In 1976 Jon Jory, recently hired Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director, decided that a good way to increase the theatre’s national recognition would be to start an annual new play festival. Problem was, he had no idea how to get plays to produce, so he placed ads in major newspapers all over the country and had his Literary Manager, Elizabeth King, scour these newspapers for reviews. He started out small in 1977 with two plays, one of which had been discovered by King when she read about an Equity Waiver production in Los Angeles. This was The Gin Game by DL Coburn. Major critics were invited, including ones from New York. Their reviews of Coburn’s play attracted the attention of Broadway producers, who saw in it a vehicle for two of Broadway’s biggest stars, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. It not only became a hit on Broadway, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Talk about starting off with a bang!
In the 1978 Festival, the theatre produced a play by a local journalist who had written a series of articles about people who had gotten out of prison. Jory saw the potential for a play in these articles and worked with their author to develop it. The author’s name was Marsha Norman. The play was Getting Out, which was subsequently produced Off Broadway by the Phoenix Theatre, directed by Jory, with ATL actress Susan Kingsley as Arlene, an ex-con, the older version of Arlie, a troubled young woman who was sentenced to prison (played by Pamela Reed). It was a sensation, and Marsha Norman’s career as a playwright was on its way.
In 1979, the first year Humana began sponsoring the Festival, ATL had another hit with a play written by an actress who had given it to a director friend who had worked at Actors Theatre, who gave it to Jory. This, too, attracted Broadway interest. Lester Osterman optioned it and mounted a new production at a regional theatre, directed by Stuart White, one of three co-founders of the fledgling WPA Theatre in New York. This production was not as successful as the one in Louisville, so Osterman decided to try and get an Off Broadway theatre to produce it before taking it to Broadway if the reviews were good enough. All the Off Broadway theatre companies turned it down, so Osterman turned to Gilbert Parker, who by that time was representing the author. He called Lynne Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club and told her that if she did it, his client Melvin Bernhardt would be available to direct it. This would be a big deal for MTC, which was not nearly the powerhouse it is today, as Bernhardt had won the Tony Award the previous season for his direction of Hugh Leonard’s DA, so Meadow took it on. It got sensational reviews and Osterman moved it to Broadway. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. The play was Crimes of the Heart, by Beth Henley.
Actors Theatre was on a roll. In 1980, they produced a play by an actor who had worked at the theatre, John Pielmeier, which also went to Broadway and became a huge hit starring Elizabeth Ashley, Amanda Plummer and Geraldine Page, running a year and a half. This was Agnus of God.
In 1981, I received an invitation to attend my first final weekend of the Humana Festival, when you could see all the plays they had opened since late February. Thankfully, my boss at Samuel French, M. Abbott Van Nostrand, decided to send me, God bless him. I saw six full length plays, plus two compendiums of short plays. My first play was Extremities by William Mastrosimone, quite a start for my first Humana experience! I had seen an earlier Mastrosimone play called The Woolgather at Circle Rep, which I got Abbot to publish. It got terrific reviews but for whatever reason didn’t have a commercial transfer. I hadn’t met the playwright until I met him in Louisville. He was a working-class Italian sort from New Jersey who always wore a black beret, which made him look like he should be hanging out at the Deux Magots in the 1920s with Sartre, de Beauvoir and Hemingway. Thus began a long friendship with Bill, which continues to this day. Extremites was in the Victor Jory Theatre, a “black box” space. For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s a nail-biter about a woman who is almost raped in her home by an intruder. She manages to subdue him and knock him out. When he comes to, he’s in her fireplace. She’s used her brass bedstead to create a kind of cage, and she plans to douse him with gasoline and burn him to death. My seat was in the front row of the middle section. Actress Ellen Barber was (almost) raped a few feet away from me. The play moved to Off Broadway, starring Susan Sarandon, later replaced by Farrah Fawcett, who starred in the film, and had a long run. That year, I also saw Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister in This House, which later was produced by another fledgling Off Broadway theatre, Second Stage, with Elizabeth McGovern and Lisa Banes as two sisters, maids who murder their employer and her daughter. It was based on an actual case, the one on which Jean Genet based The Maids.
I saw many brilliant plays during the years I went to the Humana Festival (35 and counting), but before I write about them, I want to tell you what the Festival experience at the culminating weekend was like, at least in the early days.