Home from Humana
The Actors Theatre of Louisville's 24th annual Humana Festival.
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."
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (phone play Show Business, and winner of an ATCA/Steinberg citation plus $5,000 check for Compleat Female Stage Beauty/Pittsburgh's City Theatre) refers to the oft-repeated, always denied rumor that Jory is actually the reclusive prize winning, playwright, Jane Martin (Talking With), by saying, "All deep dark secrets aside, there are very few theaters run by directors who write and that gives him a writer's sensibility. He's one of that rare breed of directors who really give writers their due. And ATL has the nicest literary office. I can be rejected by Michael and feel just fine." (Michael Bigelow Dixon has been literary manager for 12 years and is on the search committee for Jory's replacement.)
During Jory's tenure, two Humana Festival plays have won the Pulitzer Prize, D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game and Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, while the pseudonymous Martin's Keely and Du was a finalist. More than two dozen have gone on to Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, most recently this season, Arthur Kopit's Y2K at the Manhattan Theatre Club and the current Off-Broadway hit, Dinner With Friends, by Donald Margulies. As with film festivals, there is a market place aspect to the Humana Fest, reflecting what Jory describes as a "plantation mentality towards the American writer." Still there's talk of a New York future for actor/writer Stephen ("The Laramie Project") Belber's Tape from the current Fest. And over the Weekend, New York producer Stanley Tulchin (Dinner with Friends) optioned Allen Knee's Syncopation, a Long Wharf Theatre and George Street Playhouse co-production that won the other ATCA/Steinberg citation and $5,000 check. (Knee's play wasn't even part of the Humana Fest!)
Anne Bogart, two-time Obie winner and artistic director of The Saratoga International Theater Institute (SITI), usually plots intriguing constructs for her work. For instance, in Going, Going, Gone, (Humana Fest, '95), she mixes the language of quantum physics with some dangerous cocktail party liaisons, as two couples recapitulate Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf without uttering a single intelligible sentence. There's also no recognizable dialogue in her plays about such 20th century artistic luminaries as Robert Wilson (Bob), Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (A Likeness to Loving) and Marshall McLuhan (The Medium). Instead, their own words (both oral and written) are either spoken or taped, and replayed to tell their stories a la Bogart. Hardly the kind of work one might expect to find at the Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival.
"Oh, I know," laughs Bogart, a presence at ATL since 1995. "When my name first came up people said 'Isn't she avant garde? Isn't she expensive? Isn't she difficult?' and now, ironically, SITI and I represent a certain continuity during this time of change." They will be in residency for at least another two years, and both Jon Jory and Sandy Speer have embraced their works. As Speer says, "It's been a joy for us to have Anne and SITI come to ATL. They've opened us up to new ideas and a more non-traditional format." Bogart and Co.'s fourth Humana premiere was War of the Worlds, their homage to cinematic genius, Orson Welles. For this production, they found ways to translate many of his film techniques (especially depth of field and life within a frame) into theatrical metaphor.
The basic structure of the piece, which the New York Times' critic Bruce Weber called "visually striking...effective and clever," mirrors Citizen Kane, as the cast searches for clues to Welles' apocryphal last word "Thorn." Along the way, the audience enjoys recognizing moments (and/or effects) from the Welles canon, including Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger and The Third Man, all translated to the stage. Bogart readily admits, "The piece is big and unwieldy, and there are still holes. We're constantly working on it and it changed even from opening night. I want more of his vulnerability with his mother and it isn't there yet, but come see it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the Fall [it's the season opener], and I know you'll find it different."
The company has also been invited to Edinburgh for two weeks this August. They'll perform their recent Humana production, along with their staged version of Welles' original War of the Worlds radio play (seen in New York at the Westbank Cafe) and Cabin Pressure, which they created and premiered at the 1998 Humana Fest. War of the Worlds is the first collaboration between Bogart, SITI and award-winning playwright Naomi Iizuka, and is fully scripted, a method that's still an exception to their usual collective method of creation. "Basically my job with SITI is as initiator and final arbiter," explains Bogart. "In between, we face off, agree to disagree and question everything."
Bogart's inspiration and model is famed French director Ariane Mnouchkine, who brought her international Theatre du Soleil production of Les Atrides to the Brooklyn Academy in the mid '90s. "I lived in Paris a lot and saw her 'spectacles' and finally worked up the courage to actually talk to her at a party one night. It's because of her that I knew I had to have my own company." Bogart also oversees Columbia University's Graduate Directing Program and directs 'for hire,' as well as with her company. She and SITI plan to work again with playwright and historian Charles L. Mee, whose Orestes (based on Euripides' text) was SITI's inaugural production in 1992. (This year, Mee's debut Humana play, Big Love, was an audience fave.) Mee and Bogart's next collaboration will be raushenbergamerica about the artist Robert Raushenberg.
Oh, as for Welles' "Thorn," Bogart hopes you'll read the Barbara Leaming biography, where all shall be revealed.
Back Story is a dramatic anthology co-written by 18 playwrights including Craig Lucas, Constance Congdon, Edwin Sanchez, Neena Beber, Donald Margulies, Shirley Lauro, Eduardo Machado and the mysterious Jane Martin. Based on the storyline created by Joan Ackermann (Batting Cage). The pieces work together as an episodic play for young actors or separately as monologues and dialogues.
