Local Impact: Where’s The Local Flavor In HumanaFest?

Playwright Marsha Norman

Playwright Marsha Norman

A notice for auditions for local actors posted by the Actors Theatre of Louisville appeared Sunday in The Courier-Journal. The timing was odd, in part because it was also the last day of the theatre’s 2013 Humana Festival of New American Plays.

“The theater’s casing department seeks to expand its local talent pool and recruit actors for the upcoming season,” it read.

That morning, Les Waters, who took on duties as the theater’s artistic director last year, said the effort to get local artists involved is part of an effort to “keep a dialogue going with the community and its theatrical community.”

In some ways, that dialogue under Waters started last September when he brought Louisville-bred Tony Speciale to direct the opening play of his first season, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Waters had worked with Speciale on the festival’s world premiere of Charles Mee’s Big Love nearly a decade ago. The previous season, Speciale, who went on to become associate artistic director of New York’s esteemed Classic Stage Company, was an apprentice at the theatre.

Playbill for the New York premiere of Marsha Norman's Getting Out" in 1979.

Playbill for the New York premiere of Marsha Norman’s Getting Out” in 1979.

Few Louisville playwrights have had their work show on the theater’s stages during the Humana Festival, even though the festival received early accolades when it produced Marsha Norman’s first play Getting Out in 1977 and followed up in 1983 by staging six more of her works in subsequent festivals. Her reputation grew after another theater produced ‘night, Mother, a wrenching play about suicide that went on to win the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The festival’s history also includes several works by Jane Martin, the alias for a playwright who was ballyhooed as being from Kentucky but whose true identity has never been revealed.

Waters didn’t have much to say about efforts to nurture and produce local playwrights via its new play festival, though he did say that theater staff members have been talking with local playwright Naomi Wallace about a possible commission.

Wallace, who was brought up partially in the Louisville area and in Europe, splits her time between London and Louisville. She’s had five plays in the festival since her Obie Award-winning One Flea Spare had its America premiere here in 1996.

The paucity of Louisville playwrights in the festivals history isn’t lost on people in the city’s theater community, including playwright Brian Walker.

“There are some things that happen at Actors that involve artists in the community, but I think for the most part it doesn’t serve as an incubator for talent in the community. It serves more as a source of inspiration in the hometown,” said Walker.

In recent years, he has written several plays that have won awards outside Louisville and is this season a fellow with four others, including Theresa Rebeck, in the playwriting program at Nashville’s Tennessee Repertory Company. Rebeck, whose work has appeared in the Humana Festival, also works with her fellow playwrights.

“We’re basically writing a new play. It started from a germ of an idea in September. We meet in Nashville once a month and help each other with our plays. We get time write our own work and get help from the artistic director,” Walker said.

But Walker, who is also the artistic director of the local Finnigan Productions theater company, said he thinks that Waters leadership could bring new opportunities for local playwrights.

“He brought Tony in for Romeo and Juliet,” said Walker, who was in the class behind Speciale in high school at Louisville’s Youth Performing Arts School.

He added that Actors Theatre’s education project called New Voices, which offers playwriting workshops to high school students, could one day change the tide.

“That seems like a good connection for high school kids to have,” he said, “because the theater is known as a place that honors their relationships with artists.”

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