HUMANA FESTIVAL

 

In 1976 Jon Jory, recently hired Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director, decided that a good way to increase the theatre’s national recognition would be to start an annual new play festival. Problem was, he had no idea how to get plays to produce, so he placed ads in major newspapers all over the country and had his Literary Manager, Elizabeth King, scour these newspapers for reviews. He started out small in 1977 with two plays, one of which had been discovered by King when she read about an Equity Waiver production in Los Angeles. This was THE GIN GAME by DL Coburn. Major critics were invited, including ones from New York. Their reviews of Coburn’s play attracted the attention of Broadway producers, who saw in it a vehicle for two of Broadway’s biggest stars, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. It not only became a hit on Broadway, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Talk about starting off with a bang!

In the 1978 Festival, the theatre produced a play by a local journalist who had written a series of articles about people who had gotten out of prison. Jory saw the potential for a play in these articles and worked with their author to develop it. The author’s name was Marsha Norman. The play was GETTING OUT, which was subsequently produced Off Broadway by the Phoenix Theatre, directed by Jory, with ATL actress Susan Kingsley as Arlene, an ex-con, the older version of Arlie, a troubled young woman who was sentenced to prison (played by Pamela Reed). It was a sensation, and Marsha Norman’s career as a playwright was on its way.

In 1979, the first year Humana, a health insurance company based in Louisville (their building a few blocks away from ATL is one of the most beautiful in Louisville) began sponsoring the Festival, ATL had another hit with a play written by an actress who had given it to a director friend who had worked at Actors Theatre, who gave it to Jory. This, too, attracted Broadway interest. Lester Osterman optioned it and mounted a new production at a regional theatre, directed by Stuart White, one of three co-founders of the fledgling WPA Theatre in New York. This production was not as successful as the one in Louisville, so Osterman decided to try and get an Off Broadway theatre to produce it before taking it to Broadway if the reviews were good enough. All the Off Broadway theatre companies turned it down, so Osterman turned to Gilbert Parker of William Morris, who by that time was representing the author. He called Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club and told her that if she did it, his client Melvin Bernhardt would be available to direct it. This would be a big deal for MTC, which was not nearly the powerhouse it is today, as Bernhardt had won the Tony Award the previous season for his direction of Hugh Leonard’s DA, so Meadow took it on. It got sensational reviews and Osterman moved it to Broadway. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. The play was CRIMES OF THE HEART, by Beth Henley.

Actors Theatre was on a roll. In 1980, they produced a play by an actor who had worked at the theatre, John Pielmeier, which also went to Broadway and became a huge hit starring Elizabeth Ashley, Amanda Plummer and Geraldine Page, running a year and a half. This was AGNES OF GOD.

In 1981, I received an invitation to attend my first final weekend of the Humana Festival, when you could see all the plays they had opened since late February. Thankfully, my boss at Samuel French, M. Abbott Van Nostrand, decided to send me, God bless him. I saw six full length plays, plus two compendiums of short plays. My first play was EXTREMITIES by William Mastrosimone, quite a start for my first Humana experience! I had seen an earlier Mastrosimone play called THE WOOLGATHERER at Circle Rep, which I got Abbot to publish. It got terrific reviews but for whatever reason didn’t have a commercial transfer. I hadn’t met the playwright until I met him in Louisville. He was a working-class Italian sort from New Jersey who always wore a black beret, which made him look like he should be hanging out at the Deux Magots in the 1920s with Sartre, de Beauvoir and Hemingway. Thus began a long friendship with Bill, which continues to this day. EXTREMITIES was in the Victor Jory Theatre, a “black box” space. For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s a nail-biter about a woman who is almost raped in her home by an intruder. She manages to subdue him and knock him out. When he comes to, he’s in her fireplace. She’s used her brass bedstead to create a kind of cage, and she plans to douse him with gasoline and burn him to death. My seat was in the front row of the middle section. Actress Ellen Barber was (almost) raped a few feet away from me. The play moved to Off Broadway, starring Susan Sarandon, later replaced by Farrah Fawcett, who starred in the film, and had a long run. That year, I also saw Wendy Kesselman’s MY SISTER IN THIS HOUSE, which later was produced by another fledgling Off Broadway theatre, Second Stage, with Elizabeth McGovern and Lisa Banes as two sisters, maids who murder their employer and her daughter. It was based on an actual case, the one on which Jean Genet based THE MAIDS.

