Going against the grain

Expanded Contemporary American Theater Festival happily tests boundaries

Expanded Contemporary American Theater Festival happily tests boundaries

July 06, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Contemporary American Theater Festival schedule

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - One show larger than last year, the Contemporary American Theater Festival will keep its intellectual edge, showcasing five plays in four weeks at Shepherd University.

The festival opens Wednesday night and continues through Sunday, Aug. 3.

Highlights include "Wrecks," a prickly monologue by playwright and filmmaker Neil Labute, whose latest ode to the antihero, "Reasons to be Pretty," made its off-Broadway debut recently in New York. CATF favorite playwright Richard Dresser plans to make an appearance during the first week of the festival. His play, "A View of the Harbor," will be shown opening night.

Since 1991, the festival has served as an incubator for creative risk taking, part of the reason founder Ed Herendeen refers to CATF as the "playwrights' play festival." CATF stages recently written work and casts professional actors, generally from New York. There's no rule that the piece must premiere at CATF, though oftentimes they do. To be picked, the play must fit into Herendeen's mantra, "theater should generate more questions than it answers."


"I'm looking for plays that engage me immediately, hit me in the gut," Herendeen said.

Herendeen's aim is to create an environment where writers can do their thing - provided that that thing they do isn't "safe." Audiences are getting tired of safe, Herendeen said.

"Audiences have an adventurous appetite for theater," he said.

CATF attendance is at nearly 12,000, drawing from a good proportion of theater-goers from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore with a good share of local attendees, Herendeen said.

Attendance grew last year despite controversy over the staging of "My Name is Rachel Corrie," a play about an American peace activist who was killed by an Israeli Army bulldozer while protesting the razing of a house in Gaza. Herendeen said the aim wasn't to make people choose a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to present one woman's experience.

This year's round of plays is not likely to evoke the same reaction as "Rachel Corrie," but the lineup will be just as provocative, Herendeen said.

"These are five writers who are writing about the 'now,'" Herendeen said.

J.T. Rogers' "The Overwhelming" is a grim look at genocidal violence in Rwanda, from the vantage point of a naive American family living there.

Dresser's "A View of the Harbor" completes his trilogy on happiness, this time looking at a rich New England family and a young man among them who's struggling to live up to their expectations.

LaBute's "Wrecks" is about a grieving widower and the wife he's just lost. The play is laced with LaBute's signature acridity. Due to demand, CATF has added two more showings of "Wrecks." The play will be shown at a smaller venue - the rehearsal studio of the Center for Contemporary Arts, Shepherd's multi-million-dollar arts venue that will serve the art and theater departments. The rehearsal studio only seats 75, Herendeen said.

There's even a deep subtext to one of the festival's lighter works, Greg Kotis' "Pig Farm." Beneath the parody of clichés, critics say "Pig Farm" could be taken as a jab at the excessive bureaucracy of government.

Herendeen said this year's expanded season is a taste of what to expect in the future. There are plans to expand the festival to six plays, once the Center for Contemporary Arts is complete. Herendeen said that with the growth, he'll make sure to uphold his original vision, to fill a void in contemporary American theater.

"What American theater needs is a place to develop and create the future of the American repertoire," Herendeen said.

CATF beyond the stage

The Under the Tent lecture series is set for 4:30 p.m. each Saturday of the festival, on the lawn of Shepherd University's Frank Center for the Creative Arts. The lectures are free. Check for updates.

July 12 - Founder and producing director Ed Herendeen will moderate a discussion with playwrights Lydia Diamond, Richard Dresser, Greg Kotis and J.T. Rogers.

July 19 - Writer and film critic Ann Hornaday will discuss the work of Neil LaBute, looking at the differences in his writing for stage and screen.

July 26 - David Rawson, U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Rwanda from 1993 to 1996, will discuss his first-hand account of the Rwandan genocide. Rawson is a professor of political economy at Spring Arbor University and a distinguished visiting professor of political science at Hillsdale College.

Aug. 2 - David Ober and his wife, Sheilah Goodman, owners of Cedarbrook Farm in Jefferson County, W.Va., will talk about the organic, eco-friendly pork industry.

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