In Louisville, Humana Festival Thrives

This year's Humana Festival includes Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine, about a couple who decides to abandon their 21st-century lives to join a community o 1950s reenactors.

This year's Humana Festival includes Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine, about a couple who decides to abandon their 21st-century lives to join a community o 1950s reenactors. Michael Brosilow/Actors Theatre of Louisville hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Brosilow/Actors Theatre of Louisville

It is the envy of just about every theater in America. For more than three decades the Humana Foundation has sponsored the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Louisville, Ky.

Believed to be the longest such partnership between a theater and a corporation — the Humana Foundation is the philanthropic arm of the insurance company — hundreds of industry professionals attend the festival every year, from artistic directors to agents to critics. They come to see about seven, full-length, world premieres. It's an expensive undertaking for the Actors Theatre, but the Humana Foundation has supported it for 32 years, contributing a total of $18.8 million.

Jennifer Bielstein, managing director of Actors Theatre, says the longevity, loyalty and consistency of the relationship is what makes it unique. Bielstein says the festival simply wouldn't exist without Humana's support.

Actors Theater's first new play festival took place in 1976. It was the brainchild of Jon Jory and the late Alexander "Sandy" Speer. The early days were pretty good but they wanted to make it bigger and better.

Around the same time, two Kentucky lawyers, Wendell Cherry and David Jones, had their own ambitions — in the medical field. First it was nursing homes, then hospitals, and, ultimately, they created what is today the insurance company, Humana Inc.

Jon Jory says the two theater guys eventually asked the two lawyers for money. Jory says they were "terrified" for that first meeting with Cherry and Jones.

"So we had prepared a 60-page document detailing what we wanted to do with new American plays," Jory says. "I think David said, 'Why don't you just tell us in a couple of minutes what it is you want?' So we told them and they said, 'Fine we'll fund it.' And left the table. Sandy and I were in a complete and utter state of shock."

The Actors Theatre's production of Molly Smith Metzler's Elemeno Pea, a comedy about the luxuries of high society life, was funded by the Humana Foundation.

The Actors Theatre's production of Molly Smith Metzler's Elemeno Pea, a comedy about the luxuries of high society life, was funded by the Humana Foundation. Michael Brosilow/Actor's Theatre of Louisville hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Brosilow/Actor's Theatre of Louisville

Jory thinks Jones and Cherry agreed in part because they saw a smaller version of themselves in him and Sandy Speer.

"They were Kentucky lawyers who very aggressively pursued their dream and we were two very young people pursuing a theater dream and they understood that," he says.

They also understood their role as funders, says Jory, who retired from the Actors Theater in 2000. He says he never once heard complaints from Humana executives about the sometimes edgy, controversial material in the plays.

Actors Theater will sometimes "push out those boundaries," says Virginia Judd, Executive Director of the Humana Foundation. But they don't get involved in selecting the plays or in the production.

"We leave that up to the experts," Judd says. "We think artistic freedom has a real role in this process and we respect that."

For playwrights, like Peter Nachtrieb, that guiding principle is a godsend. Growing up, Nachtrieb says he only knew Humana as a theater festival, not an insurance company. He's based in San Francisco and has worked with several theaters around the country. He says he hasn't seen this kind of corporate-artistic partnership anywhere else.

"The fact that they can do a whole range of fare from very popular theater to some of the weirdest, most experimental works and bringing it to an audience here I think is fantastic," Nachtrieb says.

Humana's success has inspired other theaters to get in on the act. Today there are several new play festivals around the country. So far, the Actors Theatre of Louisville says that has not affected their attendance. The Humana Foundation recently renewed its support for another three years.

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