A photo from the 1977 Humana Festival. | Courtesy of Actors Theatre

On Thursday, Actors Theatre kicked off the 41st annual Humana Festival of New American Plays with a free preview of the six full-length productions that make up the event that starts Wednesday, March 1.

Kevin Moore, managing director of Actors Theatre, has attended the Humana Festival a number of times, but this is his first as part of the Actors Theatre family.

Mayor Fischer presents a proclamation to Les Waters and Kevin Moore. | Photo by Melissa Chipman

“The Humana Fest is to American theater what the Kentucky Derby is to the rest of America,” he said.

Moore mentioned that 30,000 people attend the six-week festival, and at its height, it employs 240 people. Last year, the festival had an $800,000 impact to the local economy, and more than 100 news stories were written about it nationwide.

Moore sincerely thanked the chief sponsor, The Humana Foundation. “We could not do it without you,” he said.

Christopher Kay, a senior vice president and chief innovation officer at Humana and board member of Actors Theatre, said art is needed to build a healthy community.

“This team leads the world in innovation in new American plays,” Kay said, mentioning that he had just returned from a trip to New Orleans, where Mayor Mitch Landrieu told him Louisville was an “ascending city” and cited the Humana Fest as one of the reasons.

The Humana Foundation has committed to sponsoring the festival another three years. Their commitment to the event is the longest running sponsorship between a corporation and a theater in the United States.

Mayor Fischer drew laughs when he said he was “really excited the Humana-Aetna deal didn’t go through.” He said Louisville’s “bourbonism” (which also drew laughs), hospitality and restaurant scenes make Humana Fest attendees say, “I’m coming back!”

Mayor Greg Fischer at Actors Theatre | Photo by Melissa Chipman

“The soul of our city is through the arts,” he added.

“Now, I’m gonna do what a mayor does. I’m gonna give a proclamation to these two characters,” he said, referring to artistic director Les Waters and Moore.

Waters said the Humana Festival is the “future of American theater” and that Actors Theatre is a vital force in new play development. Waters and associate artistic director Meredith McDonough introduced six short scenes from each of the full-length plays that will be in the festival.

“I Now Pronounce” by Tasha Gordon-Solmon features a wedding that begins with the death of the attending rabbi. In the chaos that ensues, the couple is forced to question their union. The scene began with a fairly realistic version of a “bridezilla,” but it turns out her partner is a “groomzilla,” too.

Taking place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “We’re Gonna Be Okay” by Basil Kreimendahl (who used to work in the Actors Theatre box office) “puts American anxiety under a microscope,” said McDonough. The play is about two sets of neighbors who are considering building a bunker on their shared property line.

“Cry it Out” was commissioned by Actors Theatre from playwright Molly Smith Metzler. Also a play about neighbors, it features two new mothers on maternity leave looking for compassion and empathy. McDonough said the play “explores the socioeconomics of parenthood.”

“The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield” is the apprentice show. Alongside the apprentices, the play is being developed by Jeff Augustin, Sarah DeLappe, Claire Kiechel and Ramiz Monsef. The show features vignettes about inventors from Kentucky. Nathan Stubblefield was a farmer from Western Kentucky who had an early vision of a mobile phone in 1908.

The 25th episode of “The X-Files” is one of the inspirations of “Recent Alien Abductions,” by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas. Waters explained the story centers around “gaslighting,” which he described as “when people or political entities force people to believe their views aren’t valid.”

“Airness” is a play about competitive air guitar playing. McDonough said playwright Chelsea Marcantel enjoys looking at humanity as a “small group of primates.” She said the play is about “finding your tribe.”

The Humana Festival runs from March 1 to April 9 at Actors Theatre. Single tickets and packages are now on sale.