Humana Festival of New American Plays Kicks Off

Actors Theatre of Louisville opens its 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays this week. The theater has produced more than 400 world premieres during the annual event since it founded the festival in 1976, and will welcome more than 40,000 patrons to nine new plays by eleven playwrights over the next six weeks.

“I passionately believe that it’s important that artists have champions, and Actors Theatre is honored to be able to provide a creative and supportive space for playwrights to develop their work,” said artistic director Les Waters at a press conference today.

The festival opens Friday and runs through April 7.

The Humana Foundation, the charitable arm of the health insurance company, has underwritten the festival for 34 years, making it the longest-running partnership between a corporation and a theater in the United States.

Humana Foundation executive director Virginia Kelly Judd announced the partnership will continue with a $700,000 grant to Actors Theatre to support next year’s festival, a level of support consistent with recent years. Judd tied the foundation’s support of theater to Humana’s holistic health initiatives.

“Access to quality arts plays an important role in helping a person experience well-being and live life fully,” said Judd. “These Humana Festival performances, for example, they take you to a new place. They’re always provocative and stimulating, sometimes exciting, and therefore they do enhance our individual well-being.”

Waters directed his first Actors Theatre production in the 2000 Humana Festival, Charles Mee’s “Big Love.” This year, Waters will direct Will Eno’s picaresque comedy “Gnit,” which he calls “a faithful, unfaithful and willfully American misreading of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt.’” It opens March 17. 

Eno is a Guggenheim Fellow, and his play “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in drama. The Humana Festival is where you go to see the newest work by acclaimed writers at the height of their careers, like  Eno, whom The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood calls “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” 

But it’s also where new talent emerges. Take Jeff Augustin, who is making his professional debut as a playwright on one of the industry’s most prestigious stages. Augustin is the recipient of the 2011 Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award and the Kennedy Center Playwright Observer at the Sundance Theatre Lab. His play, “Cry Old Kingdom,” is the story of an artist living in 1964 Haiti during the oppressive Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier regime. 

Growing up, my mom always romanticized Haiti. Even as she talked about these tragic things that were happening she had this deep love and passion for her country,” said Augustin, whose family emigrated from Haiti before he was born. “ I think in an ideal world, she would never have left. And so I became fascinated with this idea of what forces us to leave and what forces us to stay, and how do we create art in times of dictatorship? And what is the role of artists in these times?” 

Another emerging playwright in this year’s festival is Mallery Avidon, whose “unconventional upbringing” led her to write “O Guru Guru Guru, or why I won’t go to yoga class with you.” 

“The same year I turned 30, the movie ‘Eat Pray Love’ was being filmed, and the ashram that Julia Roberts goes to in the movie was a place that was involved in my unconventional upbringing,” Avidon said. “It seemed like an interesting lens through which to investigate a moment for me and the culture when something that when I was going through it many years ago felt so, so distant from anything American, or in a national conversation, and suddenly was being talked about in a very commercial way.” 

“O Guru Guru Guru, or why I won’t go to yoga class with you” is directed by Lila Neugabauer. It opens March 22. 

Follow WFPL’s on-going coverage of the festival, including playwright interviews and reviews of each production, on air and here on ArtCraft. Here’s a brief overview of this year’s productions.

The 2013 Humana Festival plays, in order of opening:

“The Delling Shore” by Sam Marks (March 1)

“Appropriate” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (March 7)

“Cry Old Kingdom” by Jeff Augustin (March 10)

“Gnit” by Will Eno (March 17)

“O Guru Guru Guru, or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you” by Mallery Avidon (March 22)

“Sleep Rock Thy Brain” by Rinne Groff, Lucas Hnath and Anne Washburn (March 22 at Lincoln Elementary)

Ten-Minute Plays: “27 Ways I Didn’t Say ‘Hi’ To Laurence Fisburne” by Jonathan Josephson, “Two Conversations Overheard on Airplanes” by Sarah Ruhl and “Halfway” by Emily Schwend (April 6)

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