Once there was a place where people gathered every year to immerse themselves in new plays, written by some of our finest playwrights. Three of the plays went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, and many more won Tony Awards. Some were terrific and some terrible, but always there was the excitement of seeing a new story brought into the world.
It was the Humana Festival of New American Plays, held each spring at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Last month the festival was canceled, a victim of Covid, budget cuts, and the need to address new concerns.
The Humana Festival had special meaning for Yvonne and me. We started going years ago, during a time when I was writing plays. We were happy to have so many fine examples within driving distance of our home in Nashville.
However, the festival quickly became much more than that. We invited friends to join us—Joel and Jacqui Bean in San Francisco and Kay and Ted Stern in Santa Barbara—and before long it became an annual event. We would pick out the weekend with the most plays (usually eight!) and meet in Louisville, where we would attend each play together, then discuss it over a meal at a different restaurant.
Our conversations were hilarious and enlightening, whether or not the plays were. We discussed the female Yeti, the naked men in an apocalyptic junkyard, the air guitar competition (shown here), the baking contest gone wrong, the plays you listened to in a phone booth, the plays you watched in the backseat of a car while being driven around the block, and the plays that aspired to greatness, landed with a splat, and were thrilling anyway.
The festival is gone now, and we miss our time together. I didn’t realize it, but New York theater critics feel the same way. Each year on Critics’ Weekend, they gathered in Louisville and, besides watching the plays, connected with each other in a way that didn’t often happen in New York. Read some of their reminiscences in this good article.
We’ll miss the Humana Festival. We thought it was about the plays, but all along, as with most things, it was about the people.