Humana Festival Preview: Intimate Talks With Five Playwrights

It’s easy to think of the role of playwright as one that’s behind the scenes. Often, the audience never sees the playwright’s face. Some might even leave a show without knowing the playwright’s name. But we do see the playwright on stage — in every scene and in every line. Characters and relationships may be pulled directly from their real lives. The themes of the show are often topics that the playwrights are passionate about, the conversations that are spilling out of them. When you watch an hour of theater by a particular playwright, you leave knowing that person in some regard — even if you’ve never met them.

So, in anticipation of this year’s 44th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, I wanted to shine the spotlight on the people who created the stories we’re about to see. There’s Morgan Gould of “Nicole Clark is Having a Baby,” who writes the kind of stories she can see herself in — stories she didn’t see growing up. There’s Jeff Augustin of “Where the Mountain Meets the Sea,” who draws from the oral storytelling traditions passed down by his family of Haitian immigrants. In “FLEX,” Candrice Jones shares with the audience a love of women’s basketball and an honest look at the racism and sexism of the American Midwest. Composer Nolan E. Williams Jr. infuses his love and gift for music into “Grace,” a story about African American cooking throughout history. And former Professional Training Company apprentice Vivian Barnes returns to work with the PTC again for the annual showcase, “Are You There?”.

‘Are You There?’
March 1 – April 12

Playwrights Vivian Barnes, 25, Jonathan Norton and Gab Reisman

LEO: What was your initial inspiration? Did your vision change along the way? Vivian Barnes: The writers (myself, Gab Reisman and Jonathan Norton) talked on the phone with Robert Barry Fleming (our director), Jenni Page-White (our dramaturg) and Emily Tarquin (artistic producer) over the summer. We talked in big broad strokes about what was interesting to us or confounding to us or delighting us or scaring us or worrying us at the moment. I can’t remember when it was exactly but at some point the conversations started circling around this broader theme of technology and how it affects the ways we connect and process information. Once that theme was settled on, Jenni created the prompt for us, and then we went off to start writing. As we started turning in drafts, it was exciting to see how we all interpreted the theme so differently. All of the pieces have different styles and tones, but they all have tons of heart, and that’s been the same since the beginning of the process.

What makes this timely in 2020? I remember bringing up this anecdote about how I’d been listening to so many podcasts over the summer that I was starting to feel strangely intimate with the people I was listening to. Other people brought up how overwhelming it is to feel like you need to overload yourself with information to be informed but the real toll that overloading can take. And how that overload can even lead to feeling isolated from other people and our own selves. We kept coming back to that and playing around with it in our pieces: feeling both more isolated and more connected to people than we ever have. I’m sure most people can relate to holding both of those truths and feeling the ebbs and flows between isolation and connection.

This is the Professional Training Company production for the year. How does the process of developing that differ from other ways you might go about playwriting? Do you come up with the theme for the pieces yourself, or is that more in collaboration with the program? You’re a former PTC apprentice. How does it feel to come back to work with the PTC?  This process is super different from the way I usually start a project by virtue of being created with such a big team of people. We came up with the theme through our conversations, which Jenni synthesized into a prompt, and then as we were writing, we also had to think about the specific actors in the PTC. I’ve sometimes written things with an actor in mind but never for a very specific group of 18 people. It was sort of terrifying at first because I was just like, ‘I want to do right by them!’ But, after getting past that initial fear it was so much fun! Having them all in mind freed me up to lead with ‘OK, what’s going to be fun for everyone to jump into’ first, rather than Big Ideas. It’s been some of my favorite writing I’ve done. I remember observing this process while I was an apprentice here, and I loved how deeply those writers cared about the actors in our PTC. Some of the roles I got to watch my friends play felt like real gifts for them and who they were as performers. I’ve kept that in mind now that I’m on the other side of this process as someone who’s helping create the roles.

