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CATF 2001: A Report from the Contemporary American Theatre Festival
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va.-- For any theatre maniac, like me for example, a weekend in Shepherdstown is a weekend in heaven. Where else can you spend a day wandering from shop to café to bookstore, take a detour to a Civil War battlefield or a float trip downriver, and make it back in time for an 8 o'clock curtain?
In this postcard-perfect village tucked into the West Virginia hills, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival has grown up. It started here in 1991 with two plays performed in repertory on the campus of Shepherd College. It opened its 11th season July 6 with four new (or nearly new) plays running in repertory. This year's festival features two world premieres and two second productions -- which are, as any playwright knows, tougher to come by than a premiere.
In the beginning, the festival worked under a Small Professional Theatre contract with Actors Equity. Now it's a LORT D theatre -- putting it in a league with Arena Stage in Washington and Center Stage in Baltimore. LORT D (for League of Resident Theatres) means the festival pays more money to the actors -- making it easier to attract the best talent, according to Producing Director Ed Herendeen.
"The best thing you can give to a playwright is a good actor," Herendeen says.
The next best thing you can give them, according to Herendeen, is a safe place to work.
Shepherdstown, some 60 miles from Washington and Baltimore, is the perfect location for a playwright's laboratory. It's close enough to an urban center to draw an audience (and the town's appeal to the tourist is part of what helps sell the festival). But it's far enough away from New York that the usual market pressures are virtually nonexistent.
Herendeen modeled CATF after the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires, where he worked for three seasons. Unlike Williamstown, however, Shepherdstown emphasizes new plays. That means, Herendeen says, that CATF has to educate its audience as well as the theatre critics.
"These are still works very much in progress, especially if you do what we call a world premiere," Herendeen explains. "I don't know if we consider that we have an opening night.... you could look at Shepherdstown as one big preview."
Spend a little time here and one thing quickly becomes clear. Herendeen's toughest critics don't work for The Washington Post or The New York Times. (And they don't write for CurtainUp either). They work in the restaurants and stores along German Street. You want the low-down on what to see? Go to the Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant. That's where I get the tip of the week on July 6, well before The Post's review of the festival appears in print.
"The Pavilion," one gentleman at the restaurant bar advises me. "Don't miss it."
Craig Wright's play about one-time high school sweethearts who meet again at their 20th reunion is blessed, he says, by a strong cast with great stage chemistry.
"That one's going to sell out," he predicts. (Turns out, he's right.) "Word is getting around this is the one to see."
As for the festival's mainstage production of The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, John Olive's tale of an art collector gone astray, he has a different take: "The Agony," he says wryly, with a shake of his head.
Heads bob up and down in agreement around the bar.
"The set was nice," one of the waitresses quips.
"It's like that every year," another customer observes. "There's always one.... "
There's always one. Sometimes there's more than one -- meaning the play that does not go over, either with the audience or the critics. Herendeen shrugs it off.
"I'm not looking for a star vehicle or a crowd pleaser," he says. "I'm looking for important work--plays that have a future."
Compleat Female Stage Beauty, by Jeffrey Hatcher, was commissioned by CATF and premiered there in 1999. The play won a citation for the best New American Play by the American Theatre Critics Association. Sold as a film, it recently closed a production in Philadelphia and negotiations are underway for a New York premiere, Herendeen says.
But for every success story like that, there are other worthy plays that fail to move.
Mary & Myra, Catherine Filloux's critically acclaimed drama about Mary Todd Lincoln and the woman who rescued her from an insane asylum, went on to have a reading in New York, and nothing more. Having seen and reviewed that play for CurtainUp last year, I can attest that it is a beautifully written work that deserves to be produced again and again.
"We got a lot of producers here to see it," Herendeen says, but none bit. "Sometimes I'm just amazed at how difficult is to move these things."
Then there are the bombs--the ones like The Ecstasy -- the plays that Herendeen embraces and the rest of the world dismisses -- if you consider The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun to be the rest of the world. There have been a few of those over the years, but then, there would have to be. That's what producing new plays is all about, Herendeen says -- taking chances. Like high-stakes poker. The bigger the risk, the bigger the win. And the greater the loss when you fail.
"We're not afraid to fail in Shepherdstown," he adds. "You might say we encourage it."
And success--that's not just great box office. Success is working out a problem in a script.
Herendeen, it's safe to say, wouldn't consider The Ecstasy a failure by any means. After all, he selected it from among hundreds of scripts (including one of mine, I must confess) and he chose to direct it himself. In the course of rehearsal and production, the author made significant revisions, Herendeen adds.
"We went into opening night with 20 new pages," he says. "That's really cool, and the actors wanted the new pages. But the director in me was freaking out."
Yet, he acknowledges, it's a rush at the same time--like working the high wire "without a net."
The ability to work this way is a rare luxury made possible by the support of Shepherd College, which has provided performing space, office space, and artists' housing since the beginning. The festival itself, in fact, was the brainchild of a former college president who recruited Herendeen to advise him on the project. Herendeen was working at Williamstown at the time, not intending to establish himself in Shepherdstown.
Nearly a dozen years later, he's still here, laying out a 10-year plan for growth that includes expanding to a six-week, six-play festival with the construction of a third performance space.
Because the festival pays no rent, he says, it can do on a budget of $650,000 what other theatres require more than $1 million to accomplish. All the money raised by Herendeen and Managing Director Catherine Irwin goes towards the art, he says. That means bringing in a team of designers and directors with significant regional theatre credits. It means having $10,000 to commission new plays.
He doesn't buy the notion that new plays are a tough sell.
" I really believe there's an appetite for new plays," he says. "New work in general, whether it be contemporary serious music or theatre, there's a growing appetite for new work .... Audiences find it exciting when work is relevant, present and immediate."
The Contemporary American Theatre Festival at Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
In repertory through July 29: The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, by John Olive; Tape, by Stephen Belber; The Pavilion, by Craig Wright, The Occupation, by Harry Newman. Call 800-999-CATF. www.catf.org.