Jessica Wortham. Credit: Deborah Lopez
By Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2018 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
While not entirely unprecedented, historically, it is unusual for local actors to be cast at Actors Theatre, but two of the productions in this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays will include cast members who are Louisville residents: Jessica Wortham and Jon Huffman.
Jessica Wortham’s history with ATL begins with her being a member of the 1999-2000 Acting Apprentice Company. Meredith McDonough was the Assistant Director of the Apprentice program then, but she is now the Associate Artistic Director and is helming Deborah Stein’s Marginal Loss, which will feature Wortham.
“I have had such a relationship with Actors Theatre over the years,” explains Wortham. “it always feels like home, coming into that building. It doesn’t matter how much the people change, the building is always home to me.”
“When I was an apprentice I was in Dracula, and Adale O’Brien played Van Helsing, which I just loved! I think they should do it with a woman again, and I WANT to do it!”
Although born in Louisville, after grad school the Atherton High School graduate made New York City her home base for 10 years, returning to work at Actors Theatre in The Ruby Sunrise during the 2005 Humana Festival. She had workshopped the play and then auditioned for the production as a grad student at Trinity Rep. Later she was in Twelfth Night at ATL and Crime and Punishment before making the decision to move back to Louisville in 2015.
“I was doing so much regional theatre while in NYC that I was never there. I was never in love with NYC as a place to live, and video auditions were becoming more and more common. Eventually, I said, ‘wait a minute…do I need to live HERE?’ After I had been there for 10 years, I felt that I had enough casting offices that knew me that I could trust to send them tapes.”
That “trust in colleagues” was what kept her working at Actors Theatre over the years; she was cast without an audition in Crime through recommendations from ATL staff that had worked with her. For Marginal Loss, Wortham is reunited with a frequent collaborator in Deborah Stein. “There are separate casting offices for the different shows in Humana, and I sent a tape through my agency to a casting director in NYC. But Deb and I went to grad school and have worked together three other times.”
Marginal Loss takes place just days after 9/11 when the surviving employees of an investment firm that had been based near the top of the Twin Towers gather in a New Jersey warehouse to try and work through through their grief and consider what it will be like to get back to work.
“It’s loosely based on Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost about ⅔ of their workforce, but the survivors gathered about a week later to regroup and get the company back up. They eventually donated a large portion of their proceeds to a fund for survivors’ families.”
Even though it was more than 15 years ago, are the events of September 11 still difficult to approach? “The play is very much about the different ways that people grieve,” says Wortham. “I feel that we are far enough removed from it. Everybody has their 9/11 story, but the play is more about how you move forward from it – the struggle to get back to normal. In Deborah’s notes, she wrote: ‘There are as many ways to deal with shock and grief as there are people in the world.”
Although the play was workshopped in NYC, there were many changes early in rehearsal before Stein had to go back to California, where she is a professor at USD). “But she has skyped with us throughout the process. We just recently received 17 pages of changes. She is not afraid to rewrite and reorganize things if they aren’t working, and she is always open to other ideas in the room.”
“Her background is built in collaboration. Deborah worked with Pig Iron Theatre Company, which is very much a devised theatre company. But this is the first play in a long time that she has written single-handedly.”
Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger? also takes an American business as its setting, but with a very different theme in mind. A debt collection agency hires an empathy coach to steer its employees back to compassion, but it proves a greater challenge than might ever be imagined.
Louisville based actor and director Jon Huffman is featured in the play, which he describes as, “amazingly timely. Mara began writing this after November 2016, so its prescient about how men and women treat each other now. It’s about how feelings are weighed about genders, race, age…everything.”
“I expect audiences will be laughing during the play but might find themselves conflicted about it later. They will recognize their own workplaces and so much of abuse and how we deal with such things in today’s society.”
Huffman is a veteran of Hollywood, the local theatre scene, and the Humana Festival, having been in the cast of The Octette Bridge Club in 1984. “In Do You Feel Anger? I play a character referred to as The Old Man. I can’t say much about him without spoiling things, but he comes in to provide a bit of humanity and a change of tone. He is the key to unlocking the past history of the narrative. The Old Man provides context for a lot of what goes on in the play.”
Huffman explains the differences in working on a Humana play today versus thirty years ago. “The playwright is involved now, and that was not the case back then. It’s a wonderful thing to have them right there if you have questions. In the course of the past year it has been workshopped, but even still, Mara is making small changes as we work through the rehearsal process, and she has been very receptive to my suggestions as an actor.”
What other changes does Huffman see reflected in this year’s Festival? “Most of the writers are women, and the characters throughout the Festival are perhaps the most diverse group I’ve ever seen: age, gender, race…it speaks well of where the American Theatre is and where it’s heading.”
As for being one of two local actors cast this year, he is hopeful it indicates a change in Actors Theatre protocols that have been in place for many years now. “I think that they are opening up to local casting. As a Louisville resident, their PR targeting locals is better. I’m more aware of the Humana opportunities now.”
“I sincerely hope that some people will be prompted to come see these plays because local actors are in them; actors they will have seen in productions from local companies. If they do, they should tell the box office staff when they buy their tickets.”
March 6 – April 8, 2018
by Deborah Stein
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Featuring: Carla Duren, Ted Koch, Nancy Sun, & Jessica Wortham
Part of the 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays
Do You Feel Anger?
March 9 – April 8, 2018
by Mara Nelson-Greenberg
directed by Margot Bordelon
Featuring: Bjorn Dupaty, Dennis William Grimes, Meghan Hill, Jon Huffman, & Lisa Tejero
Part of the 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.