Contemporary American Theater Festival celebrates 21st season

July 01, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Contemporary American Theater Festival actors Guiesseppe Jones, center, as Henry, and Anderson Matthews, right, as Charles in a scene from "Race," a play by David Mamet. At left is Crystal A. Dickinson as Susan.
Photo by Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Whether it's Broadway or a community playhouse, a little magic takes place every time the lights are dimmed and the curtain opens. It's the wizardry of live theatre.

But it's a long road to sellouts and standing ovations.

Plays need time to figure themselves out.

Words are written and rewritten, the waters are tested by producers and directors and then presented before a variety of audiences.

But where do playwrights find a stage to introduce and fine-tune their work?

One place is the Contemporary American Theater Festival.

Now in its 21st year, CATF has had a singular mission: to produce and develop new American plays.

A professional, resident company based at Shepherd University, "we're a playwright-centered organization," said James McNeel, director of development and marketing. "This means that each season, we endeavor to provide an opportunity for the contemporary playwright to have a new play developed and prepared for future productions and a permanent place in the American theatrical canon."

This year's festival will showcase five plays in four weeks at Shepherd. They include "Race" by David Mamet; "Ages of the Moon" by Sam Shepard; "We Are Here" by Tracy Thorne, "The Insurgents" by Lucy Thurber and "From Prague," by Kyle Bradstreet.

The festival opens Friday, July 8, and continues through Sunday, July 31.

While there is no specific theme that connects the plays, McNeel calls it "a 'language season' — beautiful, crisp, poetic writing from all five playwrights."

CATF founder and producing director Ed Herendeen says the plays "explode, they needle, they bleed and they will give you room to reflect and dream."

There might be other venues where new plays are presented, McNeel said. But what differentiates CATF from almost every other theatre, "is our commitment to rotating repertory. We currently produce five new plays in rep in three distinct venues — 90-seat experimental space, 165-seat Studio Theater and the 416-seat Frank Center. This means that our audience can see all five plays in a two- or three-day period."

Also, most of the Equity acting company will perform in two of the five plays, he said.

"So while the stages are being changed from one show to the next, the actors finish one role and prepare for a completely different one in another play," he explained.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival had its beginning in 1990, when Herendeen, who was working for the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, was invited by Shepherd University to visit the campus and consult on how to start a professional Equity theater. He was later offered the job. The first season followed in 1991.

Including this year, CATF has produced 90 plays, including 34 world premieres, by more than 60 different playwrights, McNeel said. The company operates with a budget of more than $1 million.

Many of CATF's plays have gone on to productions off-Broadway in New York and regional theaters across the country, McNeel noted. "For example, in the fall of 2003 alone, there were five plays formerly produced in Shepherdstown receiving productions in New York."

McNeel said CATF has a long track record of commissioning playwrights to write new work, including this year's "The Insurgents," which received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In all, eight new plays have been commissioned.

"Perhaps most well known, and commissioned in 1999, is Jeffrey Hatcher's 'Compleat Female Stage Beauty,'" said McNeel.

"Beauty" received its world premiere that summer at CATF in a co-production with Pittsburgh City Theater. It later became the movie, "Stage Beauty," which starred Clare Danes, Bill Crudup and Tom Wilkinson.

McNeel said 2009's "Farragut North" by Beau Willimon currently is in production for a movie to be called "The Ides of March." It will open this year's Venice Film Festival and will star George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ryan Gosling and Marisa Tomei.

McNeel said the company has been fortunate to call Shepherd University and Shepherdstown its home.

"Place matters," he said. "And we're extraordinarily fortunate to be located in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. We receive strong support from the state legislature and other state agencies. Plus, we have wonderful partnerships with the local businesses, many of whom call the CATF season 'Christmas in July' because of how busy the town is during those four weeks."

A 2008 economic impact survey documented that CATF generated $2.1 million for the local economy in 2008, he said.

CATF also enjoys a special relationship with Shepherd University, McNeel said. "The university not only provides support through use of its housing, equipment and staff but by embracing the value of the arts and theater in its own liberal arts curriculum and purpose."

Many Shepherd students participate year-round with CATF, McNeel said, especially in the summer as interns, where they garner experience building sets, appearing on stage and working the box office

"Personally, I'm a product of the CATF-Shepherd symbiosis," he said, "having worked seasons 8, 9 and 10 and graduating from Shepherd in 2001."

McNeel said the festival has never had problems drawing an audience, with the majority of ticket holders usually seeing at least two, if not all five plays.

"We are certainly a destination theater," he said, "with equal portions of our audience being local and from beyond 50 miles."

Considering the economic realities, McNeel said the company considers itself fortunate to continue to grow.

"So far this year, ticket sales are well ahead of last season and many shows are already sold out," he said.

Although this year marks its 21st season, McNeel said CATF has stayed true to its roots.

"The mission and core values have remained the same, as has the method and process," he said.

Editor's note: This story was edited July 3, 2011, to correct the spelling of Sam Shepard's name.

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