The Humana Festival of New American Plays, a Marvel in Louisville

The Humana Festival of New American Plays is a wonderful theater festival in Louisville, Kentucky

Each year Actors Theatre of Louisville puts on the Humana Festival of New American Plays and this year I was there for it. It’s pretty amazing, containing some of the best new writing and performing in the current American theater. I saw 7 new plays over a weekend in March. Some of them really aren’t in final form it seems. They were in their adolescence with things being fixed in them. However, a couple were really quite excellent. Death Tax by Lucas Hnath and Eat Your Heart Out by Courtney Brown were two quite powerful plays, which I’m sure will be performed again by other theater companies.

The Humana Festival is the oldest continually running festival of new plays in America. The Festival is presented over 5 unique, consecutive weekends, each one containing 7 full-length plays and an evening of ten-minute plays in repertory. The actors are cast out of New York and Chicago and come to Louisville and live in apartment houses and hotels in downtown Louisville for the rehearsal and the performance periods.

Jon Jory who as a young director “arrived in Louisville in 1969 with a car filled with costumes and props” says Kory P. Kelly, Actors Theatre’s Director of Marketing and Communications, “He decided he was going to get into a theater company and very shortly thereafter did!”

In 1979 Jory went to the foundation of the Humana Insurance Company, a Louisville company, and presented them with the idea that they fund a festival of new plays. The foundation did that and it has been going strong ever since then. It is the Humana’s sole venture into the arts, its usual philanthropic ventures being in the area of health.

The theater company has been a launching pad for some big names in the acting world; Kathy Bates, Kevin Bacon and Julianne Moore have all been in plays at Actors Theatre. Actors Theatre owns considerable real estate in downtown Louisville: A building for theater which holds three unique theaters, a ¾ thrust stage, a theater in the round and a thrust stage, a scene shop, a costume shop, a building which houses the actors from out of town while they are in plays in Louisville, a parking lot. The theater owns these buildings and employs 120 on its staff and has an annual budget of $9,500,000. This is a considerable amount of real estate for a theater company to own.

How did this happen? “Well, the city of Louisville has a lot of civic pride. They are very loyal to local endeavors and businesses,” says Kelly. Downtown Louisville is undergoing a revival. Restaurants and businesses are opening there frequently.

The Actors Theater was founded in 1964 by Louisville native Ewel Cornett, local producer Richard Block and Ken Jenkins of Scrubs fame, and was designated the “State Theater of Kentucky” in 1974. It is run as a non- profit organization. The building that became Actors Theatre was a merging of two historic buildings: the 1837 Bank of Louisville and the Myers-Thompson Display Building. They were merged in the downtown Main Street area. These areas of tobacco and whiskey warehouses are being refurbished and revived and the revival continues to this day.

Jon Jory became the artistic director in 1969 and in 1976 created the Festival of New American Plays, which the Los Angeles Times has described as “The Kentucky Derby of New American Theater.” It became the Humana Festival in 1979 and has premiered such plays as D. L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Donald Margules Dinner With Friends, all of which won the Pulitzer Prize. Eight Humana plays have been adopted for film and two for radio.

The Humana Festival is an American theater treasure, a brilliant showing of the power and health of the emerging American theater.

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