Drama festival sets itself a new course. Louisville event now includes plays that aren't brand new
For 10 years the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) has served as a cultural divining rod. Those wishing to sample new American drama have had only to travel, not to Broadway, but to the nation's heartland. For three days every spring, this city has transformed itself into one of the country's most important showcases for emerging playwrights.Skip to next paragraph
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But now, after a decade of bringing to the surface such works as ``The Gin Game,'' ``Agnes of God,'' and ``Crimes of the Heart,'' ATL has implemented some changes -- changes that reflect the fluctuating fortunes of both the festival and American theater as a whole.
While many festivalgoers, including scores of critics, agents, and producers, continued to scan this year's plays for themes, motifs, and a possible commercial afterlife, the more significant news lay in the festival's new approach.
Beginning this season, ATL no longer exclusively premi`eres new work.
Instead of accepting thousands of unsolicited full-length plays for its annual Great American Play Contest, the theater now devotes half the festival resources to staging plays that have already been produced professionally somewhere else. More than one-third of this year's nine works were originally produced elsewhere.
Some observers privately speculated that such shifts came in the wake of the festival's declining fortunes. Recent years have seen smaller numbers of talented playwrights and fewer blockbuster hits emerge from ATL. However, producing director Jon Jory explained the changes as a response to the evolving nature of American theater.
``It used to be that identifying new playwrights was the problem,'' Mr. Jory said. ``Now developing them is the chief challenge.'' He added that nearly 1,000 writers are currently writing for, and have been produced on, the stage -- a situation which ``was not the case 5 or 10 years ago.'' Among theaters now, said Jory, ``there is a good deal of jockeying going in the new-play derby.''
Such increased competition may explain the absence of any outright discoveries among this year's new plays. While the festival field wasn't as bleak as last year when the satiric ``Tent Meeting'' emerged as the lone success, neither was it as bright as the previous season when at least three ATL plays -- P.J. Barry's ``The Octette Bridge Club,'' John Patrick Shanley's ``Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,'' and Emily Mann's ``Execution of Justice'' -- went on to additional regional and New York productions.
Of this year's nine works, none appeared ready for market. Several pieces, however, were worth noting either for writing talent or individual acting performance. Among this year's entries were two one-acts, a historical piece, a comedy, a brace of melodramas, and two plays that were more performance pieces than traditional drama.
Several of the productions required posted warnings of nudity, violence, and unsuitability for children. With the exception of the festival's most controversial play, an abrasive series of Mametesque blackouts, many of the R-rated techniques seemed gratuitous, a somewhat misguided attempt to move the festival beyond its usual artistic conservatism.
As usual, opinions among festival visitors varied widely. For the critic, how to prioritize plays that require further refinement and rewriting was the question.