During the past decade, about 80% of the plays that debuted at the annual Humana Fest have gone on to future lives, with 15 outings from the last five years showing up in Gotham. Gina Gionfriddos Becky Shaw and Theresa Rebeck’s The Scene were two of its hits to play New York in recent seasons.
But the 34th edition of the Humana Festival of New American Plays had a slightly different vibe. That’s partly because the org has changed its development and producing model, in an effort to meet the needs of an evolving regional marketplace — and partly because this year’s slate reflects Humana’s shifting role in a changing national marketplace for legit fare, according to Marc Masterson, a.d. for the Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., that hosts the fest.
The rise of the small and midsize company in the U.S. is a significant market, and one that we’ve been paying attention to,” he says.
The fest, which this year wrapped March 28, is one of the most prominent regional showcases of new plays in the country.
When the festival — funded by the Humana Foundation, the charitable arm of the health insurance company — launched in 1976, there were far fewer legit orgs focusing on new work in the U.S. That’s due in part to the fact that there were fewer theaters around in general, since the tide of nonprofits that swept the country in the second half of the 20th century had yet to reach a high point.
These days, however, legit troupes have proliferated, and more and more theaters and organizations are focusing on new work. (It helps that a lot of foundational funding is earmarked for world preems, thereby encouraging companies to choose to program a new play over a revival.)
Masterson says he’s increased the proportion of the fest’s resources that go to developing a new play over a longer haul, as opposed to simply staging a completed script. He adds that now the fest often commits to shows earlier, in an effort to help steer them into co-commissions or co-productions that might aid in creating a future life.
The 2010 roster of seven full-length plays may reflect growing pains. Unlike many previous seasons, there was no single offering that seemed to galvanize the legiters from around the country who descended on Louisville to check out the wares. (A couple of years ago, the lightning rod was “Becky Shaw,” which played Humana in 2008 and went on to become an Off Broadway hit.)
Instead, the 2010 Humana lineup struck a notable balance between traditional stage offerings (“Phoenix,” “The Cherry Sisters Revisited,” “Ground,” “Sirens”) and more experimental, free-form shows devised by ensembles of writer-performers (“The Method Gun,” “Fissures”) or conceived as a site-specific event (“Heist,” staged at a hotel-cum-gallery in downtown Louisville).
Of the 2010 lineup, only one show has a definite future mapped out: The two-character romantic comedy-drama “Phoenix,” by Scott Organ, began previews April 3 for a Gotham production from the Barrow Group.
Among the plans in the works for other offerings: Ensemble-created piece “The Method Gun,” the Rude Mechs’ exploration of acting gurus and danger, looks certain to tour in the fall or next spring, with talks for a Gotham outing also under way. And Dan O’Brien’s vaudeville-siblings tale “The Cherry Sisters Revisited” was directed at Actors Theater by Primary Stages a.d. Andrew Leynse, which makes the show seem a good candidate for that Off Broadway company.
Rude Mechs’ co-producing a.d. Kirk Lynn says the showcase helped expose the troupe to more tradition-oriented producers and presenters that might have shied away from its experimental work in the past.
People came to see us as more than just the weirdos,” he says.