitors from the theater world, many of whom are looking for the next great show to produce.
This year’s lineup moves from modern Midwestern suburbs to 1967 Middle East, and features the immortality farce “Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards” by Greg Kotis, creator of the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit “Urinetown.” This year’s acting apprentice showcase is an ensemble tribute to foodie culture, “Oh, Gastronomy!”
The festival is also a debut of sorts for the theater’s new artistic director, Les Waters, who arrived in Louisville in January. The Obie Award-winning director replaces Marc Masterson, who left to lead South Coast Repertory in Southern California last year.
Waters came from another acclaimed new play incubator, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. And he’s no stranger to the Humana Festival. He directed two Humana Festival premieres in the past: Charles Mee’s “Big Love” in 2000 and Naomi Iizuka’s “At the Vanishing Point” in 2004.
“As someone who has been a champion of important new voices and been instrumental in the production of new work, I am excited to have joined an institution within which new play development is such an important part of their mission,” Waters said. “During both visits to Louisville I was deeply impressed with the theater, its staff and the community at large and its appetite for new work and enthusiasm to engage in a dialogue about the work on our stages.”
“I am committed to making theater within the Humana Festival and during the season that is passionate and intelligent, funny and heartfelt, and to continuing Actors Theatre’s incredible legacy of local and national acclaim,” he added.
The festival began Wednesday with the premiere of Tony Award-nominee Lisa Kron’s “The Ver**on Play,” a dark comedy about the “unimaginable horrors” of telephone customer service. Music scholar and author Idris Goodwin’s coming-of-age homage to a 1980s hip hop education, “How We Got On,” will premiere Sunday.
Here’s a look at the rest of the 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays:
“The Ver**on Play” by Lisa Kron (through April 1 in the Bingham Theatre) — A problem with Jenni’s cell phone service turns into a nightmare in this dark comedy about a woman out for revenge or reinstated service, whichever comes first. Kron is a Tony Award-nominated founding member of the Obie and Bessie Award-winning theater company The Five Lesbian Brothers. Directed by Nicholas Martin.
“How We Got On” by Idris Goodwin (March 2–April 1 in the Bingham Theatre) — Three kids forge a cultural identity in the white suburbs through parking lot hip hop battles in the 1980s. Goodwin, a spoken word artist, has appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry,” The Discovery Channel and “Sesame Street.” Developed at the 2011 National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center and directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, whose Actors Theatre credits include “Doubt.”
“The Hour of Feeling” by Mona Mansour (March 6–April 1in the Pamela Brown Auditorium) — In 1967 on the brink of the Six-Day War, Romantic poetry scholar Adham travels with his new wife Abir from Palestine to London to deliver a lecture that could make him an academic star. Ambitions collide with family duty and culture, and the young couple’s marriage is tested. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey.
“Eat Your Heart Out” by Courtney Baron (March 9-31 in the Bingham Theatre) — Alice and Gabe are desperate to adopt a child. Nance, a single mom just starting to date, struggles to connect with her teenage daughter Evie, who longs for her best friend Colin. Their lives are woven together in a tale of parental hopes and fears, and of hearts consumed by longing. Baron’s short play The Blue Room received the Heideman Award and was produced as part of “Life Under 30” in the 1999 Humana Festival, and she co-authored the first apprentice anthology, “Back Story,” in 2000. Directed by Adam Greenfield, director of new play development at Playwrights Horizons.
“Oh, Gastronomy!” by Michael Golamco, Carson Kreitzer, Steve Moulds, Tanya Saracho and Matt Schatz (March 16–April 1 in the Bingham Theatre) — This year’s multi-writer acting apprentice showcase anthology focuses on the pleasures and paradoxes of food. Directed by associate apprentice/intern company director Amy Attaway.
“Death Tax” by Lucas Hnath (March 20–April 1 in the Victor Jory Theatre) — Maxine is rich and dying, and believes her nurse is trying to kill her. When the patient confronts her caretaker, her accusations have unforeseen and irrevocable consequences, in this tightly-wound thriller about money, power and the value of a human life. This is Hnath’s first appearance at the Humana Festival. His ten-minute play “The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith” was produced in the 2010 apprentice showcase “The Tens.” Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll.
“Michael Von Siebenburg Melts through the Floorboards” by Greg Kotis (March 22–April 15 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium) — A 500-year-old Austrian bachelor living in an American city keeps a secret of eternal youth that involves endless first dates and a special meat tenderizer. When his landlady gets suspicious and the ghost of a medieval comrade commands him to take Constantinople back from the Turks, Michael finds himself haunted by past and present in this dark comedy by the Tony Award-winning author of “Urinetown.” Directed by Kip Fagan.
Ten-Minute Plays (March 31–April 1 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium) — “The Ballad of 423 and 424” by Nicholas C. Pappas, “Hero Dad” by Laura Jacqmin and “The Dungeons and the Dragons” by Kyle John Schmidt were selected from entries to the National Ten-Minute Play Contest.