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Theater festival celebrates 20 years in Shepherdstown

July 03, 2010|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -It's two weeks before Contemporary American Theater's 20th-season opening night and its founder and producing director, Ed Herendeen, is readying himself for a day of rehearsals.

As the hot summer sun beats down outside, Herendeen sits comfortably in his office in the Center for Contemporary Arts on the Shepherd University campus.

Here, alongside the Potomac River, Herendeen has built an unlikely festival - one made entirely of works written by contemporary American playwrights - in the most unlikely of places - the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

CATF begins Wednesday, July 7, and continues to Sunday, Aug. 1, and stars five productions: "Lidless," "White People," "The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show," "Inana" and "Breadcrumbs."

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And as curtain call approaches, Herendeen doesn't want to dwell in sentimentality.

"The thing about theater people is that we live in the moment of creativity," he said. "We produce and put all that work into a season, then in August it all goes away. The stage is struck. The stage is empty. The stage is bare. And once I complete these next two weeks of rehearsals and get these shows open, my eyes are already focused on next season."




When Herendeen came to the Shepherd campus in 1991 to teach theater, his concept was clear: a theater festival dedicated to producing work by contemporary living American playwrights.

That year, Herendeen produced two plays. By the second season, the festival included four plays. In 2008, the festival expanded to include five productions. This year's 20th season continues with five productions. All on a variety of subjects, and not one show revival in the mix.

Herendeen said he remembers something that a CATF board member said during the company's 10th anniversary. "'I look forward to the day that CATF produces the next Pulitzer prize in theater,'" Herendeen repeated.

It's a lofty dream, but not one out of reach because three plays produced at CATF have been nominated for Pulitzers - Craig Wright's "The Pavilion" (2001), Lee Blessing's "Flag Day" (2003, world premiere) and Victor Lodato's "Dear Sara Jane" (2009).

The level of work Herendeen has produced might not be a surprise to regular CATCard holders who have come to expect thought-provoking productions.

CATF's reputation has enabled the festival to score works by some of the best playwrights contemporary American theater has to offer - Sam Shepherd, Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Blessing, Richard Dresser and Noah Haidle, to name but a few.

Several plays have gone on to be staged in Off-Broadway including Julia Jordan's "Tatjana in Color " (1999). One has been made into a TV miniseries: "Blonde" based on Oates' "Miss Golden Dreams" (2000), and another a film: Jeffrey Hatcher's "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" (1999).

"That to me is rewarding, to know writers like Lee (Blessing), like (Richard) Dresser, like Joyce Carol Oates - in the early days - they return to CATF and they believe we were instrumental in nurturing and developing their work," Herendeen said. "... It's encouraging that writers want their work to be produced here."

But playwrights aren't the only ones who have reaped rewards from CATF. Actors have also benefited from being on CATF's stages. Paul Sparks, who was recently profiled in The New York Times, is a CATF alum. Herendeen said he's proud that he was able to give Sparks his Actors' Equity card.

With high-caliber work as CATF's hallmark, the festival has become an event to see - and for those in the business - to be seen..

"It's very exciting because our goal has always been to give birth to new American work," Herendeen said. "It's really great CATF gives birth to the work, but that the birth has a life beyond Shepherdstown. And that's one of the most rewarding things that, in fact, our mission continues to drive the work we do here. We are dedicated to producing and developing new American theater."




Jennifer Haley is one of those contemporary American playwrights Herendeen has tapped for this season.

The Los Angeles-based playwright's "Breadcrumbs" will make its world premiere during CATF's opening weekend.

Haley said about a year and a half ago there was a reading of "Breadcrumbs" in New York. That reading was directed by longtime friend Laura Kepley.

Although Haley was unfamiliar with CATF, one of the two actresses cast in the reading had worked at the festival.

"She just raved about it," Haley said in a telephone interview. "She said, 'Do you know about this festival in the woods outside of D.C.? It's amazing.'"

Kepley ended up interviewing with Herendeen for a directing slot at CATF. When he asked Kepley what projects she was working on, one of them she listed was "Breadcrumbs."

"Breadcrumbs" tells the story of a fiction writer who realizes she's slowly losing her memories. As the author struggles with the loss, she has to depend on a young caregiver to help her complete her autobiography.

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