Describe the experience of co-writing a play. ‘Are You There’ is a collection of short plays, but is there still collaboration that goes into each piece? I’ve never co-written a play before, but this has been such a great first experience. Jonathan and Gab are absolutely wonderful. I loved reading their pieces when we first started sharing them over the summer, and its been exciting to now see them all take shape in rehearsal. The pieces were written separately, but Robert’s created an intricate movement vocabulary so as you move from piece to piece there’s connective tissue that creates cohesion.

What has been your favorite part of the Humana Festival experience so far? I’ve loved coming back and seeing friends I made during my time as an apprentice. Our stage manager Margaret Rial was an apprentice my year as well, and on our last night with everyone in Louisville, we talked about how one day we’d both be back working on a show together. I never thought it would be so soon! This was the first place I was taken seriously as a theater artist, and now it’s where I’ll have my first professional production. Maybe it sounds corny but that’s very special to me.

‘Nicole Clark Is Having a Baby’
March 6 – April 12

Playwright: Morgan Gould, 33

LEO: What was your initial inspiration? Did your vision change along the way? Morgan Gould: I was initially inspired by my own relationship with my mother. A lot of my plays begin in an autobiographical place. But as I write, the characters shift and morph to encompass something that’s hopefully more universal. So, while the relationships and some ideas are inspired by my life, none of the events in the play are real. I’m not pregnant! I never have been!

What makes this timely in 2020? I think a lot about how quickly feminism and what’s ‘woke’ changes through generations. How being a woman, specifically a fat woman, has shifted since my mom’s 30s and now into mine. And I can only assume if I had a daughter, it would change yet again. I think sometimes I hold my mom to impossible standards in her feminism. I was examining that in myself and thinking about how hard it must be to be a mother. I don’t have any plans to be one, but I think a conversation about how we inherit the ideals of being a woman, a mother, a partner, is essential to a conversation of gender dynamics in our culture in 2020. Mother/daughter stories often get relegated to being ‘cute’ or specifically for ‘women.’ But I think everyone needs to understand where we get these social cues from and why. In the play, I think both women — mom and daughter — are right and wrong about the ways they hold power and value as women. As fat women. I want everyone to understand how much more mental work you do as a fat woman. How genuinely traumatizing it is to be told your body is worthless and ugly your whole life. How you internalize that. I think understanding fat politics is something that would uplift all women because it makes it clear we only value women for their looks, their bodies/sexuality and their nurturing. I am infuriated about this every day, and I don’t understand why sizeism and fatphobia is not more central to the conversation around intersectional feminism. To me it reveals so, so much about why society doesn’t value women. The fact that sizeism is glossed over, dismissed and left out of most feminist conversations and discourse tells you everything about how we still accept fat bigotry, especially since being a fat woman isn’t even being a minority! Sixty-seven percent of women in America are considered above ‘normal’ weight range. Though this does beg the question, ‘What is a ‘normal’ weight?’ That is a whole other can of worms, my friend!

As a fat woman myself, I was delighted to see the character of Nicole described as ‘unapologetically fat.’ Is the unabashed use of the word ‘fat’ as a descriptor and not an insult something that was important to you for this play? Yes, it was 10,000% intentional, and it is so important to me. I identify as fat. I am not curvy, or large, or buxom, or zaftig or any other euphemism. I am fat. I am blonde. I am 5 feet 8 inches. These are descriptors. I will never begrudge anyone who wants to go by any word, but I am FAT and I will not feel bad about it. It’s not my problem if you don’t like it, my body is not here for anyone’s approval. Whatever makes any fat/plus-size/large women get out of bed in the morning in a world that hates us is fine. But for me, the language around the body positive movement has always felt restrictive. Big might be beautiful. Plus-size might be pretty. Large ladies might be luscious. But like, if I’m not beautiful or pretty or luscious, that’s actually fine. It’s not my job as a person or a woman to be beautiful. I could look like a boil-riddled bridge troll, and I’m still a human being. My value is not how I look. So, speaking personally, ‘big is beautiful’ is not helpful to me. It still makes me feel like my job is to be pretty. That feels wrapped up in the patriarchy. I would like to live to see the day where being called fat is like saying someone is tall. It’s just a fact. I think we’re a long way from that, because we think fat is a character flaw, but I think by using the word, it’s a start.

