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New-theater champion Jon Jory is bowing out in Louisville

Jon Jory

January 27, 2000
Web posted at: 12:53 p.m. EST (1753 GMT)

By Porter Anderson
CNN Interactive Arts Writer

(CNN) -- For once, every show in the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays will have a hard act to follow: The 24th Humana will be artistic director Jon Jory's swan song.

Jory, in his 31 years at Kentucky's Actors Theatre of Louisville, has made his company one of the abiding heavyweights among the United States' 200 or so professional "regional" theaters. And he has established himself as one of the country's best jugglers among artistic directors. Far more gracefully than most of his peers, Jory has balanced populist entertainment for the local audience (for box-office survival) with the risky business of mounting new, international-class material (for critical respect).

But when classes open at the University of Washington's School of Drama in the fall, Jory will be on the faculty -- immediately tenured in Seattle, instantly missed in Louisville.

"Actors Theatre is a great American theater in first-rate shape," Jory tells the press. "I can't stay forever. This is a perfect time to bring in new leadership with the new millennium."

Spoken like a man who knows the new millennium doesn't start until 2001. And many of his fans say Jory can always be counted on for such clarity.

March mecca

This year alone, Jory's Humana Festival of new work will offer 15 premieres -- they include six full-length plays; five "phone plays" (yes, you listen to their performances on the telephone); and one full-evening dramatic anthology contributed to by 18 playwrights.

So central to new American play development has the Humana Festival become that its yearly "Visitors' Weekend" in March is one of the hottest tickets of the national arts season, hundreds of miles from the traditional cultural centers of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Arts journalists go to learn what's new and promising. Serious theatergoers make the pilgrimage to immerse themselves in the highest caliber work. Artists go to get a jump on the best roles entering the repertoire.

Seattle seems to know what it's getting in Jory. "The university is thrilled to have Mr. Jory join our faculty," says Richard McCormick, the university's president. "His arrival is a testament to the stature of the University of Washington School of Drama throughout the theater and higher-education communities in this nation."

Jory, a 61-year-old native of California, has a daughter, Jessica, studying theater as a junior at University of Washington. His son Victor is a film student at New York University. Jory, his costume-designer wife Marcia Dixcy Jory and their younger daughter Miranda are to move to Seattle in September.

Home and abroad

Actors Theatre -- designated the State Theatre of Kentucky -- has become not only an incubator but also an exporter of American dramatic art. Jory has taken new plays to festivals in Perth, Sydney and Adelaide, Australia; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Toronto; Dublin, Ireland; and Hong Kong.

And on the homefront, he has generated a huge body of work for his company: Since joining Actors Theatre in 1969, he has directed more than 140 plays and has produced some 1,300 productions. In fact, he's producing the company's revival of the musical "Hair," scheduled for a February 3 opening.

The non-profit Actors Theatre's budget, under Jory's direction, has gone from $244,000 three decades ago to last year's $8.3 million. And the Humana Festival has a sister initiative at Actors Theatre, the annual Brown-Forman Classics in Context Festival. Over the years, the company's output has included premieres of "Crimes of the Heart" and "Agnes of God" among shows that went on to widely seen stagings and film interpretations.

Jory was the founding artistic director of another key regional house, the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and he has drawn the American Theatre Critics Association's special Tony Award for Achievement in Regional Theatre in recognition of his new-play development in Louisville.

Jory is the author of "Tips: Ideas for Actors," scheduled for release during this year's Humana in March, and "Tips: Ideas for Directors," planned for a release in 2001.

Amanda Tyler, president of the Actors Theatre board of directors, says a search committee will be formed to find a new artistic director for the company. Jory leaves Actors Theatre in the hands of a seasoned and accomplished staff. One standout is the highly respected Michael Bigelow Dixon, the company's literary director, who has helped shepherd the theater's new-play programs to national prominence.

Jory's comments about his departure have been laced with his unfailing love of comedy: "To quote the indomitable Jimmy Durante," he says, "'Always leave 'em while they still want more.'"

This year's Humana Festival

  • Jory and Dixon are to lead the 2000 Humana Festival -- February 29 through April 8 -- with "War of the Worlds." That's theater auteur Anne Bogart's new treatment of the life and talent of Orson Welles. The show is a collaboration between Bogart, her Saratoga International Theatre Institute artists and co-writer Naomi Iizuka.

    Bogart was the subject of a mid-career assessment at the Actors Theatre in 1994, and her works seen there include "The Medium," "Small Lives/Big Dreams" and "Cabin Pressure."

  • Charles Mee, who has worked with Bogart ("Another Person Is a Foreign Country"), Martha Clarke ("Vienna: Lusthaus") and other theater innovators, is the author of "Big Love," based on Aeschylus' 490 B.C. "The Suppliant Women."

  • Jane Martin, a name frequently heard at Humana over the years, is represented this time by "Anton in Show Business," a backstage satire about a Texan effort to produce Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters."

  • "Tape," by Stephen Belber, was recommended to Jory and Dixon by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman ("'night, Mother"). It's about a filmmaker's return to his home and the responsibilities of his past.

  • Jory discovered Arizona writer Toni Press-Coffman while he was teaching last summer at Arizona State University. Her play "Touch" is about an astronomer who falls in love with a woman who vanishes.

  • "No. 11 (Blue and White)" is by Alexandra Cunningham and deals with the true story of a star athlete charged with rape in high school.

  • "Back Story," a collaborative script, features the work of Joan Ackermann, Donald Margulies, Craig Lucas, Constance Congdon, Eduardo Machado, Actors Theatre's Val Smith and others.

  • The Humana Phone Plays this year are contributed by Jane Anderson ("The Reprimand"); Jeffrey Hatcher ("Show Business"); Mark O'Donnell ("Trespassions"); Jose Rivera ("Lovers of Long Red Hair"); and actress-playwright Regina Taylor ("Beside Every Good Man").

    The Humana Festival of New American Plays is made possible at Actors Theatre of Louisville each year by funding from the Humana Foundation. Tickets for this year's productions go on sale February 8. For information, reservations and tourism packets, call 800-428-5849.

    Actors Theatre of Louisville
    University of Washington
      •UW School of Drama
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