Humana Festival of New American Plays: A Love Letter to American Theater

Amy Wegener and Erin Meiman.

Amy Wegener and Erin Meiman. (Photo by Steve Squall)

In a matter of days, all eyes in American theater will be on Actors Theatre of Louisville for the 41st Humana Festival of New American Plays. The stairwells, the halls and every chair in the house – including the stools around the bar – will fill with playwrights, theater aficionados and a veritable who’s who of the industry. Each staff member at Actors will step up and reach beyond their role to make all feel welcome. It will be as dramatic and grand as the “Be Our Guest” number in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” And at the beating heart of it all will be two women who have been waiting for this moment since the final moment of last year’s festival: Amy Wegener, literary director, and Erin Meiman, festival and events manager.

Actors Theatre of Louisville unfurled a 30-foot banner to announce the opening of the sixth annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.  Feb. 24, 1982 (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

Actors Theatre of Louisville unfurled a 30-foot banner to announce the opening of the sixth annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Feb. 24, 1982 (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

Wegener is a dramaturg, which means she’s responsible for researching and developing plays. It was at Princeton that she discovered her calling when her advisor pulled her aside and pointed out that Wegener very much enjoyed reading and research but also was passionate about being in a rehearsal hall. Wegener says in her current role, “You get to collaborate, you get to meet and talk with lots of fascinating artists … but you’re also reading a ton.” As soon as one Humana Festival closes, Wegener and her team begin reading through hundreds of plays in preparation for the next year’s festival. “We have a whole reading process that goes from the spring to the summer to the early fall,” she explains. “Even before that, though, there’s a lot of work that goes into developing relationships with writers over the longterm, encouraging them to send work. We also commission plays, so that’s something we’re planning for that may come to fruition several years later.”

The Glory of the World,” 2015 (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

The Glory of the World,” 2015 (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

Wegener and her staff cultivate a short list of plays to elevate to what she describes as the “brain trust”: “We float the best of the best to a team that includes our artistic director, Les Waters; our associate artistic director, Meredith McDonough; and our artistic producer, Emily Tarquin.” By the end of the summer, they’re ready to take a closer look at the plays that will take the stage in the festival. Their selections are not curated to fit a particular theme but rather the audience is left to draw their own connections. “The human brain wants to synthesize things,” Wegener relates. “That’s part of what’s fun about going to a festival like this – you see a bunch of different works of art that are really distinct … and you come away from it with your synapses popping.”

The chosen plays are a well-guarded secret by Wegener’s team and the “brain trust.” Meiman says even as the festival and events manager, she, along with her team, must wait along with the rest of us for the plays to be formally announced. “We bug [Wegener] all the time, ‘When are we going to know? When can we see it?’ So, when it gets announced and we get to read the plays, that’s really exciting,” Meiman enthuses. And, of course, opening night is a thrilling time too, “[Wegener] and her team are in the rehearsal rooms …  the rest of us are not,” she continues. “So for me, opening night is exciting to see how a play I read months ago has changed and evolved and to see it in real life.”

Meiman has always loved the arts and continues to play the saxophone to this day, but she knew she didn’t want to be a performer. During an internship in the production department while in college at Miami University, Ohio, Meiman realized, “My skills in organization and logistics and planning and math and spreadsheets … were needed and were a way to be a part of [the arts].”

Right: “Steel  Hammer,” 2014 (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

Right: “Steel Hammer,” 2014 (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

Meiman is responsible for creating a fully immersive experience for the hundreds of theater professionals, college students and arts-lovers that will descend on our city for the six-week run of the festival. For help, she looks to the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, which assists in the coordination of hotels and transportation for festival guests. When visitors aren’t at the theater, Meiman likes to show off some of the cultural gems of our city: “This year for various things, we’re having events at KMAC, the Ali Center and an early donor event at the Frazier Museum.”

Meiman puts our city on a pedestal for out-of-towners but has found that locals just as eagerly support Actors Theatre and the Humana Festival, “[Louisville] has a community that is excited about new works,” she attests. She’s always surprised by the level of support to be found here locally for Actors Theatre; “They’re champions for us,” she says of Louisvillians.

When the festival first started in the late 1970s, Wegener says, “It was a really audacious idea that Louisville, Kentucky, could become the home of amazing new plays that would find their way all over the country or into New York.” But Jon Jory, the producing director for Actors Theatre at the time, was on to something. American playwrights were in real need of a platform to get their work seen. Wegener explains, “I think it really started out of a real love of writers and new writing and wanting to find a way to support American playwrights.” The festival started in 1977 and Humana came on as a partner in 1979. “It’s the longest running partnership between a performing arts organization and a corporation in the U.S.,” says Wegener. Meiman adds, “The Humana Foundation has been an amazing partner with us for basically the lifetime of the festival.”

Left: 2015  Humana Festival (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

Left: 2015 Humana Festival (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

While Meiman and Wegener couldn’t choose a favorite – after all, the plays are like their children – they are pleased to include in this year’s festival “We’re Gonna Be Okay” by playwright Basil Kreimendahl, who lived in Louisville for a number of years. Kreimendahl’s work was recently described as “visceral” by The New York Times in their theater highlight of trans playwrights. “We’re Gonna Be Okay” is set during the Cuban Missle Crisis, and Wegener describes it as a play about “two families who decide to build a bomb shelter on their shared property. … The characters are dealing with a lot of questions of change and personal identity.”

Meiman chimes in, “I’ve enjoyed that play. It’s about what happens when you’re in crisis and how do you react to that … and the absurdity of life.”

Another aspect that makes the festival truly distinct is the level of production Actors puts into every single play showcased. “We fully produce everything,” Wegener affirms, meaning that audiences see the shows with fully realized sets, costumes, props and lighting design. This level of investment in each show genuinely sets the Humana Festival on a tier above other festivals of its kind.

While patrons coming in for just a single weekend will need to see as many plays as possible in a small window of time, Meiman and Wegener recommend that locals choose a few plays they’re interested in seeing and space their viewings out across the entire course of the festival so as not to become overwhelmed. They also highly recommend attending the kick-off party on February 23. The festivities will begin in the main lobby of Actors Theatre at 5:30 p.m. with snippets of each play to be read by actors and discussions to take place in the Bingham Theatre at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are free but must be reserved by contacting Actors Theatre online or by phone.

Above: Audience in the Pamela Brown Auditorium (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

Above: Audience in the Pamela Brown Auditorium (photos courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville)

While pulling off a festival of this magnitude year after year is undoubtedly stressful, Meiman and Wegener have the heart to do what it takes to make it an annual success. The Humana Festival is the city of Louisville’s love letter to American theater. Wegener has been in love with plays ever since reading “Angels in America” in college. “It just blew my mind that a play could be that complex and textured,” she recounts. “It was cool to read plays that were finding their life and finding their way at that moment. … Plays are these incredibly alive things, and that’s what I wanted to be a part of.”

And now, thanks to the effort of Meiman and Wegener along with the whole team at Actors Theatre, the entire city of Louisville gets to be a part of helping new plays find their way out into the world. It’s only appropriate that Louisville – centrally located in our nation – is where all of the American theater community gathers to appreciate and discover new works. If you attend the festival, you won’t catch a glimpse of Wegener or Meiman on stage, but you will certainly see all of their hard work on display. VT

By Minda Honey