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Dramatis Personae: Humana Festival Part 2

Dramatis Personae: Humana Festival Part 2

Continuing from Part 1

You started on Thursday evening, at a dinner party hosted by a board member at his home. They took turns. Every year, there were four or five parties, with plenty of sumptuous food and drink. Present were VIPs from all over the country – indeed, the world. There were Artistic Directors. Literary Managers, critics, publishers, agents and local supporters of the theatre. One year, I found myself at an antebellum plantation house which had been designed by Thomas Jefferson. There were spiffy little cabins on the grounds, all painted white. I asked my host, “Are those what I think they are?” They were originally slave cabins. Another year, I was at a party hosted by the Bingham family in their mansion on high ground above the Ohio River. The Binghams were the wealthiest family in town. They owned and ran the Louisville Courier-Journal. 

Susan Kingsley

You started your playgoing on Friday morning at 9 am and saw anywhere from eight to twelve plays over the weekend, the sets of which were all by ATL’s resident designer, Paul Owen. Each night, your last play of the day would end at about 10 pm and then you would head downstairs to the bar/restaurant, operated by the theatre. The actors, many longtime company members, would come out and join us for drinks and merriment. These people became my friends. They were wonderful actors, but just as wonderful people. Unfortunately, the great Susan Kingsley never joined us, I think because she had to get home to her husband and kids, so I never got to know her. Susan started at ATL checking coats. Jory encouraged everyone who worked at the theatre to participate in whatever aspect of the theatre interested them and Susan asked if she could do play readings. She so impressed Jory that he made her a member of his company. Susan was a rather plain-looking woman, not “actressy;” but onstage she was riveting, one of the greatest actresses I have seen in a lifetime of playgoing. Sadly, she was killed in a car accident in 1984, on her way to begin rehearsals for that year’s Humana Festival. She was 37.

Bob Burrus

Longtime company member Bob Burrus never joined us either. Bob was a wonderful actor; but if you met him you would never know it. He was a rangy, quiet fellow who looked and sounded like a trail boss on a cattle drive. Think, Curly in “City Slickers.” His performances were always indelible, such as “Mr. One-Eye Deneuve, down from Lecher County Kentucky for the wrasslin’” in Jane Martin’s hilarious Cementville, a devious horse trainer in Benjie Aerenson’s Lighting Up The Two Year-Old and Clem, one of three middle aged brothers in “Miz Martin’s” Middle Aged White Guys, who meet every year on the fourth of July on the site where they won the state baseball championship in high school, which is now a garbage dump, to mourn the death of R.V., the girl they all loved. Clem’s wife shows up to inform him that she is leaving him; but first, she intends to shoot him. She is disarmed, though, by Moon, a soldier of fortune, played by the late, great Leo Burmeister.  “What am I gonna do, Moon?” moans Clem. “My wife left me.” “All wives leave, Clem,” says Moon. “It’s a shit job.” A Messenger from God appears, Elvis in his white jumpsuit, to inform the men that God (who’s a woman) is pissed off at the mess they and their ilk have made of the world, so they must atone but stripping butt-naked and walk all the way to Washington, D.C. carrying signs that say, “We’re Sorry.” This is the final image of the play. The audience went wild.

The bar at the theatre closed at 2 am, then everyone would go over to a nearby dive bar called Zina’s. There, the actors (many of whom were wonderful musicians) would set up and play country and blues music until 4 am. Then, you’d stagger back to your hotel room, get four hours’ sleep and do it all over again the next day. I had to take Monday off every year to recover.

There was a bookshop and souvenir stand in the lobby of the theatre. The books were scripts of plays that had been produced at previous Humana Festivals, many published by Samuel French because of me.

