Interview by Scott Dowd. Entire contents copyright © Fearless Designs, Inc. All rights reserved.
The 39th Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” ~Thomas Merton
This month, Actors Theatre of Louisville celebrates the man who changed the way we approach contemplation with a new play by Charles Mee. The Glory of the World is one of nine plays selected for the 39th Humana Festival of New American Plays. I spoke with the artistic leaders of the festival, Artistic Director Les Waters and Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonough, about the works they have chosen and what these pieces may say about us. We discussed the plays each will direct and delved into the process behind bringing a new work to the stage. No need for spoiler alerts—both Les and Meredith are playing it close to the vest. If you want to experience the surprises they have included, go get your tickets now.
Scott Dowd: How long have you known the line-up for the Humana Festival?
Les Waters: The full line-up has been in place since October. Charles Mee’s play The Glory of the World was commissioned by Actors Theatre and is specifically written for the one hundredth anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth. We started talking about that in 2013. We had knowledge of the writers of the apprentice show, That High Lonesome Sound, at the beginning of last summer. Reading for the Humana Festival of New American Plays starts in June.
Meredith McDonough: Basically, as soon as this year’s Humana Festival is completed, we will start working on next year.
SD: So you both have had a few months to think about the shows you are directing?
SD: When do you decide which of the shows each of you will undertake?
LW: I knew from the beginning I would direct Charles Mee’s play because it was commissioned by the theatre.
MM: The goal when you are reading is you should feel on some level that you want to direct all of them. Then you take into consideration partnerships already in existence. Sometimes writers have worked with a particular director before.
SD: You are directing a play by Colman Domingo titled Dot.
MM: What’s interesting about that is I had developed Colman’s previous play on the West Coast as producer and dramaturge. So we knew each other and how we work together. I thought this would be a delightful way to move our partnership forward.
SD: There are two plays that stand out as having a strong connection to Kentucky. Thomas Merton is, of course, iconic; and although he is known worldwide, his home was at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. That High Lonesome Sound uses bluegrass music as its leitmotiv. Let’s talk more about those two productions.
LW: Well, it’s the hundredth anniversary of Merton’s birth. It’s not a biography play in any sense of the word, but it seemed a good idea to do something about him. What we hoped to do was make something he would have liked. It goes from being a silent meditation to a raucous birthday party being thrown for him and back to silent meditation. Chuck and I did a lot of reading about Merton and read a lot of his works. We became particularly interested in how he was both a hermit and a celebrity. I’m not Catholic and don’t know Catholic theology, but I am interested to know what might have happened if his life had not been cut so tragically short. People claim him for many things: theologian, social activist, friend. So who was Thomas Merton, really?
SD: He was a bundle of contradictions. He wasn’t raised Catholic either. He even had a girlfriend, so he wasn’t what most people think of when they hear the work “monk.”
LW: It’s also interesting to me that
someone who craves silence and solitude became a celebrity. Very few people achieve celebrity just by chance. You have to work at it. That’s a very interesting contradiction in the man.
SD: There are some interesting contradictions in Mee’s life as well— thinking specifically about his remaking project. He invites writers to take elements from his work, repackage it and use it as their own at no cost and without credit. On his website he says, “There is no such thing as an original play.” That is certainly true in that every play starts somewhere. Tell me about him as a playwright and why his sensibilities make him the person to write this play.
LW: Chuck and I have worked together five times. Our original collaboration was on Big Love at the 1999 Humana Festival, so we have a longstanding relationship and we learn a lot from each other. Chuck basically taught me that you can put anything with anything and that somehow, in that contradiction and conflict, something interesting would appear. Because I really didn’t want it to be a biography play and that’s also something Chuck’s not interested in, and because he is a master collagist, he seemed the right person to do it. Chuck was brought up a Catholic; I wasn’t, so we could approach it from different points of view.
SD: Will you try to represent Merton himself on stage, or not?
LW: He’s sort of there. But not in the way you would expect.
SD: Speaking of celebrities, Colman Domingo is a bit of a hot property right now: He was recently seen on the big screen portraying Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s confidant, in the movie Selma.
MM: I met Colman first in the Bay area, where he had worked as an actor. He is such a generous soul who has recently made this transition into playwriting. He originally wrote a one-person piece about his life called A Boy and His Soul that he performed in New York, London and Australia. Growing up in West Philly (Philadelphia), Colman is interested in stories of black families that are not about drugs, not about guns—but rather about his crazy family. He takes from the richness of the West Philly vibe and puts that on stage. Dot is in many ways about Colman’s family, but it’s not autobiographical. He has a series of women in his life whose mothers suffered from dementia. After listening to their stories over the last few years, he told me, “This is another story I don’t see on stage.” That was his impetus for this play. He wants to bring the humor and pathos and difficulties of those stories to the theatre.
SD: Is he going to be in the play?
MM: That was the first question I asked, because he has been in his other two plays. But he said, “No, I just want to be a writer.”
SD: Dealing with family issues is a part of everyone’s life. Is this a theme for the Humana Festival…
LW: We really don’t choose a theme.
SD: But you read a lot of plays in the process. Do you divine threads of interest that emerge as common interests among a large number of playwrights?
LW: I think so, because we all live in the world and there are things happening here. There are also trends in style.
