Four on the Floor: These Legiters Are Ready to Climb to the Next Stage

With works that included oddball astronauts and the ability to play a crowd of one, up-and-comers wowed auds at the Humana Fest

With the legit producing landscape and the nation’s network of nonprofit theaters evolving in major ways over the years, the 37-year-old Humana Festival of New American Plays may not occupy the same place on the American theater scene it once did. But the festival, which is produced every year by Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., remains one of the most prominent national showcases for new stage work, this year attracting nearly 450 industry pros to check out its world premieres. Some, like 2009 Off Broadway hit “Becky Shaw,” go on to play around the country.

This year marks the first Humana fest entirely programmed by ATL’s new a.d. Les Waters, and it gave attendees plenty to talk about:

LUCAS HNATH Playwright (pictured above, upper right):

Lucas Hnath (pronounced NAYth) wowed audiences this year by taking an oddball assignment — an ATL commission to pen a halfhour play that factors in sleep research, aerialism and the 2012-13 class of the theater’s acting apprentices — and turning it into “Nightnight,” an inventive astronaut
story that rocketed along with restless momentum.

Gotham auds can sample his work, too. A recent Off Broadway staging of contempo-slang historical dramedy “Isaac’s Eye” will be followed this summer by the Soho Rep production of “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.” The fantasia about Walt’s final hours draws on Hnath’s Orlando upbringing: “Disney was probably my first theatrical influence,” he says.

Meanwhile, Hnath just turned in a full-length ATL commission about megachurches and evangelical Christianity in the 21st century. Coming up: “Death Tax,” one of the standout titles of the 2012 Humana fest, plays London’s Royal Court this summer, and “Red Speedo,” about doping and competitive swimming, gets a world preem at D.C.’s Studio Theater in the fall.

BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS Playwright (pictured above, lower right):

Among emerging playwrights these days, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is the guy with the awards crowding his mantle: the Princess Grace, the Paula Vogel, the Tennessee Williams. He’s also got a fellowship at Juilliard, and is one of the Residency Five playwrights at Off Broadway’s Signature Theater, which is holding an early 2014 slot for an upcoming work.

At Humana, his play “Appropriate” was one of the headliners that got auds talking (even if some felt the end didn’t quite work). Helmed by Gary Griffin (“The Color Purple”), the play centers on long-buried family secrets that come to light in a white family’s summer home, a former plantation.

“Appropriate” will go on to run later this year at Chicago’s Victory Garden, which co-produced the Humana staging, and will be seen in a separate production at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth. Jacobs-Jenkins also is developing a play at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater (“Gloria,” or “Ambition,” about a striving young staffer at a literary mag), to be workshopped in the summer, as well as an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play “The Octoroon”
at Soho Rep.

To Jacobs-Jenkins, it’s a felicitous fluke that all the attention is suddenly hitting at once. “I’ve had a lucky couple of months,” he says. “But there are years when I was starving!”

LILA NEUGEBAUER Director (pictured above, lower left):

With a growing list of credits around the country, Lila Neugebauer (NOY-guh-bower) is a name that legiters come across frequently these days; at Humana, she directed the genre-stretching lecture-cum-meditation-cum-play, “O Guru Guru Guru, or Why I Don’t Want to Go to Yoga Class With You.”

She just did a reading at the Pacific Playwrights Festival of a new play by Zoe Kazan, and is fresh off the Berkeley Rep premiere of Dan LeFranc’s teen-centric “Troublemaker.” Next up is “Red Speedo,” the Hnath play that bows at D.C.’s Studio Theater in the fall. Plus, she’s at work on a show with the Mad Ones, the Off Broadway troupe she co-founded.

Five years ago, Neugebauer was the resident directing assistant at Actors Theater of Louisville.

“I’m delighted by the way my life and my work have taken me by surprise,” the native New Yorker says. “If you had told me I’d be as comfortable as I am right now sitting in a theater lobby in Louisville, I never would have believed you.”

DANNY WOLOHAN Actor (pictured above, upper left):

Will Eno’s Gnit, the quirky, comic take on “Peer Gynt,” was the highlight of this year’s fest for many Humana attendees. And the standout from that production was, for many, Danny Wolohan, the actor who played a crowd of people — all onstage at the same time.

“Gnit” tasked Gotham-based Wolohan with portraying a character called Town, a solo representation of the argumentative rabble of townsfolk who spend much of the play in pursuit of the title character. The thesp also limned all the members of a family of bloodthirsty real estate agents, and then later portrayed an entirely separate gang of globetrotting thieves.

Rather than take the obvious approach of lending each separate character a distinct stance and voice, Wolohan and helmer Waters went for subtlety. “We thought of Town as one person with many, many different opinions and attitudes about something,” Wolohan says.

The choice made it tough at first for audiences to figure out what was going on. But once theatergoers keyed into the device, it only magnified the humor — and made Wolohan an audience favorite.

(Old Kentucky Home: The Humana Fest is held yearly in Louisville.)

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