Fifty Years and Counting: American Theater at a Tipping Point

Jonathan Majors and Andy Lucien Cry Old Kingdom as part of the 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays Photo by Alan SimonsAs the Actors Theatre of Louisville approaches its 50th birthday next year, the theatre’s annual Humana Festival of New Plays wraps up its 37th season – a great run by most standards. The Humana Festival is the granddaddy of America’s new play showcases, and both the accomplishments and challenges of ATL are emblematic of America’s institutional theaters and their struggle for relevance with aging audiences in a harsh economy.

2013 was the first Humana Festival curated by the theater’s new artistic director Les Waters, who told Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips that the Humana Festival’s illustrious history is both a selling point and a burden.

This is, after all, the Festival that premiered D.L. Coburn’s 1977 The Gin Game (which technically opened at the 59-seat American Theatre Arts in Hollywood the prior year) and Beth Henley’s 1979 Crimes of the Heart — slices of romantic/gothic life, each with rural settings, small casts and employing a single set. These were plays that spoke to and about the American heartland in colloquial language, using a traditional structure. This combination of elements allowed them to roar into New York and across the country with multiple productions in theaters ranging from Broadway to regional theaters to high schools.

There’s the story of one New York play-publisher, reputed to have attended subsequent Humana festivals, year after year over decades, grumbling that none of those seasons included the next Crimes of the Heart. This is the burden Waters alluded to, no doubt inherited from Jon Jory, the artistic director who put Louisville on the map.

When Crimes of the Heart premiered at Louisville, cellphones and social media weren’t a factor in day-to-day life. Today, electronic appendages are ubiquitous, second nature to a generation that has grown up since then. Our e-caddies are a significant presence in many of the plays written by authors of that generation. The living room/park bench settings of mid-20th century plays derived from an earlier era of American realism enshrined by Eugene O’Neill, where the craft of a slowly rising conflict among characters was largely a manifestation of those characters being restricted to comparatively few settings. Today, video and backdrop projections play an ever larger part in the set design of plays, dissolving the structural restrictions of mid-20th century American playwriting, and bringing the very shape of new plays closer to that of the ever-present screens on which we graze.

If you had planned to attend a play between 1930 and 1950, the expectation of committing yourself to between three and four hours in the theater, divided by two intermissions, would not have been unreasonable. When Crimes of the Heart first appeared, a “full-length” play earned that description from the presence of an intermission. Today, a growing number of new plays occupying much the same status as the “full-length” plays of yore have 90 to 100 minutes of unbroken action. Yet the absence of an intermission doesn’t necessarily designate them as one-acts.

Furthermore, Crimes of the Heart appeared at a time when the very definition of a theatrical experience was a passive one, consisting of audiences sitting in the cushioned seats of theaters that were built as edifices to our cultural opulence, from Lincoln Center on one coast to the Music Center of Los Angeles County on the other. These were and remain neo-Classical towers of glass and steel, with waterfalls at their base – buildings aimed to inspire awe rather than interaction The aforementioned technologies have weaned a new generation of audiences on interactive games, where attending a party or a concert or dining out is an experience that includes Instagramming a photo of oneself and friends at the party, or concert or eatery. It’s naïve to believe that sitting in an edifice and passively watching much of anything for an extended period of time will hold the interest of a new generation of audiences. In many ways, the future of our theater has been cursed by the very buildings erected to honor it. The future of our theater may well stand a far better chance in a converted warehouse, or somebody’s Victorian home where, say, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard can be played out with the audience moving from room to room.

Yet the most significant distinction between today and the era when the Humana Festival came into being is frequently misconstrued with breast-beating about the decline of government and corporate funding for the arts, as though our miserly treatment of the arts is an aberration from the norm of funds pouring into symphony orchestras and museums and theaters. Unfortunately, such an understanding is simply backwards.

The regional theater boom, as it spread across the country, was largely a manifestation of the funds that flowed from The Great Society policies of president Lyndon B. Johnson. Never before in the history of the United States had such large quantities of cash been unleashed on the arts – and, unfortunately, never since. O’Neill certainly didn’t write his remarkable plays in the first third of the 20th century or see them produced in an era that included lavish government or private support of the arts. Among the ruthless realities for our theater is that our current economically harsh conditions merely represent a return to the norm.

The other great misconception is that regional theaters such as Actors Theatre of Louisville were conceived as a national movement to support new writing. That’s also backwards. The nation’s first regional theater, The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, was created as a haven for actors aiming to keep their craft sharp on the classics – Shakespeare in particular – since Broadway of that era, the early 1960s, then as now the center of America’s theater industry, was saturated with new plays.

Institutions evolve by trying to survive in the face of economic Darwinism. Broadway slowly released its grip on new writing for musicals and ever more ostentatious spectacles that could continue to do business on a few blocks of Manhattan subjected to soaring real estate costs and changing popular tastes. It’s in this context that the birth of the Humana Festival of New Plays, 37 years ago, was so significant. The Actors Theatre of Louisville was saving an endangered species – the American playwright. And though the primacy of the Humana Festival may have waned because of competition that’s grown up around it, Humana’s national influence remains unarguable.

For example, Humana presented L.A.-based playwright Jennifer Haley’s Internet gaming play, Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom in 2008. Shortly thereafter, Haley won the coveted Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for women playwrights, after being nominated for the award by Center Theatre Group’s literary manager, Pier Carlo Talenti. She’s now being offered playwriting commissions around the country. “The Humana Festival put me on the map,” Haley says.

