Theater buffs from around the nation and around the world flock to Louisville each spring for the Humana Festival of New American Plays. The prestigious festival, now in its 37th year, has introduced more than 400 plays over the years, including three Pulitzer-Prize winners.
The Festival, which opened on Feb. 27 and ran through April 7, can always be counted on to give each new play its best shot — with top-notch directors and actors and terrific sets and costumes. On the two final industry weekends, representatives from film, television and theaters of all sizes descend on the state-of-the-art Actors Theatre to check out the new scripts.
This year’s offerings ranged from a humorous adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 19th century masterpiece “Peer Gynt” titled “Gnit” by Will Eno to two family relationship dramas —“The Delling Shore” by Sam Marks and “Appropriate” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. The struggle for freedom was the subject of “Cry Old Kingdom” by Jeff Augustin, set in Haiti in 1964 at the time of revolution.
There are always some surprises at the festival. This year, in the middle of “O Guru Guru Guru, or Why I Don’t Want to Go To Yoga Class With You” by Mallery Avidon, audience members were invited to remove their shoes, come to the stage and participate in a chanting/meditation session. (Some audience members were so relaxed they fell asleep.)
The most creative idea of the weekend came with “Sleep Rock Thy Brain.” The challenge to three well-established playwrights was to create a short play on the subject of “dreams” that would include flying segments. Audiences were shuttled to a nearby school where the theater’s apprentice acting company achieved lift-off in partnership with Louisville’s ZFX Flying Effects company.
These were not your typical Peter Pan flying segments; these talented young people had obviously been training for months and looked perfectly at home in the air in their beautifully choreographed scenes. In “nightnight” by Lucas Hnath, for example, three astronauts were forced to deal with the consequences of lack of sleep and how it might jeopardize their mission. Their space walks and tumbles in the air were mesmerizing.
ATCA awards announced
It’s at the festival each year that The American Theatre Critics Association recognizes playwrights for outstanding scripts that premiere outside of New York City.
For 2013, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award of $25,000 went to Robert Schenmkkan’s play “All the Way.” The drama, which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, tells the story of Lyndon Johnson’s campaign to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Two citations of $7,500 each were presented to Lucas Hnath for his play “Death Tax” and Johnna Adams for her play “Gidion’s Knot.” “Death Tax, a drama that focuses on the issue of dying in a 21st century America where it’s possible to keep individuals alive indefinitely, was introduced to the public last year at the Humana Festival. “Gidion’s Knot” is the drama that revolves around the mother of a dead student who visits his teacher seeking the back story behind his death. The play premiered at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W.V.
Cincinnati intern kept patrons happy
Claire E. Jones, an art history major from Cincinnati, has been serving as audience development and festival management intern for Actors Theatre this year.
Her responsibilities have ranged from coordinating airport pick-ups and hotels for the hundreds of industry professionals over special weekends to planning social media nights during the theater’s regular season.
“It’s our effort to reach out to broader, more technological audiences,” she says of the targeted evenings where tickets were available for just $20 and audiences were welcome to use Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest during the show. “The actors and stage managers loved the idea, though some theater purists felt the audience should lose itself in the darkness. But overall it was wildly successful; we even had actors tweeting backstage during “Romeo and Juliet.”
Jones, who previously worked as an intern at the Seattle Art Museum, also planned evenings where food and a bar were set up in the theater balcony.
“We talked to audience members afterwards and offered them drink tickets if they’d stay and talk to us,” Jones said. Some told her they’d never been to the theater before.
Jones says theaters have been forced by the recession to think outside the box.
“Previously there was a built-in audience of museum and theater-goers,” she said. “But now we need to attract new patrons, make it a more casual experience, and find ways to connect to people you might not think would be interested.”