Regional Accents 

Louisville’s Humana Festival turns 25

Wednesday, May 2 2001

It was about 7:30 when the lingering dusk finally bled into night as our buses rolled along the Kentucky bank of the Ohio, past the crab shacks and somber bridges, beyond the old Water Tower and deep into the country gloom. Our coaches seemed too big for the road, but soon they wheeled away from the river and onto an even slimmer thread of pavement, lumbering up into hills whose winter-dead trees stood like upended brooms.

“Isn‘t this the party where they blindfold everyone when you get off the bus?” a woman across the aisle from me asked a friend. Tonight was the big evening of receptions thrown by the Humana Festival of New American Plays to welcome its artists, VIPs and critics, the Thursday before the Actors Theater of Louisville’s blowout weekend. Until then I hadn‘t wanted our ride along the waterfront to end, but now the thought of being led blindfolded through the witchy dark suddenly seemed irresistible. Wasn’t this, after all, why we were all here -- to drop the know-it-all masks we wear back home in favor of blindfolds that, with a little luck, would be removed in a theater epiphany? Wasn‘t this the seductive metaphor of theater?

Metaphors and portents seemed to be everywhere that March weekend. “Watch Your Step. Welcome to Louisville,” the sign at the end of the airport’s people mover said to new arrivals. It‘s one of those unintentionally funny notices travelers encounter, but it seemed to confirm a notion that Louisville is a town of signs and omens -- at least where the future of theater is concerned. For 25 years, the Actors Theater has been the country’s foremost incubator of regional theater. Most of Humana‘s big hits -- the plays that quickly took off in New York and elsewhere -- are immediately recognizable: D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, Beth Henley‘s Crimes of the Heart, John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, William Mastrosimone‘s Extremities, John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Jose Rivera‘s Marisol, Tony Kushner’s Slavs! But so are the names of playwrights who premiered lesser-known work here, people like David Henry Hwang, Donald Margulies, Wendy Wasserstein, Romulus Linney, Marsha Norman, Emily Mann, Howard Korder and Naomi Wallace.

Not all the portents for the 2001 festival were good. Its energetic young coordinator, Andrew Crocker, had been in a bad car crash the week before, although he had walked away unscathed. This year was also the first season the event was led by new ATL artistic director Marc Masterson, the former producing director of Pittsburgh‘s City Theater Company who had replaced festival founder Jon Jory, and so there was a changing-of-the-guard uneasiness in the air, even though most of the festival had been co-programmed by Jory and Masterson. But in the end, neither of these things dampened the festival’s effusive spirit.

Sadly, though, blindfolds were nowhere to be had that first night. Instead, we parked outside a stone gate and hiked up the long driveway to the three-story plantation-style home of Maureen and Joseph J. McGowan. He‘s the president of Bellarmine University and a refugee from New York, where he once served as a Fordham vice president. McGowan represents the New South in that he’s a Northern transplant drawn to Louisville‘s “quality of life” glow. Still, Louisville’s no Tribeca -- or even Hoboken. “Downtown‘s dead -- it’s depressing,” he admitted, referring to both the central city‘s nightlife and its many boarded-up buildings.

He didn’t get an argument from me. Walk a few blocks in any direction from the ATL complex and you‘ll find yourself trying to figure which Kris Kristofferson song best suits the desolate street you’re on -- until you realize it‘s all of them. But at the McGowan’s catered buffet the mood was fiercely optimistic, as women in French-maid outfits carried enormous piles of visitors‘ coats to closets and men in vests poured drinks from a pair of strategically placed bars. Governor Paul Patton was there, as was Owsley Brown II, who owns, among other things, some of the state’s major bourbon distilleries, including Jack Daniel‘s, Southern Comfort and Old Forrester.

Also on hand was Lucie Blodgett, a social columnist who is something of a Louisville icon. This gracious old lady, with her ever-present Nikon, sat next to me and in her languid drawl filled me in on local gossip, telling me about the time President Jimmy Carter, who had become entranced by his own sermon delivered in the presence of Pope John Paul II, began to dash off a stage -- before the pope.

“But the pope was on the ball that day,” Ms. Blodgett recalled. “He stood up and said, ’After you, Mr. President.‘”

The plays began the next day, and the ATL’s lobby, along with its downstairs restaurant, was packed and buzzing -- the feeling was like a crowd anticipating a rocket launch rather than a play. Unfortunately, the first round of productions established the lackluster tone for this year‘s festival.

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