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From the Shepherd University Magazine Volume 15, No. 2, Spring 2010

Contemporary American Theater Festival celebrates its 20th year

Ed Herendeen, producing director and founder of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, says that some things are just meant to be.

Before serving as a theater consultant to Shepherd, Herendeen was working at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. He and his wife, Sue, had previously worked with the West Virginia Governor's Honor Academy at Shepherd in the late 1980s. It was during those summers that they fell in love with Shepherdstown and dreamed of one day calling it home.

While working with the Governor's Honor Academy, he met professor Dow Benedict and Dr. Ron Jones, who at the time was the dean of the School of Arts and Humanities. Benedict and Jones recommended Herendeen when the idea of a professional theater company was first suggested by then Shepherd President Michael P. Riccards.

After starting an initial dialog and conducting a demographic study, Herendeen said the idea would work based on Shepherd's location and close proximity to Washington, D.C. "There was a critical need in 1991 for the development and production of new works of theater," he said. "Typically, new works get readings and workshops, but it's difficult to get a full production for new plays. I recommended a contemporary theater that would give birth to the next repertoire of new American plays. New plays and the development of new work have always been my passion."

At the time, Herendeen encouraged President Ricccards to create a haven in Shepherdstown where writers could be in residence with other theater artists. "And we talked about it and he said, 'Well, why don't you do it?' and I asked him if he was offering me a job and he said, 'Yes,'" Herendeen said.

The first season of CATF kicked off in 1991. A separate nonprofit organization was started with a board of trustees. The first year's budget was $90,000. Including ticket sales, contributions, and grants from foundations, more than $124,000 was raised. One equity play, Accelerando, was produced and performed in the Frank Center. Two non-equity plays were performed as well, including one which was performed in what was then a gym in Sara Cree Hall.

Now, CATF produces five new American plays in rotating repertory in the Frank Center, the Sara Cree Studio Theater, and the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA). Since CATF's inception, the budget has grown to just over $1 million.

Each year, theatergoers come to Shepherdstown from 33 states to visit the festival, which has grown in attendance and national recognition. The festival is consistently reviewed in the national press and recognized for the kind of plays produced. "I knew that when we arrived to do this that we had the right idea at the right time and the right geography," Herendeen said.

Add Shepherdstown to that equation. Herendeen said that because Shepherdstown was already a tourist destination because of its proximity to the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area where there are millions of people who had an interest in theater, it was the perfect spot to start a professional theater. "There was no doubt in my mind that if we did excellent work, we would ultimately attract a following," Herendeen said. "I believe that people want to see new work, and there is an appetite for it, especially given the educational level of our audiences."

CATF has received grants from West Virginia Tourism and was a recipient of the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1999. In April 2009, CATF received the Eastern Panhandle Alumnae Chapter Arts and Letters award from the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and in January 2010, received the Living the Dream Service Organization Honor Award from the Martin Luther King Holiday Commission in Charleston. In 2000, Herendeen received a certificate of recognition for founding CATF from former West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood.

"We've made a big commitment to tourism and to marketing the state," Herendeen said. "We came about at the right time to promote Shepherdstown. We're the oldest town in the state doing the newest plays in America."

When the festival started in 1991, Herendeen was the only person on staff. Since then the staff has grown to four full-time employees, including Peggy McKowen, associate producing director; Catherine Irwin, director of Casting the Future, CATF's fundraising operations; and Lissa Cobetto, business manager.

CATF has become a major economic engine for the region. Every theater ticket purchased translates into dollars spent in the community--an average of $133 per ticket, which demonstrates that the arts play a major role in the economic impact on the community when theater-goers patronize local shops, restaurants, and hotels.

This season will be the third year of producing five plays a season. When Shepherd's Center for Contemporary Arts is complete, the festival will move to producing six plays each season with year-round development of plays. Since CATF began, 11 of its plays have appeared off-Broadway and one, The Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher (2004), was made into a film, Stage Beauty, starring Claire Danes and Billy Crudup.

"We are in fact not only giving birth to new plays but we're breathing life into the future of new plays that have gone on to have a long life across the United States and ultimately reached theaters in New York City," Herendeen said. "Shepherd, in partnership with CATF, is playing a significant role in developing the future literature for the stage. And that's pretty exciting for the University and for us."

According to Herendeen, what has been exciting about partnering with Shepherd is that University students have an opportunity to work with the staff during the summer and to become leaders who produce provocative and thought-provoking work during the school year. "Students get hands-on experience working with and alongside theater professionals--something that can't be taught in the classroom," Herendeen said.

Each year, CATF hosts the West Virginia Teacher Training Institute, which is funded by the Appalachian Education Initiative. The institute funds theater teachers across Appalachia who spend four days at the festival participating in workshops and attending the plays.

"We've created this microcosm of conversation in July that is primary to the mission of any university, which is to get people to talk and debate and argue and share and open up. I believe that the festival has been very successful in creating a forum both formally and informally," Herendeen said.

He said he is most proud of the relationship with the festival's main benefactor, Shepherd University. "We've created a collaborative, professional partnership between an academic institution and a professional theater, a model admired by other institutions" he said. "There is a lot to be said for the benefits that both the festival and the University get from CATF's existence. Ultimately the students and the community benefit the most."

Herendeen said that CATF has attracted generous donors to the University and that, by building state-of-the-art facilities, CATF is working together with the campus to make Shepherd a worldclass institution.

Dow Benedict, professor of art and dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, said that he doesn't think any of the initial supporters anticipated how successful CATF would become. "Ed obviously had enough vision to realize that putting a professional equity theater on a college campus, particularly one our size and location, would be greatly beneficial," Benedict said. "We talked about the idea that CATF was going to be well known and nationally recognized, but I don't think that any of us privately believed it."

Benedict said that the success of CATF is a testament to Herendeen, citing his vision and drive in making it such an outstanding organization. "Over the years, we've had the right people on the Board of Governors, and people like Catherine Irwin and Peggy McKowen who have been exactly what we needed at that moment to take CATF to another level," he said. "It's been an incredibly successful endeavor."

According to Benedict, CATF has helped spread Shepherd's name internationally and opened Shepherd's eyes to the school's possibilities and potentials. "It's an amazing success story that raises the reputation of Shepherd in a way that we couldn't possibly do otherwise," Benedict said.

• Jillian Kesner


2010 CATF Season
July 9-August 1

The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show
Book by Max Baker * Music by Lee Sellars
Directed by Max Baker

Inana by Michele Lowe
Directed by Ed Herendeen

Lidless by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
Directed by Ed Herendeen

Breadcrumbs by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Laura Kepley

White People by J.T. Rogers Directed by Ed Herendeen

800-999-CATF (2283) info@catf.org


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Ed Herendeen


RELATED LINKS

Contemporary American Theater Festival Site

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