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Playwrights and other professionals share visions for 15th Contemporary American Theater Festival

Playwrights and other professionals share visions for 15th Contemporary American Theater Festival

July 03, 2005|by KATE COLEMAN

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Ed Herendeen is the "yes man."

As founder and producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, he has been saying "yes" to producing and developing new American plays for more than a decade and a half.

He believes that mission is important, and CATF's growth over the years indicates that he's not alone.

Between 1991 and 2004, CATF produced 55 new American plays, 19 of them world premieres. This 15th season, July 8 through July 31, will add four new plays - two of them world premieres - to those totals.

The festival has commissioned nine plays, providing playwrights with a fee, time to focus on their writing and opportunities for staged readings and collaboration with directors and designers.


"Creative people say 'yes,'" Herendeen said during an interview before a recent afternoon rehearsal of "Sonia Flew," one of four plays that will open at Shepherd University this week.

Herendeen is directing two plays in the theater of Shepherd University's Frank Center for the Creative Arts. "The God of Hell" by Sam Shepard, whom Herendeen regards as the "most important living American playwright," is a dark political comedy set on a Wisconsin farm.

Herendeen also is directing Melinda Lopez's "Sonia Flew." The play chronicles a family's story through the times of the Cuban revolution and the world after Sept. 11.

Two world premieres will be presented at the university's Studio Theater. Tracy Bridgen will direct Lydia Stryk's "American Tet," which tells the story of American soldiers in Iraq and their families at home. "Father Joy" by Sheri Wilner will be directed by Pam MacKinnon. The play explores the effect on a father of his daughter's contemplated romance with a professor twice her age.

Herendeen talked about "yes" in his June 5 welcome to the CATF "company" - playwrights, actors, directors, designers, crew, supporters and friends.

Creative people "rarely say 'no,' because creativity is not about safety. ... We have created an environment where risk-taking is safe - even encouraged," Herendeen said.

"Ed seems to be the only person to accept the risks," said Wilner, whose "Hunger" premiered at CATF in 2000.

Despite receiving several prestigious awards, including a 2005-06 Jerome Fellowship residency at The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, Wilner said it grows harder and harder to have a play produced.

Lopez also appreciates the Shepherdstown production - the fleshing out - of her work.

"Plays aren't meant to be read," she said. With a look or a silence, actors on the stage can reveal aspects of a play - even to its playwright.

She called CATF a tremendous opportunity for a writer.

Wilner would agree. She has done a lot of rewriting on "Father Joy" since rehearsals started.

"That poor man," Wilner said of actor Michael Goodwin, whose protagonist role in "Father Joy" has changed considerably.

Good actors have portrayed Paul in the play's previous lives - in workshop at the 2003 O'Neill Playwrights Conference and readings at four other theaters. But Goodwin embodies the character, Wilner said. "Now that I do have someone who is perfect, it's much clearer." Thus the rewrites and a lot of new lines for Goodwin to learn.

Another part of the CATF collaboration is the audience.

"You bring to the work who you are," Herendeen said. Individual audience members see the work with their own eyes; they experience it with unique thoughts and feelings.

The CATF audience has grown in 15 years.

In 1998, 7,500 tickets were sold.

Advance ticket sales for this year's festival began March 1. By May 25, sales had increased by 25 percent over 2004 when 11,797 tickets for four plays were purchased, said Managing Director Barbara Rollins. Several Studio Theater performances already are sold out, she added.

Herendeen cited "huge" growth in the sale of CATCards, subscriptions to all four plays at a discounted price.

"I believe in the audience," Herendeen told his company as the 2005 festival began.

"It's important to offer the playwrights an eclectic audience," he said.

The festival is affordable and accessible: The highest single ticket price is $33. CATF offers "pay-what-you-can" previews of two plays on Wednesday, July 6, and two plays on Thursday, July 7. "There's no excuse not to come," Herendeen said.

CATF is not about escapism or mere entertainment. The plays are not frothy. Even the comedies have important things to say. Wilner, for example, said she writes funny plays about serious topics.

"Good theater, serious theater, should construct a vision of the human condition that reveals to us a new understanding of ourselves," Herendeen said.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival - "a playwright-inspired theater" - is live theater.

Live theater takes place in real time.

"It is happening in the now. In the moment. In the present," Herendeen said.

Yes, it is.

CATF beyond the stage

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