I saw many wonderful plays at the Humana Festival, several by Jane Martin. The most memorable of these were Talking With and Keely And Du. At my first Festival, there was a compendium of short plays, about 10-minutes in duration, the most sensational of which was a monologue called Twirler, whose author was Anonymous. The lights came up on a woman in a baton twirler costume holding a baton, played by Lisa Goodman, telling us how she came to twirling but she never became really good until her hand was crushed by a horse named Big Blood Red. She proceeded to tell us that twirling is about far more than we thought. Nobody knows its true significance because it’s disguised in the midst of football. “People think you’re a twit if you twirl,” she says. “But it is God-throwing, spirit fire. You have to grow eyes in your heart to understand its message. There is a meadow outside Green Bay where all the true twirlers converge at the Winter Solstice. They wear white robes and stand in the snow.  Their feet are bare. Then acolytes bring them the batons. They are ebony tons, 3 feet long, with razor blades set in the shafts, and as they twirl, their blood drips in the snow. Red on white, red on white. I have seen the face of God 30 feet up in the twirling batons. You can’t imagine what that’s like.” There was stunned silence. We knew we had experienced not just powerful dramatic writing. We had been in the presence of the Sublime. At the next Festival, Twirler reappeared as part of a collection of monologues, Talking Withby Jane Martin, a pseudonym. It was unforgettable. The legend of Jane Martin was born. I’ll be doing a separate chapter on “Miz Martin,” in which I will give you my theory as to who she was.

In Keely And Du, a woman named Keely has been raped and impregnated by her ex-husband. On her way to an abortion clinic, she was kidnapped by a radical right-to-life group, which then has secreted her in a basement room hundreds of miles away. Their intention is to force her to have the baby. They will cover all her expenses, including raising the kid to the age of 18. Keely is furious, of course. An elderly woman named Du (short for Dorothy) has been assigned to be her companion. In one memorable scene Walter, the leader of the group (played by the great Bob Burrus) shows her the brochures the hand out, which include pictures of aborted fetuses. As she screams at him in rage, calmly he replies,” You do not have the right to your opinion unless you can look at these.” 

What made the play particularly remarkable was that it did not dismiss the right-to-life group as a bunch of brain-dead idiots. That year, Keely And Du was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, losing out to Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.

The Humana Festival began to diminish in influence and importance for a number of reasons. One was that the New York Critics started attacking productions which came to NYC from Louisville, such as A Weekend Near Madison, Tent Meeting, Husbandry and all of which had been hits of their Festivals but which failed in New York. I think these cultural ayatollahs were pissed off that the Humana Festival had achieved such a prominent place in the American Theatre without their approval. This meant that nobody wanted to produce a play in New York which had been successful in Louisville, as this was the Kiss of Death, so there were a lot fewer producers there than were in the Festival’s early years. One producer got around this Kiss of Death by optioning a Humana play, mounting a completely different production, taking this first to a regional theatre and then bringing this production in, without mentioning in any of their publicity that the play had premiered at the Humana Festival. In the program, this appeared in very small print. This was Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends, which came in to the Variety Arts Theatre Off Broadway (sadly, long gone) from the Hartford Stage, winning the Pulitzer Prize.

There were several Humana plays I loved from the Jory era which were never done in NYC, such as Autumn Elegy, Zara Spook And Other Lures and Lloyd’s Prayer. Autumn Elegy, by Charlene Redick, was about an elderly couple. They are well off financially, but live in a simple cabin in the woods. The wife has to confront the reality of her impending death. At the performance I saw, the Cronyns were sitting near me. Unfortunately, they decided not to do the play in New York. Had they done so this would have become a Very Famous Play. Zara Spook And Other Lures, by Joan Ackerman, was a wild comedy about women at a professional bass fishing tournament near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Lloyd’s Prayer, by Kevin Kling, was equally wild. It was about Bob, who was raised by racoons, and an ex-com named Lloyd who sees in him a money-making opportunity. Pitted against Lloyd is the Angel of the Lord, and what ensues is a hilarious tug of war between Lloyd and the Angel, with Bob as the rope. Kling was hilarious as Lloyd, as were Julie Boyd, who had played Keely in Keely And Du, as the Angel, and Walter Bobbie as Lloyd. Bobbie later became a top Broadway director. His production of the revival of Chicago is still running (or was before the pandemic hit).

