The annual Contemporary American Theater Festival gets Shepherdstown talking.
When Ed Herendeen starts talking about the theater festival he founded back in 1991, he has trouble tamping down his enthusiasm. “I can talk about it and it sounds like I’m selling it,” he says more than once. But anyone who listens for more than a minute will understand Herendeen isn’t just pushing tickets. He’s a believer.
Herendeen, who remains the producing director for the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), has reason to light up. When he founded the venture, the festival featured just three plays on one stage. In the years since, the festival has doubled its annual plays to six, built two new facilities for staging and rehearsals, and received nods as one of the world’s top theater festivals from art critics at the New York Times and American Theatre, among other publications.
This year’s festival opens Friday, July 5 and will run until Sunday, July 28.
A Home for New Voices
There are two basic rules for any play that hopes to be part of the CATF repertoire: It must be new, and it must be American.
“Especially in 1991, there was a critical need to produce and develop and give full production to new plays,” Herendeen says. Just as Hollywood often plays it safe with sequels and remakes that have built-in audiences, theaters are incentivized to put on productions they know will fill the seats. That usually means Broadway hits.
CATF strikes out in a different direction, looking to launch careers and showcase fresh talent. This year, four of the festival’s six plays are world premieres. One is a commission—playwright Michael Weller approached Herendeen with his idea for A Welcome Guest: A Psychotic Fairytale and, after raising the money, Herendeen gave him the go-ahead to write it.
Featuring all new work may seem riskier, but the payoff is huge. “This work is a snapshot of the American landscape,” Herendeen says. “These are American storytellers. They’re telling unique, relevant, immediate, present American stories and they’re all written just within the last year.”
Even the historical stories in the mix have resonance in today’s social and political landscape. My Lord, What a Night, written by Deborah Brevoort and set to premiere at the festival this year, imagines the story of renowned singer Marian Anderson’s friendship with Albert Einstein, who offered her a place in his home after she was denied a room at the all-white Nassau Inn in Princeton.
The play delves into racism and anti-Semitism, issues that remain unfortunately relevant.
Last year, Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake—about a Christian baker’s dilemma over whether to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple—hit the stage just a month before the U.S. Supreme Court closed the real-life case of the Masterpiece Cakeshop.
For Herendeen, the newness of the plays contributes to the magic of the festival’s atmosphere. “Each of these plays is dealing with central issues that you and I are dealing with today,” he says. “You actually might have a debate that goes beyond these talking heads debates that we see on cable television. Maybe it actually turns into a conversation. Maybe you’ll even change your mind to consider a different point of view. Especially if it’s a volatile, controversial issue.”
CATF is organized in the repertory style, meaning each year’s plays are performed in rotation throughout the month. But the schedule is designed so a visitor can see all six plays over the course of two days. It’s intended to be a truly immersive experience.
Seeing six plays over two days may sound ambitious, but Herendeen points out that it is becoming the norm for the festival’s growing audience. “Let’s say you come and see one or two plays your first season,” he says. “What typically happens is, the next year you come back and see four. Or maybe you just decide to see all six. That’s the biggest base that we have. Our core audience sees all six.”
Because Herendeen sees the conversations that happen after viewing as one of the most important aspects of the experience, the festival—in association with Shepherd University—works to provide post-show discussions, lectures, in-context historical education, and other opportunities for attendees to interact with actors, crew members, and playwrights. Still, the conversations that happen organically in coffee shops and pubs around town among festival attendees may be some of the most enlightening.
There’s always plenty to talk about. One of the plays set to premiere this year, Wrecked, by Greg Kalleres, focuses on a suburban couple from the Midwest and what happens to their relationship after a hit-and-run with what might have been—or might not have been—a deer. “If you’re aware of flaws in your relationship, this is the kind of play that could put you right in the middle of that,” Herendeen says.
For a town of just under 2,000 people, Shepherdstown becomes a kind of Brigadoon each July as thousands stream into town. Sixty percent of the audience comes from out of state.
All the excitement has been a major boon for Shepherdstown and the rest of the Eastern Panhandle. One economic impact study found the festival generated more than $5.8 million in direct economic activity. But that’s not to say the CATF is only enjoyed by visitors. “Whatever restaurants you go to or when you’re shopping at the gift shops, the business owners and the people in the town have usually seen the work,” Herendeen says. “It creates moments of true conversation, and I think that’s just beautiful.”
written by Emilie Shumway