I saw many brilliant plays during the years I went to the Humana Festival (35 and counting), but before I write about them, I want to tell you what the Festival experience at the culminating weekend was like, at least in the early days.

You started on Thursday evening, at a dinner party hosted by a board member at his home. They took turns. Every year, there were four or five parties, with plenty of sumptuous food and drink. Present were VIPs from all over the country – indeed, the world. There were Artistic Directors. Literary Managers, critics, publishers, agents and local supporters of the theatre. One year, I found myself at an antebellum plantation house which had been designed by Thomas Jefferson. There were spiffy little cabins on the grounds, all painted white. I asked my host, “Are those what I think they are?” They were originally slave cabins. Another year, I was at a party hosted by the Bingham family in their mansion on high ground above the Ohio River. The Binghams were the wealthiest family in town. They owned and ran the Louisville Courier-Journal.

You started your playgoing on Friday morning at 9 am and saw anywhere from eight to twelve plays over the weekend, the sets of which were all by ATL’s resident designer, Paul Owen. Each night, your last play of the day would end at about 10 pm and then you would head downstairs to the bar/restaurant, operated by the theatre. The actors, many longtime company members, would come out and join us for drinks and merriment. These people became my friends. They were wonderful actors, but just as wonderful people. Unfortunately, the great Susan Kingsley never joined us, I think because she had to get home to her husband and kids, so I never got to know her. Susan started at ATL checking coats. Jory encouraged everyone who worked at the theatre to participate in whatever aspect of the theatre interested them and Susan asked if she could do play readings. She so impressed Jory that he made her a member of his acting company. Susan was a rather plain-looking woman, not “actressy;” but onstage she was riveting, one of the greatest actresses I have seen in a lifetime of playgoing. Sadly, she was killed in a car accident in 1984, on her way to begin rehearsals for that year’s Humana Festival. She was 37. Longtime company member Bob Burrus never joined us either. Bob was a wonderful actor; but if you met him you would never know it. He was a rangy, quiet fellow who looked and sounded like a trail boss on a cattle drive. Think, Curly in “City Slickers.” His performances were always indelible, such as “Mr. One-Eye Deneuve, down from Lecher County Kentucky for the wrasslin’” in Jane Martin’s hilarious CEMENTVILE, a devious horse trainer in Benjie Aerenson’s LIGHTING UP THE TWO YEAR-OLD and Clem, one of three middle aged brothers in “Miz Martin’s” MIDDLE AGED WHITE GUYS, who meet every year on the fourth of July on the site where they won the state baseball championship in high school, which is now a garbage dump, to mourn the death of R.V., the girl they all loved. Clem’s wife shows up to inform him that she is leaving him; but first, she intends to shoot him. She is disarmed, though, by Moon, a soldier of fortune, played by the late, great Leo Burmeister.  “What am I gonna do, Moon?” moans Clem. “My wife left me.” “All wives leave, Clem,” says Moon. “It’s a shit job.” A Messenger from God appears, Elvis in his white jumpsuit, to inform the men that God (who’s a woman) is pissed off at the mess they and their ilk have made of the world, so they must atone by stripping butt-naked and walk all the way to Washington, D.C. carrying signs that say, “We’re Sorry.” This is the final image of the play. The audience went wild.

The bar at the theatre closed at 2 am, then everyone would go over to a nearby dive bar called Zina’s. There, the actors (many of whom were wonderful musicians) would set up and play country and blues music until 4 am. Then, you’d stagger back to your hotel room, get four hours’ sleep and do it all over again the next day. I had to take Monday off every year to recover.

Jon Jory was a wonderful director. He did all the Jane Martin plays. Another memorable one he directed was Wendy Hammond’s JULIE JOHNSON, about a housewife full of despair until she realized the source of that despair: she’s gay. Jon was omnipresent and quite the schmoozer, and I enjoyed our conversations over the years. In 1993, I brought my son Kenyon, who was 13, and Jon chatted with him as a colleague, not a kid. I will always cherish that memory. Your tickets came with a free breakfast buffet on Saturday and Sunday. One year, I was having breakfast with Jon and he asked me, as he asked everyone, what I thought of the Festival. “Well, Jon, I have a complaint to make.” Startled, he asked, “What?” “Well,” I said, “there just aren’t enough plays to see.” He laughed and pointed to a fellow sitting at a table across the room. “That’s Paul Owen, our set designer. Go over and say that to him.” Which, of course, I did, much to Paul’s amusement. Paul was the unsung hero of each year’s Festival. His sets were not only amazing, but they could be struck by the apprentices in about 15 minutes and replaced in 15 by another set. I used to enjoy lingering after my play to watch this happen. It was amazing. When Marc Masterson sacked Paul’s Technical Director, he resigned in protest; otherwise, he probably would still be designing sets for ATL. What a loss for Louisville audiences and Humana Festival-goers. In 2017, the Kentucky Fund for the Arts bestowed upon him its Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award. Paul is still alive, semi-retired, although he occasionally designs sets for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

