Humana Festival of new plays wraps up

Area students help make drama happen

The Humana Festival of New Plays wrapped up last weekend, delivering seven new plays to the world.

For the past 38 years, professionals from around the nation and around the globe have flocked to Louisville each spring in search of fresh fodder for their films and playhouses. Over the years, 450 new plays have premiered; this year more than 33,000 attended the six-week festival last year.

This year’s lineup introduced the work of 16 writers and also celebrated the 50th anniversary of Actor’s Theatre. Issues ranged from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and gay marriage to inner city violence.

In “The Christians,” a new play by Lucas Hnath, a pastor at a mega-church determines to preach a sermon that will shake-up his flock — not to mention his wife. In “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” playwright Kimber Lee confronts the aftermath of a senseless murder of an 18-year-old Brooklyn teen.

Area students contribute

Two students from the Miami Valley were given the golden opportunity to help launch this year’s popular festival.

Cyndii Johnson, who earned a B.F.A. in acting from Wright State University, has been a member of the Actor’s Theatre Acting Apprentice Company for the past nine months. Over 2000 young actors auditioned for 20 coveted slots; the pre-professional training program is designed to serve as a bridge between undergraduate study and real world experience.

Johnson, who took the stage for the Humana Festival production of “Remix 38” and as a choir member in “The Christians,” also appeared in this season’s Louisville productions of “Our Town” and “Tom Jones.”

Folks in our area will remember Johnson as Anne Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” at Wright State, she also appeared in “The Merchant of Venice” and “Hairspray.”

“The Humana Festival was really intense,” says Johnson. “When not performing in the shows I was working backstage and helping to change the sets since two show performed on the same space almost everyday. They were very long days and it was lots of hard work but also one of the most educational and amazing experiences!”

Eric Werner, a Wittenberg University graduate who has spent the year as a Dramaturg/Literary Management Intern, says it was one of his college professors that introduced him to the idea of becoming a dramaturg.

“In my senior year of college I was ready to do ‘Teach for America,” when my professor said he knew what I was going to do,” recalls Werner. “He said dramaturgy would combine my love of theater and my love of English.”

Werner, who has also been acting since high school and will perform at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival this summer, said a dramaturg acts as a bridge between the playwrights and the actors and designers.

“A dramaturg is the best friend of the play and provides an early audience for it,” he explains. “With classical scripts it involves lots of research — so in the case of ‘Tom Jones,’ I researched the 18th century and author Henry Fielding. Actors don’t have time to do all that reading.”

With new play development, he explained, the dramaturg looks for scenes that might not be working or dialogue that might not make sense.

In the Festival play about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, for example, Werner researched all of the names of the detainees mentioned in the script, then taught the actors how to pronounce each of them correctly.

In “Steel Hammer,” a new play about the legendary railroad worker John Henry, Werner had to discover what it would have been like to have been a steel driving railroad worker in a runnel in the 19th century.

Awards given

As the culmination of the industry weekend at the Humana Festival, the American Theatre Critics Association recognizes emerging playwrights and outstanding scripts that have premiered professionally outside of New York City.

“Seven Spots on the Sun,” a new play unveiled at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in October, won a special ATCA citation for playwright Martin Zimmerman.

The ATCA labeled it “a meld of magical realism and political issues, an affecting tale that examines whether forgiveness is truly possible, set against the ravages of civil war, lust, plague and a consuming need for vengeance.”

Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You” was the recipient of the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award that comes with a $25,000 prize. Playwright Topher Payne won the 2014 Osborn Award for an emerging playwright.

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