A LETTER FROM LOUISVILLE: An Overview of The Humana Festival of New American Plays, Where Voices Bloom Every Spring

By Jonathan Mandell
03 Apr 2012

Laura Heisler and Micah Stock in <i>Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards</i>
Laura Heisler and Micah Stock in Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards
Photo by Alan Simons

A report about the new works by Greg Kotis, Lisa Kron, Courtney Baron, Lucas Hnath and more, echoing from the 2012 Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

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Ever since his success with Urinetown on Broadway, Tony-winning playwright Greg Kotis says, he has written each new play hearing two voices.

"One voice says: 'We should make this commercial.' The other voice says: 'Screw that. Do the exact opposite'"

Which voice won out in his latest play seems clear to anybody who saw Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards, which is about vampire cannibals. Kotis prefers to describe it as "a funny play about a 500-year-old meat-eating Austrian baron who has an existential crisis." It was one of the seven full-length plays that premiered at the 36th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in recent weeks; a media and industry weekend, offering a whirlwind of works in repertory, was held March 30-April 1.



"Humana is an important festival," Kotis says. "It's an honor and a privilege to be part of it. I can't imagine a playwright turning down the opportunity."

Such Broadway hits as Agnes of God, The Gin Game and Crimes of the Heart had their first productions at the Humana Festival. More recently, playwright Jordan Harrison, a regular at Humana, had a success last season at Playwrights Horizons with a show that had its premiere at the festival, Maple and Vine.

"Our mission is not to have our shows go to Broadway," says Zan Sawyer-Dailey, long-time associate director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. "Our purpose is to nurture the playwrights, and plays, of America."

Some 400 new plays have been produced as part of the festival over the past three dozen years. This surely has helped spur the local scene, which includes three other professional theatres and at least 30 other companies, "a mix of the well-established and storefront theatres without storefronts," according to Amy Attaway, a Louisville native. On staff at the Actors Theatre, Attaway directed one of the Humana productions this year, Oh, Gastronomy, a collection of 28 quick and funny skits by five playwrights, all about food, performed by this season's 22 performing members of the Actors Theatre's apprentice/intern program. Attaway is also starting a new company of her own, called 502 (the area code for Louisville).

Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Paul Niebanck in Death Tax
photo by Alan Simons

It's safe to say that the annual trek by theatre practitioners for this industry weekend, at the ATL complex a few blocks from the Ohio River, is not just for the new scripts, but for networking in general — at the plays, panels and parties.

"It's the best opportunity of the year to get to know new writers, actors, directors and designers while at the same time communicating with colleagues in the industry," says David Muse, the artistic director of Studio Theater in Washington, DC.

"Humana is the granddaddy of new play festivals," says Jim Steinberg, whose father created the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, which focuses on funding American theatre, including an annual New Play Award for plays not yet produced in New York City. "But in the last decade there has been a proliferation of such festivals from Miami to Boise, Syracuse to St. Louis."

The difference, says Muse, is "the others are really mostly play-reading festivals. Humana is unique in that it offers full productions."

One of the most talked-about of these productions at this year's festival was Death Tax by Lucas Hnath. Maxine, a dying woman in a nursing home accuses a nurse of trying to hasten her death so that Maxine's daughter would have to pay fewer taxes on the estate. Is the nurse really getting paid off? One of the strengths of the play is the audience's shifting understanding of the truth, and of the characters' motives. "People came up to me to talk about their relationship with their mother; the play seems to provoke that," says Hnath, who adds he had never even heard Death Tax spoken aloud until Humana. A strength of the production — as all of the Humana productions — is the quality of the performances. The nurse, for example, was played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, a first-rate New York actress who was in the cast of Lynn Nottage's Ruined Off-Broadway.

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