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Actors Theatre of Louisville

In a cavernous warehouse just shy of the Ohio River and a long way from Hollywood and Vine, a dapper, ascoted representative of Norman Lear's Tandem Productions perches on a folding chair, chasing some chicken salad around a paper plate. Next to him, another sleek out-of-stater sports a double-breasted blue blazer and a name tag: ''Hanna-Barbera Productions,'' a company best known for its animated cartoons.

''Hanna-Barbera?'' ascot queries blazer. ''What is Hanna-Barbera doing here?''

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An apt question some 2,000 miles from the Great White Way and 20 minutes before a 2-o'clock curtain. This is not your run-of-the-mill audience, but then the sponsor of this matinee is no run-of-the-mill regional theater.

It is the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL), a 20-year-old Kentucky playhouse which seven years ago decided to bridge the cultural gap between 42nd Street and the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge. And by all accounts, it's done it.

Today ATL is considered among the most consistent sources of new American drama in the country - earning it the attention not only of Hanna-Barbera and Norman Lear, but also the New York Times, CBS, and Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. Even Die Presse and the Poughkeepsie Journal keep tabs on this theater in the heart of the bluegrass.

And for good reason. Within less than a decade, the theater has spawned 140 spanking-new plays, three Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, and at least seven New York hits - a track record that defies the law of averages but adheres strictly to this theater's artistic principles: Find new playwrights and nurture them.

Currently, it is culturally in vogue to bemoan the lack of new dramatic voices in America. Broadway is facing the possibility of a third consecutive year of box office declines. But even when Broadway was booming a few years back , New York producer Joe Papp snapped, ''It's been a dull season of rehash productions.''

ATL decided to put its money where everyone else's mouth was. In 1976 the theater turned away from a traditional repertoire rife with classics and began soliciting new works by virtually unknown writers. It was a bold move. The result was the First Festival of New American Plays - exactly two plays reviewed by exactly three critics.

The pearl in that oyster, however, turned out to be ''The Gin Game,'' by the then-unknown writer D.L. Coburn. That play wound up on Broadway and earned Coburn a Pulitzer Prize. Coburn was later to say that Louisville had ''changed my life.''

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Today, ATL's new play festival has become an annual six-week-long event that commands the attention of hundreds of critics, agents, producers, and playwrights around the world. At the latest festival, ATL's seventh, over 500 theatrically attuned professionals from as far away as Hong Kong and Zimbabwe came for a marathon three-day look at 13 new plays. While some critics have labeled the festival a ''cultural meat market,'' where the sale of a text and the snaring of a writer are more important than the work itself, other observers defend ATL's commitment to the untried but true.

''This is probably the most prestigious theater festival in America,'' says Michael Colgan, director of Ireland's Dublin Theatre Festival. ''A fountainhead for American theater,'' says Newsweek's Jack Kroll. Even the sanguine Village Voice crows that ATL is ''an admirable, amazing institution. What New York sees today, Louisville very often saw yesterday.''

Witness ATL's more well-known cultural progeny: besides D.L. Coburn, there's Beth Henley, Marsha Norman, John Pielmeier, William Mastrosimone, and Jane Martin - all writers of Broadway or Off Broadway works that originally hatched in the ATL incubator. ''It's silly to develop an author and turn him loose,'' says an ATL designer. ''We have to continue to work with the playwrights. And progress is evident.''

As proof, observers cite ''Getting Out,'' a successful Off Broadway play that was first performed in Louisville five years ago. Its writer, Marsha Norman, this year won the Pulitzer Prize with her latest work, '' 'Night, Mother.'' Beth Henley won the same prize last year for her ATL-premiered ''Crimes of the Heart.'' Weeks after ''Extremities'' first appeared on the Louisville stage two years ago, author Mastrosimone was negotiating a stage-and-movie-package deal. Pielmeier's ''Agnes of God'' and Martin's ''Talking With'' also made their debuts in Louisville.

