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CATF is tightening its belt, but the shows must go on

July 13, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- As founder and producing director at Contemporary American Theater, Ed Herendeen has now spent most of his life in theater.

"And I'm having a blast," he said, sitting in an office in the Center for Contemporary Arts on Shepherd University's campus.

CATF began July 8 with pay-what-you-can previews to this season's five shows by contemporary playwrights. The festival officially kicked off Friday evening. The festival continues Wednesdays through Sundays through Aug. 2.

In 1991, Herendeen started to slowly build a theater festival that in nearly a decade has quickly become a well-respected venue for contemporary playwrights.

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"It was risky. It was scary. It was a gamble," Herendeen said of the thought of starting a festival.

And he was right to think so. That season, CATF was one of five fledgling Equity theaters in the country. By the end of the year, CATF was one of only two remaining theaters to announce a second season.

"That any theater company comes together at all, ever, is a miracle," Herendeen said in his opening remarks to this year's company in early June. "It's been said by many, that in order to take on a career in the professional theater, your need to do it must supersede virtually every other desire you could possibly have. To make it, you must make sacrifices: of your time, of your financial security, of your personal life, and many times of every last shred of your peace of mind."

Selling make believe

Although it can be tough to start a theater festival anywhere, Herendeen said he's grateful to be in the place he is.

000200000943000006A493D,"I get paid to make believe," he said.

But it looks as if Herendeen's hard work has been worth it. Actress Anne Marie Nest, who has graced CATF's stage several times, said playwrights have asked her how they can slip their scripts to Herendeen.

And as CATF opens its curtains on the 19th season, Herendeen knows that theater isn't always imperious to the economy.

"It's a miracle that, as a nonprofit, we'll be in our 20th season," he said.

An independent survey conducted last year found that people from 22 states attended CATF, down from 33 states the year before.

But Herendeen doesn't look at it as being hit by the economy. Instead, he's finding that there are positives still in CATF's role with the community.

"With every ticket purchased there is $133 that is spent locally," Herendeen said.

That money, he said, is being spent on hotel rooms, shopping and food in and around Shepherdstown.

And it looks like things might be looking up. Herendeen was encouraged by early ticket sales, which are selling well.

Peggy McKowen, associate producing director, said people are making CATF part of their summer.

"What we're seeing has been a dramatic increase in single- ticket sales," she said.

McKowen said they're not sure exactly what that means, and probably won't until the end of the season. However, she said they believe it probably is a combination of two things: more new people and people picking and choosing to see shows.

But people are picking to see a minimum of four shows. McKowen said 70 percent more of people purchasing CATCards are choosing the five shows, rather than seeing four.

Show business

Although encouraged, Herendeen is being cautious when it comes to the business side of theater.

"We're deeply concerned about the downturn," Herendeen said. "The economy has affected all of us and we're no exception. We've had to make some painful reductions."

CATF depends on money - from businesses, individuals, ticket sales and government and federal grants. Some of the donors CATF depends on gave less than last year.

"We're just been spending wisely," he said. "We're watching every penny."

And with an operating budget of $1 million a year, Herendeen is making it a point to continue to watch the bottom line. Part of CATF that isn't seen on opening night is the fundraising that takes places year-round before the shows are even staged.

000200000E0500000FE1DFF,And they need to have the budget, especially because their payroll swells from four to 78 by the beginning of the performance season. That doesn't even include the money for costuming, props and stage design.

However, Herendeen promises the average audience member won't notice any belt-tightening budget cuts. Instead, he said, CATF has made sure to give the audience the same level of show it has in the past.

Herendeen said he knows for some it might be financially difficult to afford to spend money on entertainment. That's why, he said, CATF is committed to its pay-what-you-can showings, which were last Wednesday and Thursday, and $25 Sunday evening shows.

"It makes it an affordable experience," Herendeen said.

Herendeen's optimism is backed by reports that entertainment isn't seeing a downturn as experts thought.

"No matter what people can afford, the arts will always be available," he said.




Contemporary American Theater Festival events, summary of plays

Today's events



10 a.m. - Breakfast with Ed, $20

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