According to ATL literary manager Amy Wegener, 78% of plays premiered at Humana over the past 10 years went on to other productions.

The Humana Festival’s competition — a surge of other festivals aimed at developing new plays — came from the incentive of prestige derived from catapulting a new play, or playwright, into the national canon.

A more concrete perk is often the proprietary rights and subsidiary royalties paid back to the originating institution after a play moves on to multiple productions, leading to credits such as, say, “A South Coast Repertory production at Manhattan Theatre Club.”

And so we have the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, New Harmony Project, PlayPenn, South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, the Ojai Playwrights Conference, the Sundance Theatre Institute, and a chain of theaters dedicated in part to promoting new plays, The National New Play Network.

Unlike its competition, the Humana Festival never invested much in developing new work, thereby declining to participate in what’s become a cottage industry in the funding biz.Rather, ATL has always presented new plays in full productions.

These other festivals dedicate much of their resources to play-readings and workshops, along with a smattering of full productions – in the case of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, sometimes of a play is presented in full during the season following the play’s initial presentation as a public workshop or reading. All of which creates a Survivor culture among participating playwrights. O’Neill and Ojai and Sundance present no full productions of plays at all.

And though Humana staff may go to New York to workshop a play they’ve chosen to present, in order to use New York actors to help ready the play for production, there’s no carrot dangling in front of the playwright. These workshops are of plays the theater has already made a firm commitment to produce in the upcoming season.

ATL’s associate director Zan Sawyer-Dailey has been with the Humana Festival for almost 28 years, having started in September, 1985. “It is part of our strategic plan to be leading the country in the production of new plays. I would say, yes we are still the beacon.” Acknowledging the competition, she concedes, “I think there are many places that would say, ‘I don’t think so’.”

Unlike so many regional theaters aiming to bring a new play or musical to New York, Sawyer-Dailey says that’s never been part of ATL’s mission. ATL does have subsidiary rights to plays that receive second productions, but no proprietary rights – no claim to any institutional involvement in a play’s future life. Also, Sawyer-Dailey cautions playwrights to be careful: “Don’t go to New York too soon, or it won’t do as well.”

She cites the wisdom of David Rambo, whose God’s Man in Texas premiered in 1999 at Louisville and went on to hundreds of subsequent productions, none in New York. “And I know there were opportunities,” Sawyer-Dailey explains. “I can’t speak for him, but he might have imagined that it’s simply not a New York play, because New York is its own region, and will decimate a play that doesn’t speak in some way to that region.”

Sawyer-Dailey says she wishes ATL had the deep pockets to commission playwrights on the scale of South Coast Repertory, whose Pacific Playwrights Festival consists almost entirely of commissioned works.

This raises red flags about the hubris of arts institutions evolving themselves into irrelevancy. At a recent symposium, director Tom Dugdale made a distinction between defining plays as good or bad compared to a more crucial standard, whether they’re honest or dishonest.

Honesty is a slippery concept when applied to the motives of writing a play, but there’s a subtle yet crucial difference between a playwright writing a play because that play needs to be written, versus a playwright being paid $10,000 to $15,000 to write a play, even a play with no restrictions on content or form. Suddenly, the playwright is owned. The theater is proprietor. This doesn’t mean that a good play can’t come out of it, but the motive of creation is altered. The writing of the play is now corrupted with subtle anxieties: Will they think it’s good enough? Will they produce it? Is it even worth the money they’re paying? It introduces a microbe that lodges itself between the playwright and his or her soul. It creates the subtlest of removes from what Dugdale called “honest.”

Sawyer-Dailey says that the theater even used to postpone the announcement of its Festival plays, waiting to see if a play commissioned by a different theater might be available. (Commissioning theaters have the power to hold onto a play until it exercises its first right of refusal to produce that play.) To his credit, Waters is ending that waiting-game policy, choosing his next season on what’s available at the time, Sawyer-Dailey reports.

If theaters are going to pay playwrights to write, they should put them on staff, like Suzan-Lori Parks at the New York Public Theater, or Luis Alfaro, recently awarded a three year residency – with health benefits – at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in a pilot program funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. That’s honest, because it removes the games of Survivor and carrot-on-a-string, games prone to generate work that’s trying to please, work that resembles last year’s hit, subtly scraping away at theater’s core reason for being.

And though the original Humana system – choosing to produce a play based on its merits – is honest, there is, however, the oft-discussed issue of the small, changing pool of playwrights, from which all of these theaters select works to develop or produce. When looking over the past five years over a list of playwrights working at Sundance, SCR, O’Neill, Ojai, and Louisville, many of the same names keep reappearing: Jennifer Haley, Samuel Hunter, Bill Cain, Dan Dietz, as though the institutions have all been talking to each other in a system of horse-trading over the rising and falling value of this or that playwright. Sawyer-Dailey admitted that after 10 years, ATL simply returned unvetted manuscripts unread. She says that the Humana Festival’s 10-minute program is the theater’s portal to new voices, such as Haley and Marco Ramirez, who were discovered there.

The pressures of reading a tidal wave of scripts must be grinding, but no less vital to the health of the art than keeping the doors of the institution open. The more those doors close, the further removed that institution becomes from the community it claims to represent.

The divide between institutional theaters and their communities is the biggest challenge of this era of whirlwind changes. If our larger, institutional theaters speak only to themselves, to please themselves, theater’s relevance can only be sustained by the people creating interactive performances in warehouses and Victorian homes, where the next generation of audiences stands a chance of spending some meaningful time.

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