The Future of American Theater: a Report From Louisville

I spent last weekend in Kentucky at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville watching a half-dozen brand new works. The festival is an invigorating whirl of creativity, conviviality and engaging performances.

Apr 15, 2015 at 9:40 am
Tasha Lawrence and Margaret Daly in The Roommate (2015 Humana Festival)
Tasha Lawrence and Margaret Daly in The Roommate (2015 Humana Festival)

I spent last weekend in Kentucky at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville watching a half-dozen brand new works. The festival is an invigorating whirl of creativity and conviviality, mixing engaging performances with socializing among playwrights, theater artists, critics and audiences. It’s also a very ambitious undertaking for Kentucky’s leading theatrical institution. Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Artistic Director Les Waters says producing the festival — which opens in early March and gradually adds productions until two culminating weekends in April when all the plays are in production — is like simultaneously sprinting and running a marathon. The theater’s staff makes it seem effortless, but that’s a theatrical illusion: They just do a great job of making it look that way.

The festival’s The Roommate by Jen Silverman will get picked up by many other theaters because it uses two actresses in their 50s and one set. But more importantly, it’s funny and contemporary: A recently divorced woman in Iowa takes a roommate who turns out to be a vegan lesbian from the Bronx, N.Y. The evolution of their connection goes in some unexpected directions with some wild consequences.

I Promised Myself to Live Faster, produced by Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company, is not likely to be staged elsewhere because it so idiosyncratically belongs to that zany troupe. But it was a gas to watch five performers in costumes reminiscent of Flash Gordon portray intergalactic nuns out to save the race of Homosexuals from villains and restore balance to the universe in a hilarious 90-minute allegory.

I Promised Myself to Live Faster by Gregory S Moss and Pig Iron Theatre Company - Mikeah Ernest Jennings and Dito van Reigersberg
Photo: Bill Brymer

Erin Courtney’s I Will Be Gone is a ghost story with some fine moments but a meandering narrative that never quite came into focus, while Colman Domingo’s Dot started off strong with the story of an African-American family struggling with their mother’s descent into dementia, but lost its way in a forest of dark comedy and predictable caricatures.

I Will Be Gone by Erin Courtney - Amy Berryman as Penelope
Photo: Bill Brymer
Dot by Colman Domingo - Adrienne C. Moore, Kevin R. Free & Sharon Washington
Photo: Bill Brymer

Charles Mee contributed an exuberant piece, The Glory of the World, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, the Kentucky-based Trappist monk, writer and social activist. It involved a massive amount of stage business for a cast of 17 — combat and dance choreography and wordplay.

The festival’s annual showcase using acting interns was That High Lonesome Sound, a collection of short dramatic pieces by four writers, inspired by Kentucky’s Bluegrass music. It was one of the best collaborative scripts in years, much more integrated than usual.

That High Lonesome Sound by Jeff Augustin, Diana Grasanti, Cory Hinkle & Charise Castro Smith - Actors Theatre of Louisville Acting Intern Company
Photo: Bill Brymer

A special aspect of this festival is an annual set of 10-minute plays. This year’s featured three pieces about a young woman trying to be funny, an insurance company unprepared to deal with a disaster and a man trying to become immortal without telling his girlfriend. 

The festival is also the forum for recognizing outstanding recent works with the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. Sizeable cash prizes are made to playwrights for scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2014. Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale received the top prize of $25,000. It told the story of a stressed-out social worker who must choose between leaving a child with neglectful, drug-addicted parents or placing her with her grandmother, a religious zealot. It originated at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in January 2014. 

Citations with $7,500 awards went to Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, a show from last year’s festival, as well as Nathan Alan Davis’s Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, staged in a rolling world premiere by the National New Play Network in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

ATCA hands out its own M. Elizabeth Osborn Award of $1,000 to an emerging playwright. Tom Coash won for his play Veils about similarities and differences between America and the Middle East as seen by two young Muslim women in Cairo. It premiered in February 2014 at Portland Stage Company in Maine.

Bill Hirschman, chair of ATCA’s 18-member play-reading committee, said on the ATCA website that the 27 entries considered for awards ensured the future of theater: “Refuting concerns about theater as a relevant and popularly embraced art form, the stunning array and high quality of scripts we read confirmed the enduring commitment of regional theaters and a dazzling diversity of playwrights to be the primary standard-bearers for new works.” 

Based on the work I saw onstage in Louisville, I say amen to Hirschman’s sentiment.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]