Arts and Culture

Actors Theatre of Louisville will not host a 2022 Humana Festival of New American Plays, either online or in-person, executive artistic director Robert Barry Fleming confirmed with WFPL News.

“There will not be a Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2022… The Humana Festival of New American Plays, as envisioned prior to the Global Pandemic, has inspired a new approach to develop and produce new work on multiple platforms year-round,” Fleming’s emailed statement read, in part. 

In an interview with WFPL News in October, Fleming said the once-annual event, which typically takes place over multiple weeks in March and April, had undergone an evolution, both in response to the COVID-19 pandemic realities and the broader shifts within the theater industry

“Part of it is, if one keeps trying to force the lens of what happened in the before times, you actually eliminate your effective ability to actually continue to do the work that you do,” he said.

In that same interview, Fleming said trying to shoehorn play development into “a six-week kind of window, in a specific way of implementing it, is less important. We are actually doing the work and contributing to the canon, and continuing to innovate.”

The festival, which has been around for more than four decades, is an internationally known event focused on producing and elevating new theater work and voices. It’s fostered hundreds of world premieres. 

In 2011, a story from NPR deemed the festival, the “envy of just about every theater in America.” 

Actors Theatre called off performances of its Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The regional theater company pivoted to showing some of those plays that had been able to open online with a new on-demand streaming service called Actors Theatre Direct.

“For this community and the national and international theater industry, closing the Humana Festival is not dissimilar to canceling the [Kentucky] Derby or NCAA basketball tournament — a central event in the national and international artistic landscape,” Fleming told Louisville Business First in 2020. “To my knowledge, there was no other theater in the country whose recent decision to close their doors resulted in the shutdown of five world premiere plays.

In 2021, Actors presented a virtual exhibition of new works under the banner of the Humana Festival and with support of the Humana Foundation. The lineup included virtual reality productions, digital plays, community projects and an interactive video game. Those offerings debuted throughout the last year, and a number of them are still available online.

Play festivals of this caliber can be a large expense for the regional theaters hosting them.

In past years, Actors Theatre has received support from the Humana Foundation in Louisville and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. 

A spokesperson with the Humana Foundation said the organization had not received a new request of support from Actors Theater.

A statement said the foundation is “proud of its long-time commitment to the arts and its 40-year sponsorship of Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Humana Festival of New American Plays, which has created powerful stories and a platform for artistic expression.” 

“As the Foundation’s strategy has evolved to focus on health equity in addressing the social determinants of health, we’ve aligned our investments to support that focus,” it continued. “Investment realignments aren’t easy and as the Foundation plans its investment relationships for 2022 and beyond, we will focus on advancing our strategy and co-creating communities where leadership, culture, and systems work to improve and sustain positive health outcomes.”

As we evolve our relationship with the Humana Foundation, our organizations share an investment in the health, wellness and full flourishment of our community, and we look forward to continuing a sustained exploration of the intersection of art and social enterprise,” Fleming said in his statement to WFPL News.

As for the future of the Humana Festival and whether it will ever return, a spokesperson with Actors said that is yet to be determined. 

Fleming said their priorities right now are on the work they are doing rather than what is not happening.

He pointed toward Actors Theatre’s forthcoming world premiere of a show written by Jefferson County Public School students. It’s called “THREADS OF OUR HISTORY: Where We Intertwine,” and examines social justice in Louisville both presently and throughout history, according to its online play summary. 

The company also closed its in-person run of “Every Brilliant Thing” last month. 

Some playwrights consider the Humana Festival a benchmark in their careers.

Actor and playwright Colman Domingo’s play “Dot” ran at the festival in 2015. He already had some big credits on his playwright resume, yet felt validated by having his work at the festival. 

In an American Theatre magazine article from that year, Domingo said it made him feel like a real playwright. 

“Something about this really solidifies me,” he said. “The history and the legacy of it makes you feel like, ‘Yes, I am part of this tradition truly.’”

Disclosure: Louisville Public Media president Stephen George is a member of the Actors Theatre of Louisville board. WFPL is part of Louisville Public Media.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistitled the play “Every Brilliant Thing.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.