The man behind these theatrical home runs is ATL's producing director Jon Jory - a jolly, delightfully unaffected director who can go blazer for blazer and goatee for goatee with the best New York producers. He is a man not afraid to take a risk and who defends his artistic choices with the words, ''Well, I am encouraged by what I see, but sometimes I think I must be naive.''

Mr. Jory has been called ''the Medici of our time,'' and is generally credited with transforming the Louisville theater from just another regional company into one of the most hospitable theaters in the country for new playwrights.

The son of the late actor Victor Jory, Jory the director arrived in Louisville with some of the best theater credentials: graduate of the Yale Drama School and cofounder and director of Connecticut's Long Wharf Theater. His recipe for success seems to have been simple: Take strong subscription support, fuse it with a local corporate sponsor (Humana Inc.), and go after the best new talent you can get. The result is a two-theater complex, a staff of 100 (200 at festival time), a nine-month-long season, a $3 million budget, and 4,000 unsolicited manuscripts-in-search-of-a-stage that annually cross Jory's desk.

''This has become a risk-taking theater,'' says a director from Off Broadway's prestigious Circle Repertory Company theater. That's high praise in the theater world, where skyrocketing production costs make mounting any new work a financial uncertainty.

Jory describes it differently: ''I came out of a theatrical family, and had worked in theater where it never occurred to me that the American theater was limited in its scope, and that poets weren't writing for the theater, and that we were using almost entirely natural and realistic forms. I mean, I was so isolated I didn't even know. This festival lets in the air, and sometimes it's painful.''

Jory is a staunch advocate of regional theater. ''The only painful thing is that not enough of us who make policy have developed personal passions and viewpoints. I think we see ourselves as a pretty homogenous group. There are some theaters where you can tell right away what they are trying to do. And there are others where it is very difficult. I wish there were more of the former.''

As for his own regional efforts, Jory scoffs at the idea that Louisville's phenomenal success has turned the annual festival into a theatrical bazaar. ''Oh , we come here every year,'' a scout from Dramatist Play Service was overheard to say to someone from Samuel French Inc. (a New York play-publishing firm). ''If you want to get an option on a play, you've got to get here early,'' says an independent producer. Time magazine's Richard Corliss observed dryly, ''Well, we haven't seen any 'Gin Games' yet this year.''

Jory dismisses such comments as the usual show that critics and agents put on for their own benefit. ''I like the fact that bright people take our work seriously,'' he says. ''It has been helpful in getting people to send us plays. But what matters most to me is the pleasure of working with the playwright on a text. We receive a lot of work from the people who have slipped through the net - and some very interesting people have slipped through the net.''

Jory admits that maybe 25 percent of all those scripts crossing his desk are from writers he has never heard of. Often, he encourages writers and others he knows to submit their efforts to ATL's new-play contest, in which winners walk away with cash prizes and sometimes New York contracts. Beth Henley was an actress whom Jory spotted as having writing potential; Marsha Norman was a local journalist whom Jory also encouraged. This year, Jory points to at least four plays by unknown writers. One of them, Kathleen Tolan, received rave reviews for her work ''A Weekend Near Madison.''

Can Jory tell in the first five minutes if a play is going to be good? ''Well , no. But you can tell in the first five minutes if it's going to be bad. When you get right down to it, the plays we might be interested in, the ones we feel would benefit from a full production, are not more than 20 plays, out of which we may pick 7 or 8.

''Nothing gives me more pleasure than working with a playwright on a new work ,'' he says, smiling broadly through his salt-and-pepper beard. ''There is not a lot of money in the production of new plays for the theater. The royalties we've gotten from all the new plays we've produced have never amounted in any one year to anything like 1 percent of our budget. But I am annoyingly satisfied with my lot. I like running a regional theater devoted to new works. I mean, the text is a living thing and you get to have some input into it.''

