A Shot of Kentucky Creativity: Humana Festival No. 38

One of America’s most important theatrical events happens annually just 100 miles south of Cincinnati via I-71: the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, kicking off its 38th year this week

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One of America’s most important theatrical events happens annually just 100 miles south of Cincinnati via I-71: the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, kicking off its 38th year this week. It is a destination for serious theatergoers as well as theater professionals from across the nation and around the world who journey to this onstage mecca for a shot of creativity — like a dose of Red Bull after a long, wearying winter. According to Actors Theatre’s artistic director Les Waters, his company “continues to support the art and necessity of storytelling by providing a space for the playwright to create, innovate and thrive.” 

In fact, the downtown Louisville theatre has three spaces for productions: its standard-issue Pamela Brown Auditorium (a proscenium stage with seating for 634), the Bingham Theatre (a versatile arena space for 318) and the Victor Jory Theatre (a flexible black box that can accommodate up to 159). Even with this diverse physical plant, the festival is a gargantuan undertaking — presenting multiple productions simultaneously, often with actors in multiple shows.

Since 1976, the Humana Festival has produced nearly 450 new plays in rotating repertory during a six-week span from mid-February to early April. Three of these shows have won Pulitzer Prizes — D. L. Coburn’s The Gin Game (1978), Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1981) and Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends (2000). Recent breakout scripts have included Gina Gionfriddo’s After Ashley and Becky Shaw as well as Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine.

For 2014, Waters and his artistic team have assembled six full-fledged productions featuring the work of 16 writers. The tradition of 10-minute plays continues with three more works, resembling short stories in fiction, gemlike pieces that distill theatrical magic in a brief performance.

The opening production, Dorothy Fortenberry’s Partners, begins this week. It’s a look at two young couples struggling with personal finance, the meaning of marriage and the human capacity for self-sabotage. Next week, Lucas Hnath’s The Christians joins the lineup (opening March 4), about the leader of a mega-church who is struggling with the challenge of changing his mind. Jordan Harrison returns with his fourth Humana show, The Grown-Up (opening March 7), a time-bending seriocomic adventure about growing up from the perspective of Kai, who might be a 10-year-old boy, a young TV writer or a salty old man. Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) jumps into the mix (opening March 14) with the story of a young man whose life is cut short by an act of senseless violence in Brooklyn. It’s not a linear piece — the story moves back and forth as Tray’s family copes with memory and loss while moving toward hope.

The most inventive work for 2014 might be Steel Hammer, a new piece staged by experimental theater veteran Anne Bogart and her always-inventive SITI Company. It’s based on tall tales and songs about John Henry, a character from Appalachian folklore who engaged in a fantastic contest with a steam-powered hammer during the construction of a West Virginia railroad. Opening March 19, it includes writing by four remarkable playwrights: Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor with music by Julia Wolfe.

Each year the festival includes an ensemble piece utilizing its Acting Apprentice Company. This year it’s Remix 38, a compilation of short pieces inspired by iconic shows from past Humana festivals. Five up-and-coming writers have contributed: Jackie Sibblies Drury, Basil Kreimendahl, Idris Goodwin, Justin Kuritzkes and Amelia Roper. As in the past, this production enters the repertory late in the run with a March 21 opening, resulting in a six-show rotation during the Festival’s final weeks. (Special weekend travel and ticket packages are available for out-of-town guests.)

A program of 10-minute plays completes the festival: Rachel Bonds’ Winter Games, a slice of life at a bakery in a small Pennsylvania town; Jason Gray Platt’s Some Prepared Remarks (A History in Speech), about the life of one speaker making presentations, toasts and more; and Gregory Hischak’s Poor Shem, a “tiny play about three characters and a photocopier.” They will be presented on Saturday, April 5 (9 p.m.), and Sunday, April 6 (4:30 p.m.), the Festival’s final weekend.

It needs to be noted that the Humana Foundation supports the festival. The health insurer’s corporate headquarters is in Louisville, and its three decades of support for Actors Theatre represents the largest and longest-running active partnership between a corporation and a theater in the United States.

THE HUMANA FESTIVAL OF NEW AMERICAN PLAYS, presented in rotating repertory by Actors Theatre of Louisville, continues through April 6.

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