Stretched out on a series of connecting tables in the lobby of the Actors Theatre of Louisville was an entire library of plays: Pulitzer Prize winners, steps in promising directions, forgotten names. Not all of these works were performed at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, but all were written by festival playwrights. The array of scripts provided striking evidence of how, for 20 years, Actors Theatre has been a prolific provider of new plays—more than 200, almost all of them mounted for the festival in their premieres.
Other organizations have, of course, specialized in new work. The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival brings an international array of experimental theatre to New York. The Signature Theatre in New York devotes an entire season to a single playwright (coincidentally, the first two Signature choices, Romulus Linney and Lee Blessing, were Louisville regulars). Manhattan’s Ensemble Studio Theatre offers an annual marathon of one-act plays. But Actors Theatre is unmatched in its record of discovery.
For the company to have sustained its creativity through the seesaw theatrical economics and politics of the past two decades is itself an achievement. Under the leadership of Jon Jory, the festival has taken its place as central showcase of new writing, annually attracting hundreds of theatre professionals to Louisville for an exhilarating weekend of uninterrupted theatre viewing. One charge, generally raised by people who have not been to Louisville, is that the work is provincial. In fact, the work is indigenous, but it is not insular. Playwrights like Linney and Beth Henley defy the label of regionalism: In their plays, local color rises to national character. At its best, the festival provides a cross-section of the concerns of theatre artists in America.
Through the years, many of the playwrights have changed, as has the diversity of the audience. There are still foreign visitors, but no longer does a platoon of English critics arrive in an airbus, put up at the Galt House (a kind of all-Americana theme-park hotel) and then send word back to England about what’s happening in the American theatre. Despite the “cast” changes, the event continues to serve as convention and floating colloquy. People gather at the theatre bar between shows and compare notes; critics suddenly find themselves confronting playwrights, and vice versa; everyone has an opinion, and one person’s favorite provokes another’s fury.
Up to Four Plays a Day
At the 1979 festival, I argued vigorously with another New York critic who was unable to see the value in Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley’s breakthrough. At this year’s gathering, Richard Christiansen, the astute critic of the Chicago Tribune, confessed that at the very first festival (one of the few I missed), which consisted of just two plays, he had preferred John Orlock’s Indulgences in the Louisville Harem to D. L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, the work that definitively put ATL on the map.
Year after year, for 16 of the 20 festivals, I have been in Louisville for a play-packed weekend, seeing eight or more shows, sometimes (fueled by an endless supply of coffee) as many as four a day. One encouragement has been the knowledge that Mary Bingham, the doyenne of the Louisville newspaper empire, was also going through the annual marathon. Well into her eighties, she attended all the plays (we would compare notes over dinner). The stamina of the audience is a match for the adrenalin of the actors, who rush from stage to stage, and for the inventiveness of Paul Owen, who designs all the festival’s scenery.
A few conclusions based on the two decades of festival going: Jory’s primary contribution has been the discovery and nurturing of new female playwrights, each of whom has a distinct voice. Led by Marsha Norman, Beth Henley and Jane Martin, the list also includes Wendy Kesselman, Mary Gallagher, Emily Mann, Shirley Lauro, Jane Anderson and Joan Ackermann, among others. This year, Naomi Wallace is a significant addition. The festival has given center stage to such striking new actresses as Susan Kingsley and Kathy Bates, both of whom were in the original production of Crimes of the Heart, and increased opportunities for such veteran actresses as Anne Pitoniak and Adale O’Brien. It has given free reign as directors to Anne Bogart, Lisa Peterson, Gloria Muzio and Mary Robinson.
This is not to suggest that men have been neglected, but in the long run, they have played a subsidiary role. Curiously, many of the male playwrights discovered in Louisville seem to have had a more difficult time sustaining a playwriting career (I am thinking of James McLure and John Pielmeier, among others), whereas the women, beginning with Norman, Henley and Martin, have amassed a full body of work. And while actresses have repeatedly demonstrated their virtuosity, some of the actors simply seem to repeat themselves. This year, when Frederic Major, ATL’s ubiquitous character actor, referred to himself as a “bull of a man” as a guard in Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, I had a sudden flash of memory of him at Festival Eight as a Hemingway-esque white hunter announcing, “I am as virile as a bloody bull.”