MM: Playwriting teachers also influence writers. There are many areas of influence. But when I look at this year’s cohort of writers, they all come at it from wildly different angles.
SD: Another play on the schedule has a tangential Louisville angle in that Gregory S Moss is also working on a musical about the life of Hunter S. Thompson. I Promised Myself to Live Faster is written by Moss and Pig Iron Theatre Company.
LW: Pig Iron is a theatre company that Meredith and I have followed for a long while and really admire. They are a formidable theatre group. This project with Greg Moss was inspired by Charles Ludlum’s Theatre of the Ridiculous.
SD: Can you tell me anything about what audiences are going to experience?
MM: They have been working on this for years in some fashion, devising things over time. They have had a lot of residencies in a lot of places before bringing Greg onboard about eighteen months ago. They gave us a sort of narrative of what they believe the story will be and this is what two scenes would look like. But we’ve seen enough of their work over the years that we are comfortable putting our faith and trust in this group of artists.
SD: So, in a sense, you will be seeing this for the first time with the opening night audience?
SD: The two of you have worked together for a long time. Would you say your approach to directing is similar?
LW: I don’t think so, because we are very different people. I walk into the room with my experience and have my own personal way of managing the room. I have my own way of working with a playwright. But I don’t really analyze my process. I know certain things about a play and go in with some vision of it, but the rest of the time
I am editing what’s coming at me.
SD: You don’t walk into first rehearsal with everything set in stone? You don’t have a model of the set, the blocking and hand out assignments for the actors to execute?
LW: No. There are certain things you know have to happen. If the character says, “Is that chair comfortable,” then I can infer that someone has to be sitting in it and we work that in. For a long time, I thought the play should be fully blocked in my head and it drove me nuts. I just can’t do it. I do my homework and my research and come in with some ideas. Then I get in the room and make it work with the people.
MM: The big thing is the act of getting the right people in the room. If you have the right writer and the right group of actors, there is something about the kinesthetic response moment where you go, “I have a bunch of people I trust and I believe will play the same way.” You adjust from there.
SD: What kind of thoughts are in your head between October and the beginning of rehearsals?
MM: Dot, for instance, takes place in a row home and a lot of it becomes about how we put that on stage. The characters are going to cook breakfast, serve breakfast, make a drink—it’s a “things” play; it’s tactile. For me on this one, I started with the floor plan and considered ways to make the story dynamic in this space so it can feel as vibrant and lively as the playwright intends it to be. We just did a workshop of the play in New York, so we could actually hear it and that gave us insights into questions we needed to pursue in the text. I had never heard it out loud and that is difficult for me. I’m a good reader, but when I hear it, the exposition becomes very obvious and I can really begin thinking about that side of the play.
SD: You’re also doing a play called I Will Be Gone. Reading about it, I heard echoes of the multiverse and quantum mechanics.
LW: The writer is a member of Obie Award-winning 13P in New York. I saw her show The Map of Virtue there and thought it was terrific. I Will Be Gone, set in California, is about ghosts and ghost stories.
SD: As simple as that? I feel like you’re holding something back.
LW: Maybe. It’s about grieving and what it’s like to be a young woman, what it’s like to be an older woman, what happens to people over a period of time.
SD: How did the apprentice show, That High Lonesome Sound, emerge ?
MM: We pick a bunch of writers who are exciting and who we think will work well together and then we pick a prompt. We were interested in looking for stories about Kentucky, and we thought bluegrass music might be a good prompt. We gave it to the writers and let them respond to the lyrics or the tune or the act of writing music. Then the writers come in to meet the apprentices and begin to build work for this particular group of actors. They have come at it from a variety of different angles.
SD: That’s an incredible opportunity for the apprentices.
LW: It’s a piece written for them. The chances of that for any actor are very rare.
SD: With a piece that personal, can it go on and have a life?
MM: Some of them have. They are all written age appropriately and written for a huge cast, so colleges and universities can use them very easily.
SD: We haven’t talked yet about The Roommate. It sounds like an incredible character study that will give these actors the opportunity to do some intense work.
MM: It’s a great play for two women in their mid-fifties. There’s not a ton of writing for that demographic. It looks at what it is like to be your mid-fifties and alone. How do you cope with life and have friends? The playwright, Jen Silverman, has really captured what that is, and you just want to watch the two people act.
SD: The Humana Festival historically has done a lot to add works that give voice to people who may have been under-used.
LW: Part of the job is to give people voices.
We want to champion not only playwrights, but actors as well. We want to put things on stage that aren’t there often enough, and we’re very conscious of that responsibility. There are certain people who hear their voice on the stage all the time. If you live in New York, you will hear your voice on the stage because so many playwrights live there. Once you are away from the imperial cities, it is quieter. We are proud to produce a diversity of stories, including stories about this place where
The 39th Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville begins on March 4 with Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, directed by Mike Donahue. The Festival continues through April 12. The popular Ten-Minute Plays will run Saturday, April 11, and Sunday, April 12. To allow theatre enthusiasts the opportunity to experience the breadth of the Humana Festival, Actors Theatre is again offering the Humana Festival Locals Pass, along with New Play Getaway weekend packages, March 20-22/27-29 and April 3-5/10-12. Single tickets are also available. For more information, go to actorstheatre.org or call 502.584-1205.