"It's about discovery," Marc Masterson says — "discovering a new voice, or something new from a writer you already know. When we go to the theatre, we search for that moment of discovery. We're looking to be surprised. We want to be astonished."
Masterson, artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, is speaking about his theatre's Humana Festival of New American Plays, the country's flagship new-play event. This year's festival, the 31st annual — the 29th in a row underwritten by the Humana Foundation — features ten premieres.
When Something Wonderful Ends, a one-woman play by Sherry Kramer, begins when a family home is put up for sale after the mother's death and continues by connecting an old Barbie collection with the United States' role in world affairs.
"On one level, it's about a middle-aged woman cleaning out her late mother's house," Masterson says. "But Sherry draws a really wise and complicated parallel to the Middle East — what was happening in the Middle East when she was little, and how that was reflected in the Barbie collection she stumbles on in her mother's attic, and how her growth and evolution as an adult has reflected the growth and complexity of the Middle East." In The As If Body Loop, by Ken Weitzman, a family must rescue all of humankind in order to save an ill sister. "It's a comedy — as is Sherry's play," explains Masterson. "One character takes on the weight of suffering of the world — and needs to be cured of that suffering, which manifests itself in a particular way, both funny and mythical. It is a reflection of an American's responsibility toward a world in crisis."
Strike Ship, by Naomi Iizuka, tells about a shooting and its effect on three diverse Los Angeles families. "There's a metaphor between the geological fault lines that run through L.A.," Masterson says, "and the fault lines that run through American culture in terms of race and class and politics."
Masterson is directing The Unseen, by Craig Wright, in which two men, long imprisoned and tortured by a brutal totalitarian government for unspecified crimes, are joined by a mysterious third prisoner who changes their lives.
"It's an allegory for how we think about the way we think we live. The two men in adjacent cells have never really seen each other. An unknown being exists between them, and they speculate about who or what that unknown prisoner might be, what that unknown person represents. They invent a belief system about this unknown being that reflects their worldview."
The other plays include dark play or stories for boys, by Carlos Murillo, in which a teenage boy's fictional Internet identity leads him to the brink of death; and Batch: An American Bachelor/ette Party, a site-specific work conceived by Whit MacLaughlin and Alice Tuan, with text by Tuan. There is also a bill of three ten-minute plays and an Open Road Anthology in which a group of writers tackle America's love for unfettered freedom — and the open road.
Three previous festival plays have won Pulitzer Prizes — D. L. Coburn's The Gin Game, Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Donald Margulies's Dinner with Friends. So who knows what the future will be for this year's plays and playwrights?
"You come to this festival to see plays no one has ever seen before," Masterson says. "You need to have the spirit of openness and the spirit of curiosity that allows you to discover."