See it here first

Contemporary American Theater Festival showcases new and developing works in Shepherdstown

Contemporary American Theater Festival showcases new and developing works in Shepherdstown

July 02, 2006|by KATE COLEMAN

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - So, what's new, Ed Herendeen?

"Everything's new. We're into newness," he said during a recent interview in his office in the Frank Center for the Arts on the campus of Shepherd University.

With his response, the producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival affirmed the festival's mission: CATF is dedicated to producing and developing new American theater.

"New" is the essence of CATF, and Herendeen is excited as he prepares to open the 16th season, July 7 to 30. Four new American plays will bring the production tally to 63 new works - and that includes 25 world premieres - since the festival began in 1991.


This season includes two Herendeen-directed plays:

"Mr. Marmalade" by Noel Haidle is "a signature CATF kind of play," Herendeen said. Mr. Marmalade of the title is the imaginary friend of Lucy, a 4-year-old who creates a "surprisingly sophisticated" fantasyland while her single mother is away - a lot. It's funny and entertaining but has a disturbing twist as it exposes that children don't miss a trick, Herendeen said.

"Jazzland," commissioned by CATF, is by Keith Glover, who wrote "The Rose of Corazon" for the 2004 festival. The drama, which "pits pure jazz against rock fusion ... the father against the son," has changed immensely since its staged reading at the festival last summer.

"Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby" is a world premiere by Kim Merrill directed by Karen Carpenter. Merrill's fascination with the connection between personal history and a larger, social history comes into play in her comic fantasy, the story of Clara's trip home to the Jersey shore where she was found as an infant in the sand.

"Augusta" is a world premiere of the first in a trilogy of plays on happiness in America by CATF veteran Richard Dresser. Lucie Tiberghien directs; her CATF credits include "The Pavilion" by Craig Wright in 2001 and Lee Blessing's "Flag Day" in 2004.

Herendeen and Dresser took "Augusta," which had staged readings at CATF and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last summer, to the weeklong New Play Summit at the Denver Center Theatre last winter. "Augusta" is Dresser's working-class play on the topic. His middle-class installment, "The Pursuit of Happiness," will have a CATF staged reading July 18 and another at the Kennedy Center on Sept. 4. He expects to have the third, "A View From the Harbor," written by the end of the summer, and Herendeen said CATF is committed to producing all three.

New to the festival this year is set designer Shaun Motley, the only member of the design team who works on all four "very different" plays. In a telephone interview from a train bound for a couple of days at home in New York, Motley said he's worked on several plays at the same time but in different theaters and with staggered time frames.

The "exciting season" wouldn't be possible without the festival's creative and production teams, Motley said. "Everyone wants to be there. Everybody's working for the one big picture," Motley said.

Playwright Kim Merrill also has been struck by the collaborative atmosphere of CATF. She's been on the Shepherd campus since work began early in June. Staying in a dormitory with the technical staff, hearing conversations of "people who are working to make the actual play happen," has made her more aware of the effect her words on a page have on the practical part of the process.

The 2006 season is Merrill's first CATF experience, and one of the things she's really appreciated about being in Shepherdstown is that "Ed just seems really open about saying, 'OK, let's take a risk with this one.'"

Kaci Gober echoes that impression. Gober, a Texas native and "baby New Yorker" since 2004, acted in "Father Joy" and "American Tet" at last year's CATF. She came back to Shepherdstown because she "fell in love with 'Augusta.'" She had the role of Claire in last summer's readings and at the Denver workshop and said she's really excited about being able to do it without a music stand in front of her.

Andy Prosky also returned to CATF after acting in Stuart Flack's "Homeland Security" and "Rounding Third" by Richard Dresser in 2004.

This season he's in "Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby," and "Augusta." Both are funny, both are thoughtful, Prosky said, and he thinks that makes for good theater.

"If we can get them to laugh while they're there and think when they leave, we've done our job."

Dresser's plays explore happiness in America. Herendeen and company have found some at CATF.

"Great theater is great because it is infused with joy," Herendeen said during the festival-opening picnic in June. "We love what we do - on stage in Shepherdstown, W.Va."

If you go ...

WHAT: The Contemporary American Theater Festival

WHEN: Friday, July 7, to Sunday, July 30, with some earlier preview performances.

WHERE: Venues at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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