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Questioning is encouraged

Contemporary American Theater Festival launches month of plays with issues

Contemporary American Theater Festival launches month of plays with issues

July 05, 2007|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - "Can art change the world? That's the question."

That's one of many questions raised by plays at this year's Contemporary American Theater Festival, according to Ed Herendeen, CATF producing director. He sees that as modern theater's purpose - to ask more questions than it answers.

"What makes Americans happy?"

Herendeen said that is the overarching question in "The Pursuit of Happiness" by Richard Dresser, the second installment in his "Happiness" trilogy. The first part, "Augusta," premiered at the CATF last year, and the third, "A View of the Harbor," will be read during this year's festival and produced in Shepherdstown next year.

"What do we do with sexual offenders? Do they have civil rights?"

The world premiere of Lee Blessing's "Lonesome Hollow" brings up these inquiries in a production Herendeen said will "ride a real slippery slope."

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"What are any of us but a collection of stories?"

Jason Grote's "1001" addresses this question in a tale that flows between medieval Persia and post-9/11 Manhattan.

"My Name is Rachel Corrie," a compilation of writings from its namesake's diaries, e-mails, journals and letters sent home to her family in Washington state, raises countless questions about the turbulent Israeli-Palestinian relationship and the role others play in its resolution.

The CATF, in its 17th season, began on Independence Day with pay-what-you-can previews of "1001" and "Lonesome Hollow," and continues through Sunday, July 29. Boasting more than 60 new plays since its 1991 inception, more than one-third of which were world premieres, the festival is all about newness and now.

"My Name is Rachel Corrie" marks the first time the CATF has produced a play involving a writer who is dead. Corrie was killed March 16, 2003, in Gaza by a bulldozer that she was trying to block from demolishing the home of a Palestinian. Corrie's family made her writings available to actor-director Alan Rickman - who had roles in the movies "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," "Die Hard" and "Sense and Sensibility," among others - and journalist Katharine Viner for adaptation into a play.

The play marks another first for Herendeen: the first time he has received reams of letters protesting a play's production in Shepherdstown before it was staged. He holds a stack of hundreds of pages, writings sent via the U.S. Postal Service and e-mail, bound together with a rubber band, saying he typically gets letters of protest after people have watched a play on one of the CATF stages. His decision to include "Rachel Corrie" on the roster for this year's festival caused one patron to revoke a $100,000 pledge; Herendeen estimated it will cost the CATF up to $50,000 in other contributions, too.

Controversy and conversation

"Rachel Corrie" debuted in London in 2005 and was scheduled to open in March 2006 at the New York Theatre Workshop, but it was pulled, with the powers that be there citing the unsettled political climate at the time as the reason for its cancellation.

"It's been hijacked by people with political agendas," Herendeen said.

The play was eventually produced in the U.S. at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York in October 2006.

Herendeen doesn't consider the play anti-Israel or pro-Palestine, but rather views it as a vehicle through which a woman who was politically curious and passionately committed to her cause can express herself.

"This producing director is not afraid to deal with issues, controversial issues, that might make people uncomfortable," Herendeen said. "I do plays that I'm compelled to produce, ones that hit me in the gut."

While he supports entertainment just for entertainment's sake - sometimes even he needs to let his mind relax after reading heavy scripts - as an artist, he feels the need to spark conversations and to help change the world, motivations that linger from his idealistic college days.

It's all about relationships

In addition to its focus on all things contemporary, the CATF also is about relationships - bonds between playwrights and producers, playwrights and actors, and the complicated ties that bind the characters in each of the plays.

"We're a playwright-inspired theater," Herendeen said. "We've sort of given birth to new voices."

Having the playwrights on hand during some of the rehearsals offers actors and actresses the opportunity to address their questions directly to the creative mind whose lines they are speaking.

"We don't have to interpret what Shakespeare said anymore," Herendeen said, because the playwright is in the room.

Two of the playwrights whose works are being staged this summer have developed ties with the CATF through past productions.

In addition to "Augusta," Dresser's "Below the Belt," "Gun-Shy," "Something in the Air" and "Rounding Third" have come to life on Shepherd's stages.

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