Meet Market: Youthful Voices Attain Greater Prominence at This Year's Humana Festival

By Gener, Randy | American Theatre, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Meet Market: Youthful Voices Attain Greater Prominence at This Year's Humana Festival


Gener, Randy, American Theatre


Don't misunderstand. Audience potential and the imprimatur of festival buzz are not the enemy or danger signs; they're something to be embraced, every so often, if the possibility arises. But to concentrate on rooting out what is new and different, the trendsetters and commercially viable properties, usually to the exclusion of every other consideration that makes the theatre pertinent and essential, is to engage in a counterproductive exercise in crystal-ball-gazing and market valuation.

How many "runaway hits" or "consensus favorites" of the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., have turned out to be overrated pap, box-office turkeys or head-scratching mediocre fare after they were done outside of the festival's rarefied format? How many Humana plays don't fit notions of commercial worthiness but are notable calling cards that establish or redefine the contours of a playwright's emergent sensibilities? How many such plays have showed strong legs in theatres across the country, despite not having been christened as a "festival discovery"?

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One of the most galling aspects of attending the full final weekend of the Humana Festival in April is to observe the disconnect between the youthful vitality and gutsy imagination of the current crop of playwrights and the one-track-mindedness of aging critics, journalists, agents and taste-makers who talk and act like hit-seeking missiles. This disparity makes itself felt in some of the offstage tensions and high-pressure interactions that are engendered when the two groups sit beside one another in the three performing spaces of the Actors Theatre, with the critics' identities set off by yellow ribbons dangling from their name badges. Encrusted attitudes about what is commercial naturally bubble up to the surface, and the gulf between the formally inventive plays these young writers want to make and the plays that are deemed to hold the interests of mainstream audiences seems bigger than ever.

Despite the range and complexity of the works at hand, many festival regulars seem arthritically receptive. They tend to shoehorn the six full-length works that were performed in this year's festival into predictable narratives and developmental-program prejudices that inevitably find their way into print. Several visitors strained to whip up some lather on the penetrating statistic that five of the six plays were by women, as if it were possible to detect the surge and ebb of the scripts' estrogen levels. One fly-by-night assessment in a showbiz trade paper drips with disdain and condescension by describing this year's batch of writers as "earnest, articulate, amply degreed but mainly neophyte scribes" who "evinced an obsession with the evils of the tube."

The irresistible temptation, of course, is to grade and sort out six plays seen in a marathon of 48 hours, especially in the nation's most prestigious new-play incubator. The truer task is to act on the fears and biases that prevent new works from being seen--and break that curse. The stakes are pretty high. For many young playwrights, like Gina Gionfriddo, Jordan Harrison and Kirsten Greenidge, landing a first production at the Humana Festival is a kind of grail, a culmination of years of bouncing around the developmental circuit that augurs the promise of brighter future. For other lucky writers, it is a beginning, since the Humana Festival often invests in writers and not just in plays. Melanie Marnich and Rinne Groff are seeing their second festival outing this year.

And when a play touches a nerve in the audience (as the post-9/11 angst of Omnium-Gatherum, by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck, did last year), it really hits. Gionfriddo has been catapulted into national standing because her tough-talking comedy After Ashley was this year's popular choice. An indignant attack on the mass marketing of grief and on social hypocrisy, her play taps into a collective outrage about how the sensationalistic media fixate on rape and murder, transforming reluctant victims into instant celebrities and generating a cottage industry around personal tragedy.

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Meet Market: Youthful Voices Attain Greater Prominence at This Year's Humana Festival
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