Did the idea of creating roles specifically for fat actresses influence your decision to write this play, or were you thinking about it specifically from a creative standpoint? I love to write for performers, always. They’re really fun, and when I write a part for someone, I know I get to work with them for a year or two. In this case, I wrote a role for one of my best friends from college, Emily Kunkel — a modern Lucille Ball — and for my true muse and brilliant actress-who-is-also-fat, Nicole Spiezio. I even named the character for her. It’s always important for me to write fat women, mostly because like a lot of writers, I want to see myself onstage. I have always felt like stories about women weren’t actually about me — since being a fat woman is so different from being a traditionally-acceptably-sized woman. So, writing those roles comes from a pretty basic selfish place of being like, ‘I want to be seen!’ But actually, I’m not an actor, so I truly want to hide in the back row and freak out. Nicole is perfect because she’s a way better version of me. She’s funnier and more stylish and more willing to be vulnerable. Lucky me! So, this play was specifically written for Nicole herself, not just any fat actress. That said, most of my plays have a fat woman in them. I’ve been so fortunate to have worked with so many actresses who so gloriously let themselves be seen despite an industry and a country that wants them to be invisible: Ashlie Atkinson, Emily Nelson, Anna Smith, Katrina McGraw, Joy Nash, Teressa LaGamba, Laura Jane Bailey, Michelle Talgarow and tons more. They are also available for roles that don’t specifically require a fat actress!

You’re back at the Humana Festival for the second time. Your show ‘God Said This’ debuted here in 2018. What has been your favorite thing about the festival this year? I love that I don’t get lost on the way to rehearsal! There’s a crazy way to go under the stage to the rehearsal hall, and it took everyone else days to learn, but I already knew! I love that I get to go have cocktails at Butchertown Grocery again! The upstairs lounge, Lola, is my favorite! But the absolute best part of coming back this time is getting to work with the amazing ATL staff again. They are the best in the business. The first question I asked when they told me I had the production was if I could have Kathy Preher, my stage manager, again. I’m telling you, if you want something done, call this mother of three who has done over 30 Humana Festivals! (It also doesn’t hurt she understands being a woman of size.) I’m especially lucky to get to work with producer Emily Tarquin, dramaturg Hannah Montgomery and the entire production staff again (special shoutout to props designer Heather Lindert, who is actually a perfect genius). It’s so rare to have that kind of consistency when you bounce around all over the country to make work.

‘Where the Mountain Meets the Sea’
March 11 – April 12

Playwright: Jeff Augustin, 34

LEO: What was your initial inspiration? Did your vision change along the way? Jeff Augustin: This is always a hard question for me because a play is inspired by many things. Typically, my plays emerge from an accumulation of experiences over the course of months, sometimes years. Many of my plays come from a personal place. My first play in New York, ‘Little Children Dream of God,’ was heavily inspired by my mom, and this play started to take shape after a literary manager expressed interest in a play about my dad. I have a very complicated relationship with my dad. My mom once described it by saying if someone didn’t know us and observed us, they’d think that we have a stereotypical father-son relationship. We love to joke and talk about sports and politics and just rib each other. But if you listened closely, then you’d realize that most of our conversations are surface level. And whenever we approach my sexuality, he sort of skirts around it. So, in the play, I wanted to find a way for the father and son characters to connect, and the first thing that came to mind was a road trip. Ever since immigrating from Haiti to Miami, my dad has worked at an airport, but he does not like to fly. I grew up in Miami and now live in Los Angeles, and I don’t drive. A road trip felt like a way for these two men not only to connect but also to discover America via train and car. So, the play began as a traditional drama with scenes in cars and hotel rooms after the father’s death, and it included the mother and a sister. A parent’s death can make us attempt to connect in ways one couldn’t while they were alive, and I also thought about how as children we never think of our parents’ lives outside of us — it’s as if they didn’t exist before our own existence. But as I started to write, that form just didn’t feel right. Then, I wrote two monologues, one from the perspective of the son and another from the dad’s point of view. I set it up with a kind of surreal gesture in which the audience would hear from the father and from the other family members conjuring him in their memories. When I read those monologues, they felt like the heart of the play, and so I decided to make it a play with two characters — a father and a son — telling their stories through monologues.

