At The Humana Festival, The Plays Are Not the Only Thing

By Marty Rosen

Courtesy Photos

Writers often compare the Humana Festival of New American Plays to the Sundance Film Festival.

In many ways, that’s quite apt. Both are the preeminent American events in their respective disciplines. Both serve as springboards for individual works and for the artists who create them. Both are widely viewed by critics, artists and audiences as influential bellwethers that herald the direction of artistic innovation.

But there’s also a fundamental distinction between the two festivals.

The film festival exhibits complete works – films that have been brought to their final form by their producers.

In contrast, the Humana Festival of New American Plays is the culmination of a complex, months-long collaborative process. That process, begun under the leadership of festival founder Jon Jory, has continued under subsequent artistic directors Marc Masterson and Les Waters, and persists today. It begins with the selection of scripts by the company’s literary team and artistic leadership.

But what comes after the selection of plays is a remarkable chain of events.

Actors Theatre of Louisville brings each playwright together with a director; dramaturg; stage managers; designers of scenery, costumes, lights and sound; choreographers and fight choreographers; music directors; a cast of performers; and even the behind-the-scenes team that develops things like posters, blurbs and other materials that introduce the new works to the public.

Over a period of a few months, each team works together to create the fully-formed artwork that festival audiences see on stage each spring.

Playwright Deborah Stein, whose “Marginal Loss” is the second play to open at this year’s festival, said in a phone interview, “The play on the page is just the beginning. A play doesn’t exist until it’s onstage with collaborators and with an audience. The play on a computer is the first third of the process. Then there’s the making of the performance event, and then there’s the sharing of the performance event.

Stein, whose previous Humana Festival credits include “Fissures” and “Heist” (both from the 2010 festival), continued, “One of the things that sets Actors Theatre apart from other theaters is how involved they want writers to be in all the phases of production. They flew me in a couple of months ago so I could be in the room and meet with the designers – and that was priceless. And I’ve been involved in the marketing conversations. It’s totally optional – and there are writers who don’t want to be involved in those things – but if you do want to be involved, they’re open. And I’m really interested in it because all of those things are related to the creative aspects: Something like thinking about poster images helps me develop my own understanding of the play.”

For 42 seasons, that intense collaborative effort, which involves the simultaneous creation of multiple works of art, has been the hallmark of the Humana Festival. It’s a process that has created more than 400 plays, including full-length, shorts and collaborative multi-author works. Many of those plays have become staples of the American stage.

One way to judge the impact of those works is by looking at the number that have been nominated for and are winners of some of the country’s most prestigious awards, including Pulitzers, Obies and other prizes awarded by the American Theatre Critics Association and the National Theatre Conference.

But the plays themselves only tell part of the story. Because of the way the Humana Festival develops new works, each production also creates and builds upon a unique set of artistic relationships among those who work on it. Over the last 40 years, those relationships have created an uncountable number of enduring professional networks that have shaped the history of contemporary American theater.

And those relationships can take wildly varied forms. The first three plays on this year’s Humana bill reveal some of the myriad ways in which the festival brings people together.

The story of Stein’s festival connections may not be representative – a diagram of her artistic network would be incomprehensible – but it’s illustrative. These days, Stein’s primary creative partner is Suli Holum, a playwright, director and choreographer. In 2004, when Holum was in the cast of the Humana production of Naomi Iizuka’s “At The Vanishing Point,” Stein met Iizuka. Years later, Stein joined Iizuka on the faculty of the theater program at the University of California San Diego (UCSD).

Last spring, a student named Mara Nelson-Greenberg applied to UCSD’s graduate program. Stein read her application script. “It was amazing,” said Stein. “She has an extraordinarily distinctive, comic, feminist voice. I’ve never read plays like hers.”

Nelson-Greenberg enrolled at UCSD last fall. Not long afterwards, she received word that her play, “Do You Feel Anger?” (about an empathy coach working with employees at a debt collection agency), had been accepted into this year’s festival.

In short order, Stein heard that her own “Marginal Loss,” (also a workplace play, this one set just after 9/11 in the office of a firm that has losses in the attack) had also been accepted.

But that’s only the start of Stein’s connection to Humana. On the day I spoke with her, she was in New York, where she had just seen a play featuring an actor she met during the 2010 Festival – a former member of Actors Theatre’s professional training company. And in March, when Stein’s recent play, “The Wholehearted,” makes its New York City premiere, the sound designer will be Matt Hubbs, whom she knows through his previous Humana Festival work.

“Some of my best friends are people I collaborated with at Humana,” said Stein, who added that for many people in theater, the festival offers career models. “There are certain career paths that run through the Humana Festival. As a young writer, I remember looking for role models, wondering what does it look like to have a career as a playwright, because that is a weird thing to want to be. So who could I look to? And the Humana Festival kept being a thing that showed up in people’s biographies who had done work that I really admired.”

