The Humana Festival: 40 Years of New Plays

To glimpse the future of our nation’s theater, look no further than the Humana Festival of New American Plays. In its first-ever iteration in 1977, after all, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, produced “The Gin Game” by D.L. Coburn, a play that would go on to a successful Broadway run and win a Pulitzer Prize. The 40 years since have seen this new plays festival launch nearly 400 playwrights from relative unknowns to trailblazing visionaries.

“It’s recognized locally, nationally, and internationally,” Actors Theatre artistic director Les Waters told Backstage. “It’s one of the places people look at for who’s writing the great plays in the country at the moment.”

Waters, a prolific director in his native England as well as at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has championed rising playwrights from Caryl Churchill and Charles Mee to Anne Washburn, Lucas Hnath, and Sarah Ruhl. He’s in the business of identifying and promoting the influential playwrights of tomorrow; the Humana Festival has proven a perfect fit for his leadership skills since 2012.

“It’s not a festival with a couple of produced plays, readings, and workshops; all six shows are fully produced,” continued Waters. “I’m very proud of the work.” This year marks the 40th year the festival has been supported by the Humana Foundation, a Louisville-based community health organization. “It is the longest running collaboration between a theater and a foundation, so that’s terrific,” Waters said.

This year’s festival, which ran March 2–April 10, was by all accounts another huge success, bringing together around 36,000 artists, industry pros, and students. In addition to premiering six full-length plays (two of which were commissions from Actors Theatre), the fest culminated in stagings of three short pieces selected from the National Ten-Minute Play Contest: “Coffee Break” by Tasha Gordon-Solmon, “This Quintessence of Dust” by Cory Hinkle, and “Trudy, Carolyn, Martha, and Regina Travel to Outer Space and Have a Pretty Terrible Time There” by James Kennedy.

Asked how aspiring writers can reach the point where their plays are receiving full productions at the Humana Festival, Waters advised, “See as much as possible and identify the theater you think is interesting. There are so many different theater festivals or groups producing work.” Theater is about building connections, he added. “Invite people to your work all the time. Write to people, get in contact with them. Study what everybody is doing.”

Don’t be surprised to see the six plays below among the most produced new plays of the coming year! For more information on the Actors Theatre and how to get involved, visit actorstheatre.org.

“For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday” by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Les Waters

“This Random World” by Steven Dietz
Directed by Meredith McDonough

“Residence” by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Hal Brooks

“Wellesley Girl” by Brendan Pelsue
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans

“Cardboard Piano” by Hansol Jung
Directed by Leigh Silverman

“Wondrous Strange” by Martyna Majok, Meg Miroshnik, Jiehae Park, and Jen Silverman
Directed by Marti Lyons

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