What makes this timely in 2020? The story is about people who feel like they are worlds apart only to realize that their love ties them together. As humans, we desire connection, but in order to overcome our loneliness, we have to feel like we are heard and understood. And I think that’s especially true now, when it can feel like we are divided from each other, our families and, frankly, even ourselves. The play explores the idea that if we can speak to each other with the hope to understand — rather than as a way to confirm whatever assumptions we might make — then, we can find some common ground. The play is also about what makes us American. As a first-generation kid, I have a different relationship with America and the idea of the American Dream, and the play wrestles with the promises and challenges of that relationship.

This story follows a Haitian immigrant and, years later, his son, on the same path but moving in different directions, and it’s tied together by their love of Appalachian folk music. The show even features live music by The Bengsons. Please explain the role of music in this story. Why Appalachian folk? I was attracted to the history of folk music and the history of the banjo, in particular. Folk music has and continues to mix many cultures, and that spirit animates the play, which is in many ways a folk concert. The first music that the father hears in America is American folk, and it reminds him of Haitian folk music. During the course of the journey, the son learns to love folk music, and it plays a role how he comes to understand his father.

You were raised on oral stories that your parents carried over from Haiti. As the child of Haitian immigrants, it’s clear how that upbringing has impacted your play. But tell me how that method of storytelling has impacted you as a playwright and for this play? In high school, I performed spoken word, and that’s how I found my way to theater in college. There’s a purity and an intimacy in direct address that can take place in a theater. For instance, the Stage Manager in ‘Our Town,’ who is one of my favorite characters, draws the audience into that specific story, but the Stage Manager also makes room, space for the audience to project themselves into the world of the play, whether the story reflects their own experiences outside the theater or not. That intimacy with the narrator is part of the magic of your parents telling you stories as a kid, because somehow when they tell it to you, no matter how strange or fantastical it might be on the surface, it becomes an allegory for your life.

What has returning to the Humana Festival been like, and what has been your favorite thing about the festival so far this year? It’s actually my fourth time. In addition to ‘Cry Old Kingdom,’ I have written two Apprentice Shows: ‘That High Lonesome Sound,’ which is where I first really fell in love with folk and bluegrass and ‘The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield.’ I consider Actors Theatre to be my artistic home. It has allowed me to just play while feeling completely supported. One of the best parts of this process is that I’m creating with some of my chosen family. Two of my closest friends in the world are Josh Brody and Sarah Lunnie, my director and dramaturg, respectively. The Bengsons are the most beautiful souls and inspirational artists with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work with. And this process feels like I’m returning to why I started writing: to create a space for those who don’t typically have a voice to be heard, a space where we can see ourselves in each other.

March 18 – April 11

Playwright: Candrice Jones, 38

LEO: What was your initial inspiration? Did your vision change along the way? Candrice Jones: I played basketball in high school and in college, so that time period of my life was the inspiration for ‘FLEX.’ Once I went to college, I noticed that my high school team, as far as narrative and attitude, was a bit different from that of my college teammates. So, I always knew that a play or story inspired by my experiences would be a unique story to tell.

My overall vision for the play has changed a bit. When I first began writing the play, Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ and Suzan-Lori Parks’ ‘Topdog/Underdog’ were inspirations regarding structure. Both those narratives take on the structure of a game. ‘FLEX’ does that to some extent, but I changed a lot of the structure in order to develop the overall narrative I wanted to tell. The result is, the narrative themes and content I always wanted to construct have been preserved.