Searching for Identity
Almost every year is marked by a theme or a motif, sometimes paralleling public events, sometimes simply a coincidence. During one festival, there was so much murder and mayhem on stage (seven deaths, an attempted suicide and other threats of violence) that a sign indicating that there would be a gun fired during the performance remained permanently posted. The Year of the Dog (animals howling in the night on the prairie) was followed by the Year of Garbage, trashed-filled stages that turned Paul Owen into a designer-scavenger. Family matters were so pervasive in the early years that an English critic defined the typical festival play as four-people-sitting-around-a-dining-room-table-talking (for variety, sometimes the play moved to the front porch). Occasionally the naturalism has been steeped in mysticism, and one year was marked by an excess of medical equipment on stage (a tip of the hat to the Humana Foundation?).
In 1996, characters incessantly searched for identity, as if it were a handbag misplaced in the cloakroom. In plays dealing with dysfunctional relationships of the sibling and marital variety, inapproachable objects met irresistible forces, sometimes to the sound of offstage music. In that sense, this season was a throwback to Festival Ten, when the dominant theme was the self-regarding philosophy of “I think, therefore I am,” which I characterized as a case of putting Descartes before the house.
Conceptually, the festival tripped twice in 20 years, in both cases over commissions, with a series of flaccid adaptations of novels and with a misguided attempt to turn celebrated theatrical novices (Jimmy Breslin, William F. Buckley Jr.) into playwrights, a policy that was subsequently reversed. Buckley is the only ATL playwright to fly in 50 of his friends for a preview, a greater distinction than the tepid espionage play he unveiled on stage. Undaunted by his experience, Breslin returned in Festival Twenty with a 10-minute doodle about Newt Gingrich, and demonstrated that in the intervening years he had learned nothing new about playwriting.
The disappointments are far overshadowed by the surprises. In 1979, there was Beth Henley. Two years later, the actress Lisa Goodman delivered a breathtaking 17-minute monologue called Twirler, about the fine art and metaphor of baton twirling. At that point, the author of Twirler was anonymous; it was not until the next year with Talking With that she became pseudonymous. But before Jane Martin assumed her alias, it was dear that this was an abundantly gifted new playwright. While others searched for the writer’s identity, Romulus Linney (himself a festival favorite) aptly suggested that Twirler was “handed down from heaven by Flannery O’Connor.” Ms. Martin’s subsequent plays—rambunctious comedies, confrontational dramas about public issues and this year’s wry anti-romance, Jack and Jill—have underscored the breadth of her talent.
Favoring Shorter Works
A few Louisville plays have become major successes in New York (Crimes of the Heart, Agnes of God, Getting Out) while others have failed there, sometimes because of productions that were inferior to the original (e.g., Jose Rivera’s MarisoI). Some valuable plays remain in Louisville or on a national circuit without ever reaching New York, starting with Martin’s Cementville and Keely and Du, and including Horton Foote’s Courtship, Eduardo Machado’s In the Eye of the Hurricane and Barbara Damashek’s Whereabouts Unknown.
One reason for the limited number that have transferred is that Jory has tended to favor shorter works which are more difficult to move. He has in fact been in the forefront of those who honor the one-act, and its cousin, the 10-minute play, as amusingly represented this year by David Henry Hwang and Tony Kushner. Kushner’s Reverse Transcription lasted 20 minutes, proving that a 10-minute play is whatever one makes it.
Even as the quality of the writing varies, the directing and acting are generally of the highest caliber. When a production falters, it is something of a shock. This was the case this year with One Flea Spare (one of several Louisville plays to win the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize). An unsparing and poetic look at four people isolated during a 17th-century epidemic, the play suffered by being miscast in a pivotal role and by being staged arena-style. At its core, this is the equivalent of a prison play. One should have felt confined with the characters, as occurred previously with Linney’s 2.
Naturally, theatregoers were divided about the plays. I thought the three most stimulating this year were by women, beginning (despite the production) with One Flea Spare. Wallace, a Kentucky native, is a bold new playwright with an eye for the humanity behind historical subjects. Jack and Jill was a shrewdly observant and poignant chronicle of an impossible relationship. In Anne Bogart’s Going, Going, Gone, two couples bantered Albee-style through a quintessential cocktail party, the subject being quantum mathematics—call it Who’s Afraid of the Big Bang? The funniest short play was Hwang’s 10-minute puncturing of ethnic stereotypes, Trying to Find Chinatown. There is always an audience favorite, and this year, it was Joan Ackermann’s The Batting Cage, a shaggy family comedy about sisters as rivals.
While Broadway tries to regain its disappearing audience by narrowing its perspective, the Actors Theatre of Louisville remains expansive—an extended family of playwrights that has become a long-running source of theatrical vitality.
Mel Gussow, who writes about theatre for The New York Times, is the author of Conversations With (and About) Beckett, due in September from Grove Atlantic.
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