Every year, there was a showcase for the apprentice actors which, even though it was early Sunday morning, was packed. We were given each actor’s picture and resume. Each one did a monologue. One year, I was invited by my alma mater, Kenyon College, to meet with drama majors to discuss what they might do after graduation. I recommended, enthusiastically, ATL’s apprentice program. The next year, an apprentice at ATL did a monologue from a play by Howard Korder and I noticed on his resume that he had gone to Kenyon, so I went over to talk to him after the showcase. “You probably don’t remember me, but you’re the reason why I’m here,” he said. This was Neil Pepe, who is now the Artistic Director of Atlantic Theatre Company in New York.

There was a bookshop and souvenir stand in the lobby of the theatre. The books were scripts of plays that had been produced at previous Humana Festivals, many published by Samuel French because of me.

I saw many wonderful plays at the Humana Festival, several by Jane Martin. The most memorable of these were TALKING WITH and KEELY AND DU. At my first Festival, there was a compendium of short plays, about 10-minutes in duration, the most sensational of which was a monologue called TWIRLER, whose author was Anonymous. The lights came up on a woman in a baton twirler costume holding a baton, played by Lisa Goodman, telling us how she came to twirling but she never became really good until her hand was crushed by a horse named Big Blood Red. She proceeded to tell us that twirling is about far more than we thought. Nobody knows its true significance because it’s disguised in the midst of football. “People think you’re a twit if you twirl,” she says. “But it is God-throwing, spirit fire. You have to grow eyes in your heart to understand its message. There is a meadow outside Green Bay where all the true twirlers converge at the Winter Solstice. They wear white robes and stand in the snow.  Their feet are bare. Then acolytes bring them the batons. They are ebony tons, 3 feet long, with razor blades set in the shafts, and as they twirl, their blood drips in the snow. Red on white, red on white. I have seen the face of God 30 feet up in the twirling batons. You can’t imagine what that’s like.” There was stunned silence. We knew we had experienced not just powerful dramatic writing. We had been in the presence of the Sublime. At the next Festival, TWIRLER reappeared as part of a collection of monologues, TALKING WITH by Jane Martin, a pseudonym. It was unforgettable. The legend of Jane Martin was born. I’ll be doing a separate chapter on “Miz Martin,” in which I will give you my theory as to who she was.

In KEELY AND DU, a woman named Keely has been raped and impregnated by her ex-husband. On her way to an abortion clinic, she was kidnapped by a radical right-to-life group, which then has secreted her in a basement room hundreds of miles away. Their intention is to force her to have the baby. They will cover all her expenses, including raising the kid to the age of 18. Keely is furious, of course. An elderly woman named Du (short for Dorothy) has been assigned to be her companion. In one memorable scene Walter, the leader of the group (played by the great Bob Burrus) shows her the brochures the hand out, which include pictures of aborted fetuses. As she screams at him in rage, he replies calmly,” You do not have the right to your opinion unless you can look at these.” What made the play particularly remarkable was that it did not dismiss the right-to-life group as a bunch of brain-dead idiots. That year, KEELY AND DU was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, losing out to Edward Albee’s THREE TALL WOMEN.

The Humana Festival began to diminish in influence and importance for a number of reasons. One was that the New York Critics started attacking productions which came to NYC from Louisville, such as A WEEKEND NEAR MADISON, TENT MEETING, HUSBANDRY and A PIECE OF MY HEART, all of which had been hits of their Festivals but which failed in New York. I think these cultural ayatollahs were pissed off that the Humana Festival had achieved such a prominent place in the American Theatre without their approval. This meant that nobody wanted to produce a play in New York which had been successful in Louisville, as this was the Kiss of Death, so there were a lot fewer producers there than were in the Festival’s early years. One producer got around this Kiss of Death by optioning a Humana play, mounting a completely different production, taking this first to a regional theatre and then bringing this production in, without mentioning in any of their publicity that the play had premiered at the Humana Festival. In the program, this appeared in very small print. This was Donald Margulies’ DINNER WITH FRIENDS, which came in to the Variety Arts Theatre Off Broadway (sadly, long gone) from the Hartford Stage, winning the Pulitzer Prize.

