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2002 Contemporary American Theater Festival

Actor-audience collaboration can make play spellbinding

Actor-audience collaboration can make play spellbinding

July 07, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

"I started making believe when I was a little kid," says Ed Herendeen, founding and producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, which has its home on the campus of Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

This year's company of actors, directors, playwrights and crew has been "making believe" for nearly a month, getting ready to present four new works of American theater in a 12th season that opens Friday, July 12, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 4.

The CATF audience is not likely to drift or doze during any of the plays. The work deals with difficult and serious but universal topics - love and betrayal, the question of why evil flourishes, family devastation, love unrequited in an intolerant world - in vividly wrenching dialogue and staging that's not for the faint of heart.

If you find strong language and in-your-face subject matter offensive, you might want to consider staying home.

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There is no particular theme connecting this season's work - just as there hasn't been in any of the previous 11 years.

What's always there - what has been consistent since its beginning - is CATF's willingness, indeed, its reason for being - to push, to move, to involve its audience with new American plays.

"We do serious work that we hope engages people - provokes people to think, causes an emotional and cerebral or intelligent response," says Herendeen, who is a professor and director of theater at Shepherd College. The work requires active participation on the part of the audience, he adds.

Herendeen was in New York on Sept. 11 and like many others, couldn't get out of the city. He saw the devastation from his 21st Street hotel room.

"What does this mean? How do we respond as artists?" he asked himself.

His answer was he knew CATF had to deal with serious work.

"We could not pull our punches this summer." We have enough popular culture and junk to escape, Herendeen says.

"My bet is that people want to make the connection. Time needs to be meaningful."

Herendeen grew up in Boston and started directing when he was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He wasn't interested in acting. He got his master's in professional directing at Ohio University. He jokes that he wanted to be in charge.

And in charge he is. Herendeen selects the plays and picks the actors for each year's season through auditions. This year, the festival will spend almost $700,000 to stage the plays.

Sometimes plays are sent to him, as is the case with Sam Shepard's "The Late Henry Moss," on stage this summer. Sometimes he commissions plays, as he did with Catherine Filloux's "Silence of God."

The festival has earned a reputation in national theater circles for cutting-edge work.

Actor Paul Sparks, an Equity actor from New York, has had several seasons in Shepherdstown. "I'll always come here," he says.

"Ed is the best," he says. "He really believes he's going to change the face of American theater - and I believe him."

For Herendeen, the director is the person who blends diverse elements into an organic whole. The director is the person who helps to create an atmosphere for gifted people to come together to work and grow and explore, to push themselves as artists.

"It's real exciting to blend it all together he says.

Shepherdstown is an ideal palette, Herendeen says. Far from the madding world of commercial theater, members of the CATF company have the freedom to explore.

"We get really terrific work. The fear of self-censoring is eliminated in Shepherdstown," he says. "It's also an opportunity for me to do the work I'm compelled to do."

Mateo Gomez, another New York actor, is in his second season at CATF.

"Papachi," is how he describes the experience. He defines that as "coolissimo, wonderfulissimo."

Gomez says Herendeen has papachi energy. "He's like a little kid. You just trust him." He'd take your hand and you'd leap off a cliff with him, he adds.

For Herendeen, it is always about the process. "Plays were never intended to be read. Plays are meant to be seen," he says.

A play is a collaboration between living performers and a living audience, Herendeen says.

"When that comes together ... the emotion is spellbinding."

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