Joan Ackermann (Playwright/Back Story/Time to Think and Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving in the Year 2000)
"Jon (Jory) and Michael (Bigelow Dixon) asked me to create a narrative about an older sister, a younger brother and a momentous (non-incestuous) occasion in their lives, so I went to lie in my hammock to think. I chose to make it about small moments in ordinary lives--the two characters Ainsley and Ethan (each played by 11 different actors) are blue-collar kids from Pittsfield, PA. And I also wrote the first and last scenes, to launch the piece and then to tie it up." (Back Story was created, in part, as a way of insuring an audience for the annual Humana apprentice presentation and it did just that.)
David Ives (Playwright/Arabian Nights, directed by Jon Jory)
"I'd love to talk but my mother's here. Call me in New York." I did, and we created our own phone play together:
Ives: I loved the Festival, and I'm so sorry that I came in the front door as Jon was running out the back. Every city, town and gas station should have a Festival like this every two weeks, especially with those three gorgeous theaters. They also treat playwrights like royalty--everything but the sedan chair! I loved the variety offered by such a smorgasbord of plays-my favorites were Big Love and Anton in Love.
Blake: So did your mother enjoy the Festival?
Ives: Oh yes.
Blake: Where did she come in from?"
Ives: She drove in from Chicago. It took seven hours, but to a hearty mid-Westerner, that's a little jaunt.
Okay, I didn't say it would be a Humana-caliber phone play. (Ives' amusing ten-minute play turns the banal words of two very ordinary people into something exotic, courtesy of a genie translator.)
Neena Beber (Playwright/Back Story/The Reluctant Instrument)
"This is my second time at Louisville [her ten minute play Misreadings in '96 was very well received] and I had such a good time before, that I wanted to come back, especially since it's Jon's last year. The Humana's like a cross between a market place and adult camp, but I'm not sure about my Humana career. I've gone from a ten-minute play to a page in Back Story--maybe next year they'll ask me to write a word. Actually, I want to suggest 'mug' plays to go along with the T(EXT) Shirts and the Phone Plays." (Beber's "page" has Ainsley in love with her oboe teacher and begins, "I learned how to kiss on the clarinet...but I learned how to love on the oboe.")
Charles L. Mee (Playwright/Big Love)
"I was commissioned to do whatever I liked for the Festival, that in some way celebrated the millennium. So I based Big Love on a concept from the oldest known surviving play in the Western World (The Suppliant Women, part of a trilogy by Aeschlylus). Usually I just give a play to the director, leave town and come back on opening night, but I've been down here this past week, to see if it needed work. Now, I'm just enjoying the actors." (Big Love shared unofficial "Favorite of the Festival" status with Jane Martin's satiric Anton in Love.)
Carolyn Baeumler (Actress/Big Love)
"This is my second trip to the Humana in two years and I'm thrilled to be in an epic like this. The language is so beautiful, like modern Shakespeare. If the other two parts of the Aeschylus original hadn't been lost, Greek society might have been based on love instead of justice. The nudity [she enters, strips and gets into a tub within the first 15 seconds of the play] was never a problem. In fact, the whole opening is ironic for me, because I understudied Blanche (Elizabeth Marvel) in the New York Theatre Workshop Streetcar, and had to strip and fall into a tub several times during that run." (Baeumler also recently starred as Mae West in the revival of West's 1926 play Sex, along with T Ryder Smith, who plays her fiancé in Big Love.)
Regina Taylor (Playwright/Phone Play Beside Every Good Man/ recipient of the 2000 ATCA/Steinberg Award, including a $15,000 check for Oo-Bla-Dee.)
On winning her award: "This is confirmation of the leap of faith I took to write." On the Humana Fest: "It's a place I always felt was right for me, it's very nurturing. I always wanted to be a writer and my first professional production was here in 1992--two one-acts, Jennine's Diaryand Watermelon Rinds, collectively titled Various Small Fires." (Taylor's Beside Every Good Man is an apochryphal phone call between Winnie Mandela and Coretta Scott King.)
Jeffrey Hatcher (playwright/Phone Play Show Business/recipient of the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Citation, including a $5000 check for Complete Female Stage Beauty.)
Standing on stage before Saturday night's play: "You thought you were seeing Touch (by Toni Press-Coffman) tonight, and this (indicating the awards presentation) is the way the show starts." (Hatcher's Phone Play is a wickedly funny conversation between a ticket buyer and a ticketing operator with an attitude.)
Tina Howe (playwright/The Divine Fallacy, directed by Jon Jory)
"This is my first time in Louisville and I had been despairing the theater of late, but this trip has restored my faith. I was invited to write a ten-minute play and I'm usually interested in a larger landscape, so I used this as an exercise. Like all my plays, I'm writing about myself. Dorothy is an awkward, self-defensive writer who suffers the pain of an hermetic artist, when she must have her photo taken for a book jacket. Of course, within the piece, there's a major reversal. I am deeply neurotic and I celebrate it. I've been known to give notes right up to closing and Jon and the actors have indulged me." (Howe's ugly duckling takes a swipe at a swan in Divine Fallacy
Bruce Weber (New York Times Off-Broadway critic)
"It's a great concept to be able to come for a weekend and see eight shows in three days, even if it is kind of exhausting. The staff is thoughtful and efficient and the whole Festival is run beautifully, but I've just seen eight shows in three days..." (Weber's review praised Anton in Love, Big Love and War of the Worlds, while decrying the Festival's sub-theme of rape in four of the weekend's works.)
"I acted at ATL 25 years ago, and I just came back to see some good theater. ATL is a testament to Jon Jory and I just hope, whoever gets the job, that Louisville audiences will allow his or her own vision to emerge." (AMEN!)