Louisville theater festival: subtle changes in the showcase
For 11 years the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) has served as a cultural sounding board. Those wishing to plumb the heart of American drama had only to travel, not to Broadway, but to America's heartland. For three days every spring, this modest Kentucky city transforms itself into one of the country's most visible showcases for emerging playwrights. However, after more than a decade of bringing to the surface such works as ``The Gin Game,'' ``Agnes of God,'' and ``Crimes of the Heart,'' the festival is undergoing significant changes - alterations that reflect the fluctuating fortunes of the festival and American theater as a whole.Skip to next paragraph
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While many festivalgoers continued to scan this year's plays for themes, motifs, and a possible commercial afterlife, the more significant news lay in changes in the festival itself.
What began last year with the decision no longer to limit productions to premi`eres of new works resulted this season in a remarkably lackluster series of productions that had their first outings earlier. Of the festival's eight plays (the leanest season in as many years), six were originally produced or developed elsewhere. And the only scheduled full-length premi`ere - ``Glimmerglass,'' an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's ``Leatherstocking Tales,'' by Jonathan Bolt - was pulled out at the last minute.
In recognition of the difficulties in finding quality new drama, Jon Jory, the ATL's producing director, announced a further refinement in the festival's selection process: the commissioning of new plays by three writers of significance (two of whom are virtual theatrical outsiders): Marsha Norman (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the play ``'Night Mother''), Jimmy Breslin (Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist), and Susan Sontag (novelist and critic). Each will premi`ere a new drama at next year's festival.
Several observers speculated that such headline-grabbing moves were a last-ditch attempt to reverse the festival's declining fortunes. Recent years have seen fewer talented playwrights and virtually no blockbuster hits emerge from the festival. Others suggested that more fruitful commissioning might result from tapping already established playwrights - including Beth Henley, Jane Martin, and Lee Blessing - who began their careers at Louisville.
Mr. Jory, however, defended the changes as the theater's response to the evolving nature of American drama. ``It used to be that there were only four theaters in the country doing new work,'' he said. ``Now, virtually every [regional] theater does premi`eres. We want to create some new excitement.''
But that excitement, alas, must wait another year. Among the exceptionally lightweight dramas - including three one-acts, five comedies, and a science-fiction drama - some productions were worth noting, either for writing talent (Mayo Simon's ``Elaine's Daughter'') or individual performances (actors David Bottrell and Peter Zapp).
Nonetheless, the overall impressions that emerged were of: a continuing emphasis on naturalistic, domestic drama; consistently indifferent directing (with the notable exception of Jory's controlled work); and a tendency toward overproduction (Paul Owen's chockabloc garbage dump and auto repair shop sets are almost de rigueur now).