11:46AM

Humana: Friends in Louisville

Although I have to get in my car and drive 100 miles, attending the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville always feels like coming home. First and perhaps foremost, it’s the hospitality that guests for the annual “Visitors Weekend” are afforded. When we arrive on Thursday, everyone — even critics — are treated like old friends. This is my 13th year to make the pilgrimage, and now when I walk into the theater lobby on West Market Street, the box office staff smile and hand me my media kit even before I remind them of my name. 

A few hours later we board a bus and are transported to the home of one of Actors Theatre’s board members (Tom and Mary Jo Mueller for my busload this year), where we’re greeted by a horde of local supporters and many of the theater’s staff. I’ve been coming long enough that many faces are familiar, and even if they aren’t, they’re friendly and talkative. I have the chance to catch up with some ATCA colleagues, of course, but I also meet a pair of interns (I see one of them a few hours later in Heist, this year’s Festival offering that features the hard-working company of aspiring theater professionals) and chat with attendees from Indiana, Washington, D.C., California, Minneapolis — it’s a wonderful stew of conversations, recollections, expectations — and Kentucky bourbon.

Coming to the Humana takes me back to my early days of ATCA, too. Our 2000 annual conference was here, and it’s because of that event I became an ATCA member: Colleague Michael Grossberg from Columbus was recruiting new members a year or two earlier to help organize the event, and he talked me into getting involved. We had nearly 200 attendees, one of ATCA’s largest gatherings ever; in 2003, I helped coordinate a “mini-meeting” here, too, that gave many ATCA members another look at new plays — and at Actors Theatre under new artistic leadership, since our 2000 conference was the final year of Jon Jory’s long tenure. Marc Masterson is now in his 10th year at the helm of one of America’s premiere regional theaters, and our ATCA numbers are not so large, since our profession has evolved and been changed by the national economy and the threatened state of arts criticism. But it’s always a joy to cross paths with old friends and to encourage ATCA membership for a few new faces attracted to this enlivening weekend of intense theatrical activity.

Thursday night put many of us to the test with the performance of Heist! that commenced a bit after 11 p.m. and ran for about 90 minutes. Instead of the usual Humana intern showcase (typically offered on Friday night and featuring in recent years mini-plays on a related theme by a handful of young playwrights), this show had one playwright, Deborah Stein, and one director, Sean Daniels, who collaborated on a work that used every nook and cranny of the elegant 21c Hotel — a venue that’s a blend of a chic place to stay (rated the “#1 Best Hotel in the U.S.” by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler) and an art gallery. More than 200 “Visitors Weekend” guests became part of an environmental work featuring 21 acting interns, some amusing projected animation (credits to Adam Pinney, René Dellefont and Emily Ruddock) and a story about a reclusive artist and the theft of his iconic, priceless work. 

The production was a bit too over-the-top for my taste (it came to close to one of those “murder mystery weekends” full of forced hilarity), but it made wonderful use of the hotel’s space, not to mention an adjacent building. We were divided into groups and exposed to different scenes of the back story, so not everyone saw every element and everyone’s experience was in a different order. That made for some interesting conversations — not to mention some weary participants — but I saw several performances by talented young performers, especially Robbie Tann as a manic police commissioner who led us in one-sided jumping jacks as part of our “training,” and an acrobatic pair of Russian siblings, Kara Davidson and David Darrow as Tatiana and Boris Pengurovich, yearning to right an injustice to their family. Heist was wildly contrived in the vein of a Fringe Festival show on steroids, but many in the crowd had a great time and were drawn into the piece’s choreographic curtain call. I felt the love, but remained on the sidelines — with my friends from ATCA.

Rick Pender, Cincinnati