After a standing ovation filled with wave upon wave of genuine affection, Jon Jory smiles and asks, "Is that all?" The outgoing Actors Theatre of Louisville Producing Director holds an American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) plaque, honoring his three-plus decades at the ATL helm, but the moment is bittersweet, as he expresses regret that he hasn't quite made it to the Humana Fest's Silver Anniversary. The University of Washington in Seattle made him an offer he can't refuse, so he's off to teach acting and directing in what he deems "a great theater town." But, he assures his adoring fans, "I'll be back next year to direct in the 25th Humana Fest."
Richard Christiansen, chief critic of the Chicago Tribune and presenter of the ATCA plaque, reminisces about flying in for the first time 24 years ago, seeing two plays and then flying home. Now 23 Festivals later, more than 450 theater professionals from around the country (including critics, casting directors, artistic directors, literary managers, agents and producers) descend on ATL for a special combined Visitors Weekend/ATCA conference. Among this year's impressive list of 27 participating playwrights are Tina Howe, David Ives, Donald Margulies, Charles L. Mee, Craig Lucas, Edwin Sanchez, Jane Martin, Constance Congdon, Regina Taylor and Naomi Wallace. Between Friday and Sunday afternoons, weekend visitors will see six full-length plays, three ten-minute plays, plus a special anthology production, and hear five short phone plays, all pre-recorded and played through real Bell South lobby phones.
Phone plays? Under Jory's inspired and innovative leadership, last year the Festival also commissioned a car play from Richard Dresser (heard in the back seat of a car by two and three audience members at a time), and six T(EXT) shirt plays from a mixed bag of playwrights including Wendy Wasserstein, Tony Kushner and David Henry Hwang. Wearing the entire text of a play printed on the back of a T-shirt, gives new meaning to the term "street theater." Of course the shirts, still on sale in the lobby, are proudly worn by visitors during the Weekend. Jory is also highly visible in the various ATL theaters (there are three in all) and in the lobby during the entire Weekend. As Christiansen points out, "It's been Jon Jory's mission to make every one here feel like his special guest, and he's succeeded."
Within the tremendous, but orderly, swirl of activity, Jory is generally acknowledged to be the eye of the storm from whom everything flows with calm precision, although he quickly passes off credit. "It comes from long-term staffing," he says affably. "We have 15 people who've been here for 17 years or more, and of course Sandy (Alexander) Speer (ATL's Executive Director), one of the top theater managers in America, was already here when I came." Speer, who will remain, remarked that the yearly budget has grown from $225 thousand to over $8 million during their joint tenure. Speaking of the replacement search Speer assures, "It's a completely open process. We've sent a profile to a search firm and expect to choose someone by mid-summer who can be available in early fall. But that may not be realistic, so Jon already planned our 2001 season. Whoever gets the job, we expect some change and exposure to new ideas."