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Les Waters On His Last Humana Festival, Taking Risks

Zach DeZon

In October, Actors Theatre of Louisville's Les Waters announced that he would be stepping down from his position as artistic director following the end of the 2017-18 season.

During his time in Louisville, Waters brought new energy to the long-running Humana Festival of New American Plays.

His decision to double Actors’ commissioning program resulted in Humana Festival-debuted plays having runs all across the country, such as Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians,” Sarah Ruhl’s “For Peter Pan on Her 70th birthday,” and Charles Mee’s “The Glory of the World.”

This year's festival, which is currently running, is Waters' last. I spoke with him about the emotions associated with leaving, risk-taking and some of his proudest moments.

Waters on how he felt programming and producing his first Humana Festival:

"I was anxious, but I live in a state of anxiety, so I was terribly nervous. I mean, I don’t program the Humana Festival on my own -- there’s a team of us putting it together -- but I’m the artistic director, so it can appear to the outside world that it’s just my choice. But I was very nervous about what people would think of it.

"And I have to say, in 2018, I still feel as anxious as I did the first time around."

On what it has been like knowing this is his last Humana Festival as artistic director:

"I can’t really analyze that. One, because I am British and a little emotionally stunted, but also I think it will hit me later on. I was certainly surprised by my own feelings at the opening night of Mark Schultz’s play that I directed, 'Evocation to Visible Appearance.' I choked myself up at the end of that. And I said, ‘Ah, that’s my last one directing as artistic director.’ I was a little weepy."

On his proudest moments from the festival:

"I think the production of Charles Mee’s “Glory of the World” was a high point. A lot to do with with making a play around somebody who has a particular resonance in town, around Thomas Merton. Feeling we were going full-stretch -- or I felt as a director I was going into more unknown territory than I tend to do, be in. And the collaboration, the people who were in it, we were all at the top of our game."

On how he feels when he see playwrights — or specific productions — that premiered at Humana Festival produced across the country:

"That is a great sense of pride; the festival has a history of it. From the get-go, the shows have been premiered here and left Louisville. But I think it’s enormously pleasing to think that you create work locally and that it has a national impact and some of the plays have become very famous and are seen throughout the country. I mean, I directed a Lucas Hnath play, “The Christians,” which was commissioned here (in 2014) and I think this past season it was the sixth most-performed play in America."

On programming a festival and taking risks:

"Well, we read on average anywhere between 500 and 700 plays as a team. We don’t read unsolicited manuscripts; if we did, that would push it into the thousands, which is an impossibility. And then really it’s a process of elimination. If you read something in May that you feel passionate about and you still feel passionate about it in September, that says something about the play. Then because the shows are in rep in two of the spaces, we have to work out ‘Can this show rep with this show?’

"And yes, the job is to take risks. It’s a festival of new plays, and some of them are risky in content and form. It is our job to stand up and support writers."

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