Arts and Culture

Out of hundreds of plays to consider, only six will be staged at the Humana Festival of New American Plays starting this week.

Now in its 40th year at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Humana Festival is world-renowned as a springboard for new and rising playwrights, and every year there are many more submissions than openings.

“I think every year, we read somewhere between 550 to 700 plays,” said Actors Theatre artistic director Les Waters. “And on top of that are our own commissions that we’ve been developing over a while, so if you would just crudely look at it, your chance of getting a play in the festival is slim.”

Being highly selective means the plays that are finally included in the festival are the ones that stick with the staff.

“We probably start reading in May and we finish reading sometime in September or October, and if somebody’s written a play that we read in June and we’re still enthusiastic about it in September, then there’s something going on,” said Waters. (Listen to an interview with Waters in the above audio player.)

This year’s productions include both established and brand-new playwrights, working in a variety of styles and on a wide range of topics.

“For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday” is the newest play by Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Sarah Ruhl, who has had a long working relationship with Waters. This play was one of his first commissions when he came on board as artistic director in 2012.

The play centers around a group of siblings who are gathered to witness the passing of their father, and it stars veteran actor and Tony Award nominee Kathleen Chalfant.

“They talk about what it’s like to age, when do you think you’re a grownup, [and] does anybody actually think they’re a grownup,” Waters said.

Steven Dietz is one of the most frequently produced playwrights in the U.S., and he has three premieres happening this season alone, including “This Random World,” the fourth play he’s had in the Humana Festival over the years.

“It’s about serendipity, really, how our lives suddenly will take different paths, or sometimes our lives are going parallel to somebody else,” said Waters.

Other playwrights are getting their first professional production in this year’s Humana Festival. Brendan Pelsue (who has been a student of Sarah Ruhl’s in the Playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama) was an intern in the literary department at Actors Theatre in 2008-2009. His play “Wellesley Girl” is set in the year 2465, when the U.S. is physically fractured and politically broken.

Hansol Jung, also a student of Sarah Ruhl at Yale, wrote “Cardboard Piano,” about a missionary’s daughter and a child soldier in northern Uganda. Jung herself is the daughter of a pastor and spent time in Uganda while researching the setting.

“Her play is about love, really, how you define what it is to be in love with somebody,” Waters said. 

Laura Jacqmin’s play, “Residence,” takes place in an extended-stay hotel in Tempe, Arizona, and focuses on the relationships that develop in a temporary setting. Jacqmin has also written for the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” and for video games, learning different ways to tell a story.

The Acting Apprentice showcase is always a highlight of the festival, focusing on a particular theme and starring the 20 or so acting apprentices — you know, the people who usually make those pre-show speeches asking you to turn off your cell phones. They’ve been working hard all season, though, and this year’s production is a joint commission of four writers — Martyna Majok, Meg Miroshik, Jiehae Park, and Jen Silverman — who will explore Kentucky folklore and ghost history in “Wondrous Strange.”

In the final weekend of the festival, audiences get a chance to see the Ten-Minute Plays, which includes three new plays this year. Don’t write these off as lightweight, though, just because they’re short. It’s incredibly difficult to tell a full story in just 10 minutes.

Along with the plays, there are also opening and closing parties, lectures and panel discussions. There are a number of different ticket packages available, if you’d like to binge-watch new theater all weekend or spread out your viewing over a month or so. The Locals Pass is one of the best deals, which offers Louisville and Southern Indiana residents a chance to attend five productions for $75.

More information on the Humana Festival plays and ticket information can be found here.