The Magic of Big-time Theater in a Small West Virginia Town

WTOP's Shawn Anderson chats with CATF founder Ed Herendeen

Jason Fraley

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WASHINGTON — Broadway-quality actors. Cutting-edge American playwrights. Thought-provoking, original productions. We’re not talking about New York. We’re talking West Virginia.

Every July, tiny Shepherdstown, tucked away in the state’s Eastern Panhandle, becomes a hothouse for some of America’s most innovative live theatre.

The 27th annual Contemporary American Theatre Festival (CATF) is running now through July 30 at Shepherd University. Six new plays, some of them world premieres, are staged in rotating repertory on the campus stages near the banks of the Potomac.

“We’re outside the glare of the urban spotlight,” founder and producing director Ed Herendeen told WTOP. “So our artists, playwrights, actors, directors and designers can take the kind of risk in the safe atmosphere of Shepherdstown. I’d like to think we’re creating dangerous, and sometimes important, disturbing works of art.”

Apparently, it’s paid off. CATF’s reputation and reach has grown so much over the decades that the New York Times listed it this year as one of its Top 15 international choices for summer theatre festivals. Last year, theatre-goers from 37 states took in the festival’s plays, lectures and post-show discussions, which take on diverse and sometimes difficult subjects.

“Let’s make America think again,”Herendeen said. “We like to say ideas are powerful and essential, but stories are more powerful.”

For example, the world premiere of Chelsea Marcantal’s “Everything Is Wonderful” explores how an Amish family fights to maintain faith after two sons are killed in a car accident. Evan Linder’s “Byhalia, Mississippi” follows a white couple in a small town haunted by its racially-charged history.

Herendeen says the goal is to have all six plays create a moment for a debate, dialogue or living conversation.

“Theatre provides that opportunity to really hear, to see and to listen,” Herendeen said. “Maybe we can go home and talk to one another about the issues raised.”

Other plays on this year’s program include:

  • “We Will Not Be Silent” by David Meyers. The world premiere tells the real -life story of Sophie Scholl, who lead the only act of civil disobedience in Germany during the Nazi reign.
  • “The Niceties” by Eleanor Burgess. The story highlights a baby boomer versus millennial ideas clash between a liberal college professor and one of her prized left-wing students.
  • “Welcome to Fear City” by Kara Lee Corthron. This world premiere looks at the start of hip-hop culture in the Bronx during an explosive time in the late ’70s.
  • “Wild Horses” by Allison Gregory. This production is a girl’s coming of-age story as seen through the eyes of her adult self.

The schedule is spaced out so that patrons can see all six plays in two days if they wish. There are also breakfasts, lunches, lectures and staged readings with the festival’s participants.

An added benefit is the array of shops, restaurants and bars in the charming downtown. A few years ago, Budget Travel magazine named Shepherdstown as one of “America’s Coolest Small Towns.” You can also combine the festival with side trips to nearby Harpers Ferry and Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

“It’s great that this magical, historical town is home to contemporary stories and contemporary plays,” Herendeen sad.

Click here for more information. Listen to the full conversation with founder Ed Herendeen below:

WTOP's Shawn Anderson chats with CATF founder Ed Herendeen

Jason Fraley

Download audio

The post The magic of big-time theater in a small West Virginia town appeared first on WTOP.

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