When I moved to Indianapolis back in the mid-1990s, I had no idea what to expect from my new home’s regional theaters. But on the drive from Philadelphia, I consoled myself with the knowledge that, if nothing else, I’d be just a few hours drive from both Chicago (whose theatrical pedigree needs no introduction) and Louisville—where I would finally get to see what this Humana Festival thing was all about.
Since then, I’ve been building Humana memories. I’ve collected anchoring moments from just about every theatrical year, from my first fest—1996’s featuring new works by Jane Martin, John Patrick Shanley, and Anne Bogart—to 2012’s event, where I fell hard for the terribly titled Courtney Greenfield play Eat Your Heart Out.
This year, I’m coming to Louisville right on the heels of a long weekend as host to the American Theatre Critics Association conference in Indianapolis. Since I had 30-plus scribes at my disposal, I thought I’d see if I could add their favorite Humana memories to mine.
“Some of my favorite Humana moments have been productions of scripts by Charles L. Mee,” responded Rick Pender, theatre critic for Cincinnati CityBeat and editor of The Sondheim Review. “Big Love, an adaptation of a very ancient work by Aeschylus, had actors flinging themselves on wrestling mats. (It was directed in 2000 by Les Waters, who 11 years later became Actors Theatre’s artistic director.) Bobrauschenbergamerica, an impressionistic interpretation of an iconic American artist, mixed a martini with actors on a plastic sheet. The lovely and lyrical Hotel Cassiopeia, was Mee’s portrait of a lesser known artist, Joseph Cornell, who created shadowboxes and lived a strangely isolated life. Mee, who has written that “There is no such thing as an original play,” composes his works from shreds and pieces of other works. The results are haunting and memorable — not likely to become commercial successes, more like shimmering poetry with haunting imagery.”
“The very first time I attended the Humana Fest, I was both a young critic and a young dramaturg,” recalled Chicago Public Radio’s Jonathan Abarbanel. “At one of the big semi-social receptions, I found myself in conversation with an elegant and lively older man who turned out to be Glenn Currie, the distinguished theater critic for Newsweek back when Newsweek and Time still had theater critics) I had met very few critics of national stature at that time and I was impressed with the fact that he regarded me as a colleague; a wonderful lesson to learn in the best possible way.”
Marion Garmel, retired theater critic for the Indianapolis Star, cites the first production of Jane Martin’s Anton in Show Business at the 2001 festival. “It’s a smart, funny, on-the-mark look at Chekhov and the American theater scene at the turn of the 21st century. I laughed my head off.”
Carolyn Kelemen, of DC Metro Theatre Arts, was as impressed with the audience as she was with the theatrical work. “My strongest (and fondest) memory was the audience support for the works performed. In all my years of writing about theater and dance, I have never encountered such enthusiasm for the arts as demonstrated in Louisville. One woman in particular—perhaps the doyenne of the social set (the ones who dress up for Derby)—stood up to cheer the actors. Immediately her entourage joined her, followed by most in attendance. It was obvious that these Kentucky folks really appreciate theater and pay for it.”
My fellow Engine31 writer Christopher Arnott, says that, besides having his Connecticut-based blog New Haven Theater Jerk referenced in a panel discussion about the changing shape of theater criticism, he was “delighted to see, when attending my first Humana Festival just last year, so many familiar faces on stage. As I wrote then: ‘Every one of the nine-plus shows I saw had at least one actor I recognized from East Coast regional theater or the Yale School of Drama—the talent pool is more national than I knew. The productions mirrored high-end presentations of new plays I’ve seen regularly in New Haven, though Humana really raises the bar by doing so many at one time.’”
And me, well, I could talk about the thrill of seeing first productions of Becky Shaw and Dinner with Friends, but the truth is, my most memorable moment was when I spotted actor John Heard in the lobby. While I usually resist making a fanboy assault on talent I admire, I nonetheless approached Heard and told him how much I loved his work in the films Cutter’s Way and Chilly Scenes of Winter.
Heard didn’t say a word. Instead, he took a souvenir mini Louisville Slugger baseball bat out of the bag he was carrying, tapped me on the head, and walked away.
How could I ever forget that?