Setting the Stage

The Contemporary American Theater Festival presents some of America’s newest plays in one of West Virginia’s oldest towns.


Photographed by Seth Freeman

Shepherdstown is steeped in history. Civil War buffs flock to visit nearby battlefields of Harpers Ferry and Antietam, basking in the rustic ambience of towns that date back to the 1700s. But across more than four weeks in July and August, a different kind of tourist journeys to Shepherdstown to watch as the modern and traditional collide. Theater lovers from all over the country attend the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University to get a first look at five of America’s newest plays in rotating repertory—they can see all five productions in just two or three days from July 6, 2014, to August 3, 2014. 

When freelance director Ed Herendeen arrived at Shepherd University in 1991, he was looking to start a professional theater on campus. In time the university president hoped to start a Shakespeare festival, but Ed pointed out there were already a few major Shakespeare theaters in the D.C. area, and so he proposed another idea: creating a place for brand new plays to grow and develop. Ed was hired as the producing director on the spot, and since its founding, the CATF has produced 100 new plays, including 37 world premieres and 10 commissions, gaining a reputation as one of America’s most important incubators for new work.

Every fall Ed travels to New York where he receives pitches from literary agents who know his thirst for socially relevant plays. “I look for plays that are engaged with life itself, plays that are an intrinsic part of our human existence,” he says. “When I’m reading new work, I seek illumination, deep feeling, confirmation, alienation. And I’m very interested in the criticism of society. But I only select plays I am compelled to produce.” In his quest to find those plays that “hit him in the gut,” he reads a hefty pile of scripts—for the upcoming 2014 festival, he read 125—that he narrows down to 12 and then to five after determining how the roles in each will mesh in one acting company. Ed says the works present a panorama of the American landscape. This year’s plays confront some controversial subjects. The lineup will include Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons, a story that raises ethical questions about artificial intelligence, and One Night by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles Fuller, which tackles sexual assault in the military.

The festival has seen staggering success in its 24 years. The CATF started with a $100,000 budget and is now up to $1.2 million, generating a local economic impact of $2.1 million into the Eastern Panhandle—the local hotels and merchants call it “Christmas in July.” With attendance figures growing nearly 30 percent since 2010, the CATF now sells almost 14,000 tickets each year, and there’s plenty to satisfy the intellectual appetite. The 2014 festival will feature free lectures, stage readings, discussions, thematic classes, late-night classes, and an art exhibition, too. Patrons can also purchase audience immersion tickets to have breakfast with Ed and the artists to discuss the plays.

But what really makes the CATF special is the dialogue between the artists and audience. Because these are new plays, the audience plays a big role in shaping them, providing valuable feedback for the playwrights both through their reactions during the performance and through thoughtful conversation at other events. “A lot of our plays are pretty provocative—they talk about current issues, politics, social ideas. There’s a lot of stuff to chew on,” says James McNeel, managing director of the CATF. “We want to create a forum for that conversation to occur. We want to encourage people to go beyond the work onstage, and it happens organically. At the local bed-and-breakfast, everybody who’s staying there on a weekend is here for the festival, so those folks are running into each other and they’re talking about the shows at breakfast or at dinner downtown, wherever it might be.”

The intensity of a CATF weekend sparks interaction. “If you’re in an urban area and you go see a show at a theater, you may go with your partner, sit there for a couple of hours, get on the subway, and go home,” says James. “Here it’s a little bit different. You’re really here for two days, maybe three nights, and everybody’s talking about the theater around you. It really encourages the conversation.”

As with every season, Ed is most excited to share his passion for new American theater with the public. “I’m very excited in particular about these plays. We live in such a turbulent and dangerous world right now, but all five of these writers have their ears to the ground. They’re listening to America. They’re listening to American stories. And they’re telling uniquely important American stories in their own voices.” The festival takes place July 11 to August 3, 2014. Regular single ticket price is $59.
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