‘FLEX’ is set in 1997, when the WNBA was starting to gain attention. What makes it timely in 2020?  For one, the WNBA is still fighting for the attention and respect that was being fought for in 1997. Also, there are story lines in ‘FLEX’ such as pregnancy, poverty, social mobility, teamwork and friendship that are still relevant today.

This play is centered around a fictional girl’s basketball team, but it has a historical backdrop. Is the WNBA something you were particularly passionate about beforehand? What was your research process like for this play? Admittedly, I don’t watch basketball much, as I always enjoyed playing more than watching. I’m not a person who can sit and watch a game on television. I am passionate about opportunity and women being involved in sports, especially basketball since I have personal connection to it. I looked up the history of the WNBA as well as many of the players who deserved the recognition, but did not get to join the league because of age. Much of my research involved ways to pay homage to those women.

Does the Plainnole’s Lady Train have any real life inspiration? The Lady Train is definitely inspired by my high school basketball team, the Dermott Lady Rams. While the story is not a frame-by-frame story-telling of the events that occurred while I was in high school, the themes in the play are inspired by life in Dermott, Arkansas.

This is your first year having a play at Humana, correct? What has that experience been like? What has been your favorite part so far? Any theater, I think, is a well-oiled machine. Actor’s Theater of Louisville is the prototype of that, I think. Being here is such a joy. I really enjoy the feeling of home and the confidence that exists in this space. I feel included in this entire process. I’ve heard horror stories from other playwrights in other settings. These stories usually end with the playwright changing their play into something that it was never meant to be. Here, I feel like the process revolves around allowing the playwright’s vision for the play to grow and be seen. The resources that have been afforded to the ‘FLEX’ team, as a whole, are a dream come true.

March 25-April 12

Playwright: Nolan Williams Jr., 50

LEO: What was your initial inspiration? Did your vision change along the way? Nolan Williams Jr.: This project goes back to 2014 when I first took an interest in African American food traditions and foodways. My own personal experiences and curiosity led me down a robust course of study. Over the past six years, ‘Grace’ has gone through many iterations. My initial impulse was to create a song review. But over time, as I learned how few mainstream musicals exist by African Americans, I was inspired to create a full-scale musical.

What makes it timely in 2020?  ‘Grace’ is being staged at a time when African American restaurants are closing around the country, as a result of gentrification, changing eating habits and aging restaurateurs. Right here in my hometown of Washington, D.C., one local institution, Horace and Dickie’s, is closing March 1. This musical about the Mintons — descendants of a long line of food pioneers and entrepreneurs striving to hang on to their century-old restaurant — is remarkably timely.

This play is told through an African American family’s cooking and through song. Tell me how those two pieces came together in your mind. I actually see a strong correlation between the creativity that goes into creating recipes and the creativity that goes into crafting songs. Take, for instance, the song ‘Three Okra Seeds,’ from ‘Grace.’ This piece is kind of like a meal that is being slow cooked over a low flame. Written in the form of a ballad, the song takes awhile to develop, just as a good okra dish needs to simmer over time. At least, that’s what I’m told. Interestingly enough, I don’t cook. But I’m the first one to appreciate good cooking, starting with my mom’s.

You’re well known as a composer, but this isn’t your first time in the theatrical sphere. How does writing a musical play compare to, say, the choral and orchestral work you do? Musically, they are certainly related. The biggest challenge with theatrical works is understanding the larger narrative and understanding the best way to convey it. With the theatrical work, there has to be a marriage between the tunes and the story arc, and that is more involved than a stand-alone choral or orchestral work.

Tell us how it feels to debut a play at Humana, and what has been your favorite part so far? This has truly been an amazing experience starting with the resources the Humana Foundation funding has made available to us. Working with the wonderful team at Actors Theatre under Director Robert Barry Fleming, working with the incredible design team Fleming has assembled for this project, and with our amazing Broadway cast, is literally a dream come true. •