Taking the Measure Of HumanaFest


measurenewplayzanthonyNew plays.

Easy to say. But what new plays? Why these new plays? How to do these new plays? And to what purpose these whats, whys and hows?

There’s new work produced everyday. And there’s a boom in regional new play festivals. Having never been, I had always imagined the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville to be just one part of the continuum of ‘New Play Development.’

For those lucky enough not to have lived it, here’s a version of the new play development journey:

  1. Finally printing the damn thing (read:script)
  2. A table read: with folding tables and chairs circled like wagons
  3. The public reading: with music stands and dreaded audience talkback
  4. The workshop production: hastily, but lovingly lit, costumed, and built
  5. The full production: THE PROMISED LAND that looks, and hopefully sounds, like a finished product.

It should be noted here that there’s a not so invisible eddy that circles around steps c. and d., a sort of ‘lather, rinse, repeat,’  known as ‘development hell,’ in which many plays and playwrights get trapped, and which is what makes the promised land so promised.

So, on this ‘new play development’ journey, I’d imagined Humana as the far end: a festival of six fully produced plays that was still connected to development; Humana as a part of a pantheon that includes Sundance, the O’Neill, New Harmony, South Coast Repertory, Ojai, among others.

What I hadn’t realized was the scope and scale of Humana itself.

To put it in perspective, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville has an annual budget of roughly $10 million.   That includes not only the Humana Festival but also a five play season and two holiday shows.  The Humana Festival budget is almost a third of that: $3 million.  If you broke out the festival budget as a separate ‘theater,’ $3 million is greater than the budgets of 80% of TCG’s theaters (based on TCG’s 2011 Fiscal Survey).  That’s a long way from a table read.

With that budget, and a festival that historically includes six to seven plays and a trio of ten-minute scripts, the Humana Festival itself could just as easily be seen as it’s own regional theater, as just a cog in the wheel of New Play Development, but of . . . well ‘season planning’ and ‘production’ (and not just at Actors Theatre but as a part of season planning for theaters across the country).

So how you think of Humana, whether you connect it to the new play development process or not, changes how you evaluate its success and contribution to the American Theater.  After all, by their very inclusion, these plays have reached the proverbial promised land.

Beyond that, though, definitions of success – for both Humana/ATL and for New Play Development – are a bit murkier. What does it mean for a new play to be a success? For a new play festival? For Humana/ATL?

Success, at this year’s festival, feels dependent more on events happening offstage than on.

The metric of success favored in the Humana Festival press materials, programs, and industry packets, under the heading “The Humana Festival Legacy,” is the number of subsequent productions and publications that each play receives.  ATL’s fact sheet proudly announces “during the past decade 78% have had subsequent productions at other theatres.” An impressive statistic, to be sure, but you can also hear a tension in their language, “While Actors Theatre is proud of our own productions of these plays, we also celebrate their ongoing impact . . . ”

So much depends on what’s next . . .

Louisville is at the end of one process and the beginning of another; at the crossroads between process and product.

The typical new play preshow announcement, ‘you are about to see a play in the process of becoming. . . ‘ is replaced in Louisville by “We’d like to thank Humana for sharing this play and this festival with Louisville and the world.” Thus the presumption here that the process as midwife to the product is complete. Thus the Humana metric for success seems so much more ambitious than the typical theatre – yet, oddly less in the control of the theatre itself; production yes, good production even better. But real success is being measured by what others choose to do with the work produced here.

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