For Nelson-Greenberg, getting the call that her play had been accepted into the festival was a shock. “Amy Wegener (head of Actors Theatre’s literary department) called to tell me they were going to produce it. I was so shocked that I asked her if I could hang up the phone and call her back. I sat for like 15 minutes alone, and then called her. It was almost as if I had blacked out or something. “

In a phone call from California, Nelson-Greenberg told me she’s been balancing her ongoing school work with prepping for the Humana Festival. “I have a deadline this week for new work,” she said.

For her, new relationships have already come to define both the UCSD and the Humana experience. “This last few months has been a lot of firsts for me,” she said, “but I feel so grateful to feel that I’m in such supportive hands. I have great support from Deborah (Stein), who is an amazing mentor and teacher. And from Naomi (Iizuka) and all of my classmates. And the whole process at Actors feels like such a true collaboration as far as decision-making goes. They let me sound out questions or anxieties or hopes.”

And for Nelson-Greenberg, the support she’s received throughout the process has been stimulating. “I feel very lucky for my first production to be happening at a place like ATL. It’s not just about getting the final product up on the stage. A big part of it is how you get there. And you get there with other people. Les Waters put me in touch with my director, Margot Bordelon. It was kind of a blind date, and she has been amazing. It felt like since day one that we speak the same language, and she really understands what I’m trying to do. I think Les really has an eye for bringing people together. “

In an interview, Waters told me the festival’s mission is to serve the playwrights’ vision, and that includes trying to honor the playwrights’ preferences regarding directors.

Leah Nanako Winkler, whose play “God Said This” (a family drama set in Kentucky) opens this year’s festival, is a case in point.

Like Nelson-Greenberg, Nanako Winkler, who grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, took part in the Youngblood writers’ development program at New York City’s Ensemble Studio Theater (though the two didn’t overlap).

Before that, she attended Lexington’s Tates Creek High School, where she was introduced to theater drama teacher Lisa Osterman.

Nanako Winkler started out writing and producing her own plays in Indianapolis. Then she moved to New York City, where she became part of a community of fiercely-independent theater artists who self-produced their own work.

“I was an outsider,” said Nanako Winkler in an interview. And in those early days, she and her friends would rejoice at drawing audiences of a half-dozen.

One of those friends was Morgan Gould. They met 10 years ago when both were involved in New York’s burgeoning experimental theater scene.

As Nanako Winkler started focusing on a career in writing, Gould maintained a broader portfolio that included directing, and directed the 2016 premiere of Nanako Winkler’s play “Kentucky,” which garnered an enthusiastic review in the New York Times.

In an interview, Gould recalled, “We were coming up together, both us just clinging to the rock, and we share an aesthetic of surprise and humor, so we got deeply into working together, and now I direct a lot of her stuff.”

But that was no guarantee that Gould would get the directing assignment for the Humana premiere. “Leah (Nanako Winkler) got the call,” said Gould. “And she called me up and told me and was like, ‘Yay!’ and she told me she was going to give them my name. And in my head I was thinking, ‘We’ll see how that goes.’”

Then, said Gould, Les Waters called her. It was Waters’ direction of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” that inspired Gould to become a director, she recalled. “He had this moment where Eurydice has been writing letters through the play and the back of the set lights up, and suddenly you see all the letters that she’s written.” Gould was in acting school at the time, but it was an epiphany. “I suddenly realized I didn’t want to be an actor, I wanted to do that. I wanted to be a director.”

Her hero was on the phone, said Gould, “and I was interviewing for a job I desperately wanted. I was so nervous. I felt like a geek. But he’s the nicest. He’s so down-to-earth and cool, which makes sense because you can’t be a good director if you’re not those things. And we had a lovely conversation.”

The next day Nanako Winkler called Gould and said, “They said we could do it! And we were all, ‘Yay!’ again.”

For Nanako Winkler, Gould and Nelson-Greenberg, this year’s Humana Festival is the beginning of a new phase in their creative lives.

“I’ve always admired Humana from afar,” said Nelson-Greenberg, “and even though now I’m a part of it, I haven’t totally experienced it, so it still feels like it’s afar.”

Nanako Winkler, who has attended only one Humana Festival, said, “When I was growing up in Lexington, it just seemed so far away. It wasn’t until I got to New York that I realized what a huge deal it is. I never imagined being a part of it. It gives me hope.”

Gould, who has attended “a bunch” of Humana Festivals but never as a participant, said, “It’s such an amazingly supportive professional environment with such wonderful support. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Deborah Stein, though she, too, is still comparatively early in her career, speaks from a longer perspective. “I’m so excited to see Leah (Nanako Winkler) and Morgan (Gould) in this (Actors Theatre) slot,” she said, “because they’re doing such exciting work – and I remember when they were making tiny garage pieces in Brooklyn. It’s strong work, and people see its strength. And people like Les understand the work and know how to find it. I think about the way Naomi Iizuka has mentored me. And now I’m mentoring Mara (Nelson-Greenberg). And 10 years from now these younger playwrights will be mentoring other writers.”

Stein continues, “I think the important thing about the Humana Festival is that it’s a center that people pass through on their way to other places – but they always stay connected.” VT

42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays

Feb. 28 – Apr. 8

Single tickets and weekend packages available