It was after midnight. The evening's last performance was over and the large double doors at the end of the lobby had been thrown open to the starry Kentucky night and the warm breezes off the Ohio.

Several hundred people, nearly all of whom made their living in or very near the theater, stood around clutching crumpled programs and looking elegant and hot but unable to tear themselves away from one another or the platters of Southern fried chicken wings on a table in the foyer. Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown and his wife, Phyllis George Brown, had made an appearence - albeit brief - earlier in the evening. But now only die-hard theaterphiles hung on. Perhaps a new writer's fortune was being made amid the shop talk.

A blond writer from South Africa's Argus newspaper, dressed in black, was being frightfully serious and criticizing ''the polemic nature'' in much of what she had seen that weekend. Downstairs in the Starving Artist Cafe, the literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in an open-necked shirt, was trying to get directions to Muhammad Ali's boyhood home. ''He's Louisville's native son, and I want to see his house.''

In another corner, Reed Birney, an impossibly boyish-looking actor who starred in the film ''Four Friends,'' and who'd had the lead in one ATL production, was wearing a big grin and a bow tie. He was happily explaining why he loved to work at the festival: ''Oh, it's marvelous to work with a playwright on a new work. I get to be the first person to do the role. I love that.'' Nearby, an ATL festival volunteer was counseling a critic on the proper care of summer linens. Dip starch is recommended. A writer from Esquire cruised by.

It was downstairs in the darker recesses of the cafe that the actors and playwrights were holding court - not only with the few critics who had straggled in for for one last interview, but also with each other. ''Hey, great performance tonight.'' ''I love your play.'' ''Man, it was dynamite.'' Land of the bluegrass, it had all the markings of a real theatrical watering hole.

Squashed at a round table about as big as a wastebasket, Patrick Torvatt, an actor-turned-playwright who bore a not unhappy resemblance to the actor Burt Reynolds, was fielding questions, accepting accolades for his successful and humorous play about one man's struggle to get a job (''Bartok as Dog''), and generally chewing the cultural fat.

''Oh, that's utter baloney. I simply do not buy that argument that there are no good plays to be found. Yeah, maybe if you only look at New York and L.A. Admittedly, the regional theaters are coming into different economic times, the changing funding and all that. But in other aspects they are much healthier.''

About Louisville's role he is just as outspoken. ''Sure, stylistically we're not that interesting here. But we're coming from the text, and the playwright is the central focus. People come here to produce playable texts and to provide new voices. The biggest advantage here is that you get good actors, terrific designers - it's so well done. The one thing you always dread in any other regional theater - 'we're out of time, there's no more money' - doesn't exist here. Here, you get to see the text in a full production without a million compromises. There is no substitute for that. So if it's bad, you just didn't write it good. With few exceptions, this may be the only place in the world where this happens.''

Nearby, Gary Leon Hill, a rangy photographer-filmmaker and now novice playwright, sprawls in a chair. His slim blue-jeaned legs end in cowboy boots. He is from Nebraska and had submitted his play ''Food From Trash'' - an apocalyptic view of the toxic-waste problem that was possibly the most talked about ATL play this season - only after his wife had found out about Louisville. ''This thing really started out as a film. But I realized, if it is a film script, well, I can't come up with the money. The last film I made and paid for myself, well, I should have used the money and bought land, you know? I've never had a play produced before. I hadn't even read enough plays to even compare mine. My wife told me this festival was here and she kind of pushed me to send it in.''

The rest was history. Jon Jory was so excited about the play - which required a warehouse stage setting, a full-size garbage truck, a jukebox, and two identical Mercurys - that he directed the play himself. Critics found it hard to ignore.

''This place is very strange to me,'' Hill admits with a shrug and the kind of smile those basking in the afterglow of success have. ''I don't know a lot of theaters, but I think it's pretty remarkable that this takes place. Without this , I probably wouldn't have finished my play. There is an awful lot of care and support here. I have an agent now.''

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