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Taking a Chance on New Theater in West Virginia's Oldest City

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CATF founder Ed Herendeen addresses artists at an early reading of this year's plays.
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CATF founder Ed Herendeen addresses artists at an early reading of this year's plays.

There are two towns in West Virginia that could, ostensibly, throw down for the title of oldest in the state.

Shepherdstown and Romney were chartered in 1762. But while both can attest to being more than 250 years old, only one can take credit for annually producing copious amounts of something distinctly new: American theater.

Since 1991, the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University has committed itself to developing new works for the stage. Each summer CATF presents a rotating repertory of five plays: world premieres, commissions, and works that recently had a first production elsewhere. For instance, CATF 2014 play One Night — which shines an intense light on sexual abuse in the military — had its first run in New York City this past fall.

“But [playwright] Charles Fuller wanted to do more work on the play,” explains CATF founder Ed Herendeen. “So even though that play has had its ‘premiere,’ he’s rewritten that play. And so we’re working with him, providing him an opportunity while the play is still warm and fresh in his imagination, because he learned so much from the first production.

“New plays are never really finished for a while. You need several productions!”

That’s why many of CATF’s plays have actually had long, healthy lives beyond Shepherdstown. Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly (CATF 2008) went to D.C.’s Arena Stage before being produced on Broadway by Alicia Keys. Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot (CATF 2012) went on to become one of the most-produced American play nationwide last season. And Beau Willimon’s Farragut North (CATF 2009) eventually morphed in to the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Ides of March, starring George Clooney and Ryan Gosling.

And sure, Ed says, when it comes to all these post-CATF accolades, “We’re very proud. But it’s not how we measure our success.

“One way that we personally measure success is and when the writers go away feeling like their time spent here was worthwhile. And that the script in their minds improved, making it something that maybe they didn’t even know they had.”

Playwright Charles Fuller

That’s music to the ears of Thomas Gibbons. His play, Uncanny Valley, is making its world premiere at CATF this summer.

“To find a theater that has such unswerving dedication to new plays, there aren’t very many,” he says. “And naturally as a playwright, that makes it like heaven to me!”

That “unswerving dedication,” he says, also extends to subject matter.

“My agent had represented another playwright who had a play here last year,” Gibbons explains. “She told me Ed Herendeen likes plays about ‘big ideas.’ And she was right!”

As Gibbons explains it, the “big idea” behind Uncanny Valley is artificial consciousness, “and the possibility of downloading human consciousness into an artificial body as a means of extending our lifespan or even achieving immortality.”

And naturally, such a play is right up CATF’s alley.

“We’re contemporary,” Ed Herendeen says, “and so I’m looking for plays that are immediate, plays that are relevant, plays that hit me in my gut, and it doesn’t tie things up in a nice bow at the end.”

The hope, he says, is when audiences finish watching a play, they “are leaving with more questions than answers. And if we leave and we actually have a conversation about the experience we just had, then I think we’re doing our job.”

The CATF team consists of three staffers during the academic year, and more than 100 during the summer. And based on financials, one could say they’re doing quite well. Last year, the festival brought $3 million of revenue to Shepherdstown, and attracted nearly 14,000 people — primarily from the D.C. region, but also from 30-plus states and various foreign countries.

Not, says Ed, that that was always the case.

“We had a lot of people walk out the very first season,” he recalls. “But now I think if I were to err, it would be on doing something that’s too light and too entertaining, because people come, I think, expecting to be challenged. There is an audience out there that not only wants to be the first to see a play, but they have an adventurous appetite for what we’re serving on the menu, which is serious art.”

And as Shepherd University president Suzanne Shipley quickly learned after moving to Shepherdstown in 2007, when it comes to making that “serious art,” the CATF folks definitely “think different.”

“They are disappointed if there’s not at least one play that doesn’t work,” she says with a smile. “They say ‘We are here not just to succeed but to fail. We’re here to take risks, and not everything is going to work.’”

Whether or not things “work,” when audiences come from near and far to see a play, she says, they’re bound “to struggle with it and be incensed by it and be activated by it.”

But most of all, they’re bound to be inspired by it — in this old town where, for four weeks each summer, a dramatic dose of ‘new’ is waiting in the wings.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival opens July 11 and runs through August 3.

Music: "The Diagram" by Drums & Tuba from Vinyl Killer

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