With IdeaFestival currently on hiatus, Humana Festival has no challenger to the title of “Peak Louisville Culture Season.” Starting Wednesday, thousands of audience members and national critics will flock to Actors Theatre to see what the next big thing in American theater might be.
Actors previewed the 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays at a kickoff event last Thursday and showed off scenes from five of the six new plays that will grace the various stages throughout the next few weeks.
It is arguably the most important new American play festival in the country.
“Humana Festival is to American theater as the Derby is to Louisville,” said Actors managing director Kevin E. Moore. The festival has produced plays that have gone on to make a splash on Broadway and win Pulitzers.
Its impact on the city is significant, too. At the height of the festival, Actors will employ around 240 employees and see more than 36,000 attendees. Louisville Metro Director of Economic Development, Scott Herman, said the arts in Louisville represent $462 million in economic impact and employ upward of 18,000 people.
Herman was standing in for Mayor Greg Fischer, who was in India.
Walter Woods, the new Humana Foundation CEO, is a “boomerang” who has returned to Louisville after 41 years of being away, most recently in South Dakota. He noted the Humana Foundation’s sponsorship of the festival is the “longest-running sponsorship between a corporation and a theater company in the country.”
Introducing his last Humana Festival lineup, Artistic Director Les Waters focused on the theater’s participation in The Ghostlight Project, an effort shared by more than 500 theaters nationwide to embrace diversity and inclusion. He read the theater’s mission statement:
Inspired by the tradition of leaving a “ghost light” on in a darkened theater, we pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation and compassion for everyone — regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis) ability, age, gender identity or sexual orientation. We aim to create brave spaces that will serve as a light for our community.
A “ghost light” is a long-standing tradition of leaving a light on stage after a performance and through the night — in part for safety, and in part as superstition to keep the haunts away.
Diverse opinions, dissent and argument are not only tolerated but invited. Active listening and courageous exchange are fundamental values. Collective action, activism and community engagement, both within and outside the walls of the theater, are cultivated, encouraged and supported.
The first play, “God Said This” by Leah Nanako Winkler (begins Feb. 28), has a Kentucky connection. The playwright is a Japanese-American playwright from Kamakura, Japan, and Lexington, and the play is set in Lexington.
(In the scene previewed during the kickoff, the protagonist refers to Louisvillians as “hicksters.”)
Hiro has returned to Lexington while her mom is undergoing chemotherapy. She has been away for seven years, and her old classmate John accuses her of having become an “East Coast liberal.” She strives to reconnect with her family, wrestles with mortality and finds that adversity brings her family together.
The play is directed by Morgan Gould.
“Marginal Loss” by Deborah Stein (begins March 6) takes place eight days after 9/11 as employees from an investment firm headquartered in the twin towers try to put the business back together. The play was loosely inspired by the real-life struggles of firm Cantor Fitzgerald.
The playwright said, “There are as many different types of grief as there are people.” She has been a resident playwright at the New Dramatists since 2007. The play is directed by Actors’ Assistant Artistic Director Meredith McDonough.
Four writers have come together to create “You Across from Me” (begins March 23), a set of four short plays that explore what happens when people gather at tables. The play by Jaclyn Backhaus, Dipika Guha, Brian Otaño and Jason Gray Platt will be directed by Jessica Fisch.
The preview of “You Across from Me” explored a special kind of table — a foosball table — and what happens when a Men’s Rights Activist takes on the first female participant in a Foosball Championship match.
There was no preview of “we, the invisibles” (begins March 23) because the cast was not yet in town. The play by Susan Soon He Stanton and directed by Dámaso Rodríguez was based on Stanton’s real-life job as a hotel maid.
Stanton, disturbed by the story of a maid whose accusation of sexual abuse by a powerful man is dismissed, interviewed dozens of hotel employees about their rarely heard stories.
Les Waters’ final directing stint at Actors will be for “Evocation to Visible Appearance” by Mark Schultz (begins March 16). The playwright is an Episcopal minister in Tuscon, Ariz., and worked as an adviser with Actors Theatre playwright Lucas Hnath on the Humana Festival 2014 play “The Christians,” which went on to tremendous success.
Waters said the play is a “metaphysical marvel with a black metal band.” It centers around a possibly pregnant 17-year-old named Samantha, who is having an existential crisis and seeks wisdom from a dark, tattooed musician.
Finally, “Do You Feel Anger?” (begins March 9) will explore “destructive gender expectations and toxic behaviors” in the workplace. The play, by Mara Nelson-Greenberg, follows the work of an empathy coach hired by a debt collection agency. The play is a comedy, but sometimes in a “squirmy, uncomfortable way.”
Nelson-Greenberg is a graduate student at the University of California at San Diego.
The Humana Festival runs Feb. 28-April 8. Tickets, including weekend packages, are available online. Single tickets start at $25.