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Shepherdstown theater festival to mark 25th year

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Twenty-five years ago, Ed Herendeen had a vision of producing new American plays in conjunction with Shepherd University.

Herendeen, now the founder and producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, was working at the Williamstown Theater Festival in western Massachusetts at the time, when he received an invitation from the president of then-Shepherd College to help the college start a professional equity summer theater.

Herendeen said his passion and excitement for contemporary theater has driven the festival from the very beginning.

“My recommendation for this festival was that there was a critical need for the production and development of new American plays,” he said. “We are dedicated to developing and producing contemporary American theater, and we’re now going into our 25th season.”

The Contemporary American Theater Festival, held each summer at Shepherd University, has produced 110 new plays, including 40 world premieres and 10 new play commissions.

According to Herendeen, it can be difficult for an up-and-coming playwright to get a play produced.

“We are solely focused on the new play,” he said. “It has been my passion since graduate school. I have a passion for working with the living playwright on new work. There’s nothing more exciting than working on something new and being the first to give birth to a new American play.”

Herendeen said theater persists because new plays are written and produced, whether it is by new writers or veteran writers who have had their work produced.

“There’s a reason why we call it ’25 years of fearless art,'” said Gabriel Zucker, managing director of the CATF. “It takes a fearlessness to take the risk to develop these new works. A lot of theaters want to find some middle ground and play it safe. (The CATF) really puts the playwright and the play at the fore.”

Zucker and Herendeen both say the challenge, and the excitement, of producing new plays comes from the constant process of revising and changing the plays as they are being rehearsed.

Often, Herendeen said, a play will open with rewritten sections that were changed hours before the actors take the stage.

“A play is never really finished until its had several performances or several different productions before it ultimately gets published,” Herendeen said. “We play an active role in nurturing and developing that process.Our goal is that the playwright leaves Shepherdstown with a better script for the next production.”

In addition to the focus on contemporary American theater, Herendeen said additional programming – such as talk theater, lectures, question-and-answer sessions with playwrights, and breakfast and lunch events – at the CATF creates an experience that immerses the audience once they leave the theater.

“Talking about the play puts things in context,” Zucker said. “It’s not just going to see something where you’re kind of a passive spectator and then you go home. This is very much about audience involvement.”

Part of the discussion stems from the provocative nature of the plays produced at the CATF each season, he said. Herendeen said the plays tackle social issues like race, gender and human rights.

“We Are Pussy Riot,” by Barbara Hammond, about the all-women punk band and activist group from Russia, is one of the plays that will be produced this season, and Herendeen said it is an example of the timeliness of the plays.

“All of the plays produced in a season have been written within the last year. ‘We Are Pussy Riot’ is about women’s rights, human rights, freedom of speech and artistic freedom,” he said. “This is the way the writer sees the world. These writers have their ears to the ground and are listening to the American landscape.”

Herendeen credits the success of the CATF, in part, to its establishment as a part of Shepherd University. He said combining new art with higher education creates an environment that facilitates risk taking and the cultivation of new ideas.

“Our goal is to enhance the cultural and educational life of the campus community, the Eastern Panhandle community, and the Mid-Atlantic community,” Herendeen said.

Though 25 seasons have passed since the inception of the CATF, Herendeen remains focused on the future of the festival.

He said the five-year strategic plan was recently completed, and goals for the future include exporting the plays to an international audience, bringing an international audience to Shepherdstown, producing six plays per season instead of five, and the ultimate completion of Phase 3 of Shepherd University’s Center for Creative Arts.

Herendeen said there is a misconception that theater is elitist, but said he wants the CATF to provide an accessible theater experience to the public.

In the week before opening night, the CATF offers pay-what-you-can previews. During the festival itself, $32 discounted tickets are available on Sundays and “West Virginia Wednesdays,” in addition to a $32 military discount price and $20 Shepherd University student prices.

The 25th season of the CATF will take place July 10 through Aug. 1. Plays include “World Builders” by Johnna Adams, “Everything You Touch,” by Sheila Callaghan, “On Clover Road,” by Steven Dietz, “We Are Pussy Riot,” by Barbara Hammond and “The Full Catastrophe,” by Michael Weller.

For more information, visit www.catf.org.

– Staff writer Mary Stortstrom can be reached at 304-725-6581 or www.twitter.com/mstortstromJN.

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