When Marc Masterson, artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, was planning this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays, he didn't know it would be his last.
But last month, Masterson, below, announced that he is leaving Actors Theatre after 11 seasons to become artistic director at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Actors Theatre's 2011-12 season is set and will be announced later this month, and this was Masterson's last time helping to plow through hundreds of scripts to select the shows for the Humana Festival, the country's leading showcase of new plays, often described as being to theater what the Sundance Film Festival is to movies.
Eleven years ago, when Humana Festival founder Jon Jory announced he was leaving, theater observers around the country wondered aloud who could replace the man who put ATL on the map. Now, Masterson's departure leaves another big set of shoes to fill.
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With the 35th annual Humana Festival getting under way, I caught up with Masterson to talk about his legacy at ATL.
Question: Tell us about the decision to leave Actors Theatre.
Answer: Well, it's a complicated one. I've had 11 great years in Louisville, and what a wonderful opportunity this has been for me. And I feel like we've accomplished a lot, so I'm very comfortable with that and happy about what has happened. At the same time, other life changes have come along, and this opportunity to move to South Coast Rep is very exciting for me.
Q: In looking back over those 11 years, what would you cite as signature accomplishments?
A: I'm very proud of the Humana Festival and our leadership role in new-play production and development. In particular, there are a number of things we have tried to do, and I think in various measures succeeded.
Over a 10-year period, about 85 percent of the work that we premiered at the Humana Festival has received multiple subsequent productions. And actually, many of the plays that didn't receive multiple productions were very important here in Louisville.
We did a play by Naomi Iizuka in a neighborhood called Butchertown (At the Vanishing Point, 2004), sort of inspired by a Lexington-based photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard. And that play sold out its run in Butchertown and was translated into Polish, but it never got a subsequent production.
The same is true of the piece we did on Wendell Berry (Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry, 2009), which is the biggest-selling show in Actors Theatre's history in the Humana Festival. It has had readings at some community-based organizations around the country, and some of the collaborators in that project have continued their e xploration of Wendell Berry musically and visually, but the play hasn't had a subsequent professional production.
In any case, our goal is to launch these works into the canon of the American theater, and I think we've been successful at doing that.
The definition of 'What is the American theater?' has continued to evolve over the last 10 years, and we've done a lot of work that has moved into what is the fastest- growing part of the American theater, which is small and mid-size companies. ... We've done a lot of work that has received subsequent productions in those companies. We've expanded our college and university partnerships. ... We've created partnerships with various universities — Florida State University, Louisiana State University, New York University — and we have partnered in various other fashions with the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and a few more that have allowed us to extend our workshop and development time on all of the plays in the Humana Festival.
Now each of the plays we are doing this year has had a week to two weeks of additional development time outside of the rehearsal process, which has been invaluable to the work.
We've created a lot of partnerships with ensemble companies, building off the long-term relationship Actors Theatre has had with the SITI Company, Anne Bogart's company. In the last six years, we've partnered with six or eight ensemble companies that have developed work that has gone out to the touring market.
Q: Have you contemplated what it will be like to come back to Humana, representing South Coast?
A: When Jon Jory came back, he always had a big smile on his face because he would kid me that he was just so happy that he didn't have to produce it all. (He laughs.) I don't know that I will feel that way. I'm sure it will be a mixed feeling.