SHEPHERDSTOWN — The charms of Shepherdstown at any time of year are notable, but in July they take on a world-class profile as savvy theater goers make a special pilgrimage to the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), now in its 26th season.
CATF’s status comes from its focus on staging new American plays and the passionate vision of its producing director and festival founder Ed Herendeen.
“There’s nothing like doing a play for the first time” Herendeen said. “New plays involve risks, and we believe in taking risks. We embrace the danger.”
With a new play, there is no safety net of tradition to fall back on for actors, directors and playwrights. Virtually all the plays have existed primarily on paper, staged in the playwright’s mind or possibly once before in public. They have not had all the juice squeezed out of them by being workshopped to death.
Herendeen emphasizes that, first and foremost, CATF is a festival of playwrights. The words as written are sacred, and if questions arise, the playwright is called. The decades of success with plays first brought to life in Shepherdstown means that high quality scripts come to Herendeen, and actors’ agents pay a lot of attention.
“My first thought was ‘They’re doing this in West Virginia?’ ” said actress Betsy Aidem when her agent suggested the festival.
“I like working on new plays, and CATF has a high level of production values for something new.”
At least four of this summer’s plays can be considered comedies, if you are prepared for laughs to be soul-scathing as well as funny, and are ready to embrace Herendeen’s taste for dark visionary comedies.
There’s a maritime epic that resurrects family secrets, a fascinating play about hijacking a play, a comedy about being “the other” that has a naked man in a cage as a wedding gift, a play about friendship and the exploration of time, and a play that uses “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” as the backdrop. Three of the plays are world premieres, and two are new drafts. All were written in the past year.
“20th Century Blues” promises to be popular, witty and captivating as it explores 40 years of friendship and the concerns of the four hyper-verbal women who shared the decades.
“This is a funny play,” Aidem said. “Women getting together can get really ribald.”
It is a world premiere, but playwright Susan Miller is no stranger to the stage. The winner of two OBIEs — Off-Broadway Theater Awards — and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she boasts a long list of credits including nearly 20 plays, screenplays and award-winning new media. Miller was in Shepherdstown for the month of June and never misses a rehearsal, making notes and sharing observations but making few changes.
“The play was in good shape when I got here” Miller said. “I spend the rehearsal time listening, watching, inviting questions.”
It took the heroic effort of a group of CATF fans calling themselves “The Staging Team” to raise the additional funds needed for the play to be included in the festival. It is not in repertory because of the casting.
“Do you know how hard it is to find a good play with a part for an over-60 woman?” Herendeen asked. “And finding plays for four older women is impossible.”
He knew that choosing this play would put them over budget, but Herendeen and the board would not pass on it and committed to finding the money to stage it — and they did.
Herendeen’s brainchild creates a kind of summer camp for theater folks, from the techies and publicists to playwrights and actors. They live together for more than two months in residential apartments on campus.
They work together and hang out in the chic little town on the Potomac. The playwrights understand that this is a place and process where they can change, polish and perfect their work. The actors and directors take their essential part in helping a piece evolve seriously.
The family-like setting of the intensive season even influences casting choices. Actors are considered for skill level and their capacity to play several different roles simultaneously. They are also selected because they are people who can share the camaraderie of the group.
The intensity of the work — six weeks of rehearsal and four of performances, all while living together on campus — drives the company members to find special places in the town, whether it’s bike riding on the C&O Canal towpath, running lines at the Bavarian Inn’s infinity pool or hanging out at the Mecklenburg Inn. All the daily life activity in a small town makes for an intimacy with audiences and local folks.
In this season there are five plays plus a company of 130, the largest ever for CATF. The core is 18 actors, virtually all equity players. The five plays are scheduled in rotating repertory Wednesday through Sunday nights plus Sunday matinees for four weeks beginning Friday and concluding July 31.
If full immersion is your goal, any jam-packed visit can include time to see all the plays at a price comparable to a single ticket for a Broadway play. Sunday and weekday night shows are the real bargain at nearly half price. There are pay-what-you-can previews today through Thursday.
There is more to CATF’s four-week season than simply plays, including art exhibitions, stage readings, lectures, artist/patron discussion, workshops and classes, films, and post-show conversations. All the activities contribute to the unmatchable dynamic among the audience, the artists and the work.
During the past 26 years, audiences have grown increasingly sophisticated and aware of the rare experience available in Shepherdstown. They come from nearly 40 states and a variety of foreign countries.
Once it was courageous to attend the CATF plays and tread new ground in American theater. Now its simply good sense and an experience not to be missed.
Jeanne Mozier, of Berkeley Springs, is author of “Way Out in West Virginia,” and “West Virginia Beauty, Familiar and Rare,” available from WVBookCo.com.