Every year, there were several plays like the ones I have mentioned, a few which were OK but not great and, usually, one bomb. Then, Jory decided his theatre had developed a reputation for being too conservative, so he decided to “push the envelope” by doing more to varying degrees experimental plays. For instance, he started bringing in Ann Bogart and her SITI Company. The Bogart event was the annual Bomb of the Festival. Everybody hated it, but not the ATL people. I once had a discussion about Bogart with Michael Bigelow Dixon, ATL’s Literary Manager, “Yes, Larry,” he said. “We all know your opinion of Ann Bogart, but she’s an internationally-recognized avant garde genius.” “Michael,” I replied. “The emperor has no clothes.” So, although there was always one Hit of the Festival, many of the other offerings were, shall we say, unpopular.

Another factor which contributed to the decline of the Humana Festival was that it started to shrink. It’s now down to 4 plays, plus the annual Apprentice compendium. The Festival is also a lot less fun. ATL no longer operates the bar/restaurant downstairs. The company which does opens it for lunch, closes it, reopens for dinner and then closes it at 8 pm. No more hanging out with the actors into the wee hours. No more place to hang out your fellow Festival-goers. By the way, there is no company of actors anymore – everyone is jobbed in. What a bummer.

Theresa Rebeck

Sadly, Jory left ATL in 2000 to teach at the University of Washington. His replacements. Mark Masterson and then Les Waters, couldn’t hold a candle to him, so they were another factor in the Festival’s decline. To be fair, though, there were some wonderful post-Jory plays which went on to New York, to varying degrees of success (by this time, the New York critics had gotten over their knee-jerk antipathy to Louisville plays), such as Theresa Rebeck’s The Scene (produced at Second Stage with Tony Shalhoub, Patricia Heaton and the delicious Anna Camp, a holdover from the Humana cast.

Tony Shalhoub
Anna Camp
Patricia Heaton

Omnium Gatherum by Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros at the Variety Arts, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and After Ashley by Gina Gionfriddo, produced by the Vineyard Theatre, directed by Terry Kinney with Kieran Culkin in the cast.

Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros
Kieran Culkin

Still, the really exciting plays became fewer and fewer, and few and fewer theatre professionals showed up. All the actors I knew and loved are either retired or dead. And then there’s the barred bar downstairs. I don’t know if I ever will go back. It just makes me sad.

For many years, Lawrence Harbison scouted for new plays on behalf of Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others. He has been a free-lance editor for Smith and Kraus, Inc., and Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, for whom he has edited annual anthologies of ten-minute plays and monologues for men and for women, and for several years edited annual New Playwrights and Women Playwrights anthologies. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. Forthcoming anthologies include books of 10-minute plays and monologues by members of the Honor Roll, an advocacy group comprised of women playwrights over 40. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” is a regular feature at www.applausebooks.com as well as on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com).

Events

For over thirty years, Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by new playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke on the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice and Little Shop of Horrors. He has edited over 100 anthologies for Smith and Kraus, Inc. For Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, he has edited several monologue, full length, 10-minute and 5-minute play anthologies. Currently, he is editing books solely for Applause. He has set up a new division for Applause to publish and license individual full length plays, as well as the World Premiere Club. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” appeared in the Chelsea Clinton News and the Westsider for several years and then moved to www.smithandkraus.com. In December of 2019, it began running on the Applause website, www.applausebooks.com. It also appears on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He also writes occasional columns for Theatre Record, a London-based magazine. He was a member for many years of two NYC press organizations, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, and served on the Drama Desk Awards Nominating Committee for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres. He taught playwriting in the Theatre Dept. of the University of Michigan in the winter semester of 2016. He holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. His latest anthologies of monologues and 10-minute plays were published in December, 2019 by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.

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