Out of Town
Dramatis Personae: Humana Festival Part 1
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.
The Olivier Awards Return
Celebrate the very best in British theatre in a star-studded evening as the Olivier Awards return to the Royal Albert Hall on April 2nd.
Three-time Olivier Award nominee & Primetime Emmy winner, Hannah Waddingham will be hosting the awards for the first time.
The event will feature performances from all of the Best New Musical nominees, including The Band’s Visit, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Sylvia and Tammy Faye. Also performing will be Oklahoma! and Sister Act, both nominated for the Best Musical Revival award, as well as Disney’s Newsies, which has been nominated for Matt Cole’s choreography.
The multi-Olivier Award winner The Book of Mormon, will be performing to mark its ten-year anniversary in the West End. Additionally, special award winner Arlene Philips will be honored with a tribute from the cast of Grease.
The ceremony will be broadcast live on Magic Radio from 6pm with Ruthie Henshall and Alice Arnold hosting.
The highlights program will also be aired on ITV1 and ITVX at 10:15 pm in the UK and via Official London Theatre’s YouTube channel elsewhere.
And the nominees are:
Out of Town
The Unpacking of the First Métis Man of Odesa, An Interview
Punctuate! Theatre is unpacking a love story. A love story about a couple. A love story about Ukraine. And a love story against an unbelievably complicated backdrop. Starting at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, the company is ushering forth the world premiere of First Métis Man of Odesa before it spins itself out on stages across Canada. Spanning continents and set against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Métis playwright and Punctuate! Artistic Director, Matthew MacKenzie (Dora Award-winning playwright for Bears, After the Fire, The Particulars) joins forces with his wife, the award-winning Ukrainian actress Mariya Khomutova (Odesa Film Festival Grand Prix – The Golden Duke award-winner NONNA, Two People), to tell the story of their COVID courtship and share an intimate perspective on the personal impacts of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Drawn from their real-life love story, a story that is ultimately still unfolding to this very day, First Métis Man of Odesa unpacks the journey of Matt and Masha’s love that spans continents where distance and conflicts can’t tame their passionate connection. After meeting on a theatre research trip in Kyiv, a spark is struck, and a romance between a Métis Playwright and a Ukrainian artist is ignited, taking them from the beaches of the Black Sea to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, within the onset of a global pandemic, the eruption of a brutal war, but also the many joyous moments that this union begets, including marriage and the birth of their son.
During the height of the lockdown in 2021, an initial version of this piece was presented as a radio play at Factory Theatre, written by MacKenzie and directed by Nina Lee Aquino. This March, First Métis Man of Odesa, as directed by Lianna Makuch (Pyretic Productions/Punctuate!’s Barvinok), makes its stage debut, offering a compelling continuation of the initial story told in that first radio play. The couple, Matthew MacKenzie and his wife, Mariya Khomutova, sat down with Frontmezzjunkies and thankfully answered a few questions about their incredible journey from that first love-struck connection to its World Premiere at The Theatre Centre in Toronto.
Tell me, how you decided to embark on telling your own story and what the beginning of this creative process looked like for you two?
Initially, Matt wrote an audio play for Factory Theatre about our romance, then getting married and having their son during the pandemic. The plan had been to expand the piece for the stage, a plan that took on much urgency after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Both the pandemic and war have a deeply dehumanizing effect, so our hope in telling our love story is to share the human side of these major world events; a human side that headlines and news clips can’t fully capture.
What aspect of your character, or your involvement with/creation of this play resonates the most powerfully inside you?
For both of us, the opportunity to share all the joy, humour, anger, and frustration we’ve experienced in the past few years is a really therapeutic process. Many of our friends and family only know snippets of what we’ve been through, so the opportunity to tell our story across the country is one we are deeply grateful for.
The phrase “you don’t know what someone is carrying with them” has really hit home over the past couple of years, as we have had to contend with some pretty epic challenges as a couple and as individuals.
Tell me a bit about what it is like to bring your character to the stage? What does mean to you to be telling this story?
We play ourselves in the play, but we very much play versions of ourselves in the play. We had to mine conflict between us out of a few outbursts, as there haven’t actually been a lot of [conflicts] in our relationship so that we could bring the drama of what we are going through to the fore.
Challenges of playing ourselves have included the fact that [Matt] is not a trained actor, while Mariya is. Mariya though comes from a theatre tradition that was almost entirely focused on the classics, so playing herself in a play based on her life is definitely a new and challenging experience!
Tell me a bit more about your development process? Was there a typical ‘first read’ or was it different, given your own story inspired the work…
We were able to conduct several development workshops over a period of six months. There was no shortage of content that we could derive from our lives, so the challenge was determining what to keep and what to let fall away. Even after our first read, we cut 15 pages from our rehearsal draft. Events in our lives and in Ukraine will no doubt continue to necessitate the evolution of our script.
What’s been the most challenging part of this process for you?
For Mariya, it was buying into the idea (that is quite a common one in Canada) that a play about someone’s real life can be art. Seeing Hailey Gillis’s My Ex-boyfriend Yard Sale, really helped her believe this was possible.
For Matt, it met the challenge of performing for the first time in ten years. The last time he performed, he made his friends promise they would never let him perform again, but all agreed it didn’t make much sense for anyone else to play him in this piece.
The most rewarding?
Having already performed several shows in Kamloops, the most rewarding part of this process is sharing this story with refugees from Ukraine. Their responses have been incredible and have really encouraged us to share our story with as many people as possible.
What do you want the audience to get from this play, and from your character?
We want the audience to join us as we relive our sweeping love story, from Odesa to Toronto. We want the audience to see the human side of the conflict in Ukraine. And we want the audience to leave the theatre with the hope that love can and will conquer all.
First Métis Man of Odesa is in Toronto for its world premiere run at the Franco Boni Theatre @ The Theatre Centre from March 30 – April 8, 2023 (opening March 31). Following the world premiere in Toronto, First Métis Man of Odesa will appear at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, The Cultch in Vancouver, and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. For information and tickets, please visit theatrecentre.org/event/first-metis-man-of-odesa/
Florence Welch, Martyna Majok, Rachel Chavkin and More On New Musical Gatsby Coming To A.R.T
Florence Welch Photo by De Wilde
Producers Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, Jordan Roth, and American Repertory Theater(A.R.T.) at Harvard University announced today that Gatsby, a brand-new musical stage adaptation of the legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, will make its highly anticipated World Premiere at A.R.T. in 2024, and will be directed by Tony Award® winner Rachel Chavkin and choreographed by Tony Award winner Sonya Tayeh.
Gatsby will feature music by Florence Welch, the Grammy Award-nominated international rock star of Florence + the Machine and Thomas Bartlett, the Oscar and Grammy Award nominee, with lyrics by Ms. Welch, and a book by Pulitzer Prize® winner Martyna Majok.
Gatsby will be produced at American Repertory Theater by special arrangement with Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, and Jordan Roth, in association with Robert Fox. Hannah Giannoulis serves as co-producer.
American Repertory Theater (Diane Paulus, Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director; Kelvin Dinkins, Jr., Executive Director) at Harvard University produces groundbreaking work to catalyze dialogue and transformation. Tony Award-winning and nominated productions include Jagged Little Pill; Waitress; Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; All the Way; The Glass Menagerie; Pippin; Once; and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Its revival of 1776, a co-production with Roundabout Theatre Company, is currently touring nationally. Learn more at AmericanRepertoryTheater.org.
Additional Gatsby news will be announced soon.
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