There were several Humana plays I loved from the Jory era which were never done in NYC, such as AUTUMN ELEGY, ZARA SPOOK AND OTHER LURES and LLOYD’S PRAYER. AUTUMN ELEGY, by Charlene Redick, was about an elderly couple. They are well off financially, but live in a simple cabin in the woods. The wife has to confront the reality of her impending death. At the performance I saw, the Cronyns were sitting near me. Unfortunately, they decided not to do the play in New York. Had they done so this would have become a Very Famous Play. ZARA SPOOK AND OTHER LURES, by Joan Ackerman, was a wild comedy about women at a professional bass fishing tournament near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. LLOYD’S PRAYER, by Kevin Kling, was equally wild. It was about Bob, who was raised by racoons, and an ex-com named Lloyd who sees in him a money-making opportunity. Pitted against Lloyd is the Angel of the Lord, and what ensues is a hilarious tug of war between Lloyd and the Angel, with Bob as the rope. Kling was hilarious as Lloyd, as were Julie Boyd, who had played Keely in KEELY AND DU, as the Angel, and Walter Bobbie as Lloyd. Bobbie later became a top Broadway director. His production of the revival of CHICAGO is still running (or was before the pandemic hit).

Every year, there were several plays like the ones I have mentioned, a few which were OK but not great and, usually, one bomb. Then, Jory decided his theatre had developed a reputation for being too conservative, so he decided to “push the envelope” by doing more to varying degrees experimental plays. For instance, he started bringing in Ann Bogart and her SITI Company. The Bogart event was the annual Bomb of the Festival. Everybody hated it, but not the ATL people. I once had a discussion about Bogart with Michael Bigelow Dixon, ATL’s Literary Manager, “Yes, Larry,” he said. “We all know your opinion of Ann Bogart, but she’s an internationally-recognized avant garde genius.” “Michael,” I replied. “The emperor has no clothes.” So, although there was always one Hit of the Festival, many of the other offerings were, shall we say, unpopular.

Another factor which contributed to the decline of the Humana Festival was that it started to shrink. It’s now down to 4 plays, plus the annual Apprentice compendium. The Festival is also a lot less fun. ATL no longer operates the bar/restaurant downstairs. The company which does opens it for lunch, closes it, reopens for dinner and then closes it at 8 pm. No more hanging out with the actors into the wee hours. No more place to hang out your fellow Festival-goers. By the way, there is no company of actors anymore – everyone is jobbed in. What a bummer.

Sadly, Jory left ATL in 2000 to teach at the University of Washington. His replacements, Mark Masterson and then Les Waters, couldn’t hold a candle to him, so they were another factor in the Festival’s decline. Neither was particularly sociable, compared to the affable Jon Jory. Waters was downright chilly. Masterson did some fine plays, such as THE SCENE and AFTER ASHLEY, but many that I didn’t care for. Waters did few that I liked. To be fair, though, there were some wonderful post-Jory plays, all produced during Masterson’s tenure, which went on to New York, to varying degrees of success (by this time, the New York critics had gotten over their knee-jerk antipathy to Louisville plays), such as Theresa Rebeck’s THE SCENE (produced at Second Stage with Tony Shalhoub, Patricia Heaton and the delicious Anna Camp, a holdover from the Humana cast), OMNIUM GATHERUM by Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros at the Variety Arts, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and AFTER ASHLEY by Gina Gionfriddo, produced by the Vineyard Theatre, directed by Terry Kinney with Kieran Culkin in the cast.

Still, the really exciting plays became fewer and fewer, and few and fewer theatre professionals showed up. All the actors I knew and loved are either retired or dead. And then there’s the barred bar downstairs. I don’t know if I ever will go back. It just makes me sad.

 

For many years, Lawrence Harbison scouted for new plays on behalf of Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others. He has been a free-lance editor for Smith and Kraus, Inc., and Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, for whom he has edited annual anthologies of ten-minute plays and monologues for men and for women, and for several years edited annual New Playwrights and Women Playwrights anthologies. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. Forthcoming anthologies include books of 10-minute plays and monologues by members of the Honor Roll, an advocacy group comprised of women playwrights over 40. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” is a regular feature at www.applausebooks.com as well as on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com).

 

 

 

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