Art Works Blog

Behind the Scenes with Les Waters

When Les Waters directed Big Love by Charles Mee at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2000, he couldn’t have foreseen that he would one day manage the direction of the festival itself. The British-born Waters was named artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2011, inheriting the theater’s annual Humana Festival in the process. The longest-running partnership between a corporation and a theater, the NEA-supported festival has produced more than 400 plays in its 39-year history, a number of which have won Pulitzers, OBIES, Susan Smith Blackburn Prizes, and New Play Awards from the American Theatre Critics Association. Although the 2015 festival doesn’t begin until March, Waters is already in the midst of the nine-month planning process behind the month-long event. He made time to chat with us the other day however, and described his passion for discovering new work, the relationship between the Actors Theatre and the Louisville community, and what he hopes to see more of in the world of theater. Here he is, in his own words.

The Need for New Work in Theater

I think [festivals like Humana] are the future of theater. That's where you find new voices; you support people whose voices you think are important. These writers—and we also some years welcome theater groups that devise work—are enormously important in defining the world we live in now. They can help us see what it is, they express visions of different worlds. I really passionately believe that new voices need to be heard. It can't be the type of theater that's just recycling material from the past.

I'm always a little suspicious when I talk to artists who are beginning in the profession, and they want to talk about career. I don't know if I have a career, I just have a life in the arts. I'm 62 now, and I started professionally directing in my home country, in London, when I was in my mid 20s. I think it's in my DNA, whatever that means. New theater, new plays, really is in my DNA. As a person, if I were to wander into a bookstore—if there are any bookstores anymore—I would look at something that's been published recently. I'm really interested in new art, new performance, new muses. I think the world's very complicated and moving forward incredibly fast and very complex. New works for me are like a map or a guide to an experience that I'm in; I'm in it just by the sheer nature of being alive. They help explain the world to me. Art exercises your imagination by saying, “Look at the world from this person's point of view, look at it aesthetically this way.” I think your imagination is like a muscle and it needs to be exercised vigorously. If you have imagination, then it gives you empathy that you can see other people's lives that you may not come across. 

[But] you have to acknowledge—and I think this is a quote from Isaac Newton—that we stand on the shoulders of giants. I am very aware that there have been people in my own field who have defined the theater for me, and there are many people in my past who have radically altered my ideas of what theater is, and art. I think you need to explore old plays as if they're new plays, and give old plays all the energy and excitement and electricity of a great new play. And I think my job when I direct new plays is to give them the heft and the weight of the classical play.

Community and the Actors Theatre of Louisville

When I moved permanently when I was interviewing for the job, one of the things that I asked is that I come in several days ahead of the job interviews because I wanted to get a feel for the community. I was very moved by the way people would talk about the theater, and what it had meant to them. I got into a great conversation one day with somebody in a store. A woman was asking why I was here, and then she told me how much Christmas Carol meant to her and how many times she'd seen it—she could talk me through individual productions of it and what had changed.

That need for [the Actors Theatre] in the community struck me, and really interested me as an artist about making pieces about the local community and how we involve them and what we can give to them. So I worked on a piece [At the Vanishing Point] in '04 for the Humana with Naomi Iizuka, which is about two things: one is there was an amazing photographer in Lexington called Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Part of the piece is about him, and part of the piece is about a community very near the theater called Butchertown, which is where the slaughterhouses used to be. I'm reviving it this year on the main stage [of Actors Theatre] so it's in some sense moving from a Humana production to a main stage theater piece. Butchertown has changed so enormously in the past ten years and Naomi is coming back to Louisville in the summer, and we're going to go explore the neighborhood again and talk to people. And one of the great, great traits of the city is the independent music scene; it has extraordinary musicians. So we have asked [Kentucky native and Louisville resident] Ben Sollee to be part of the production. [He] will be composing music especially for the piece and playing it live. That is one of the ways we're exploring community involvement. 

Current Trends & Hopes For the Future

I think it's hard to kind of label something and say, "This is a trend and it's appearing" because we're all inside it. If you name it, you can have a bit of a potential that you kill it off. It's always in flux and changing.

I'd really like to see more great roles for actors who are women, and more diverse female voices…. And I'm very interested in durational performance, or things happening in real time on stage. I was very honored in this year's festival to have Anne Bogart and the SITI Company performing a piece called Steel Hammer which I think Anne acknowledges is that something is changing within her company, that there's a kind of desire to look into the nature of storytelling itself. A lot of that piece is happening in real time—most theater pieces are not happening in real time, they're happening in theatrical time. That may be a trend.


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