Theater Festival Stages New Dramas In West Virginia's Oldest Town For 20 years, the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University has showcased new and edgy plays. The summer festival brings a rush of tourism to Shepherdstown, while offering playwrights old and new a chance to stage new work.
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Festival Brings New Dramas To Shenandoah Valley

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Festival Brings New Dramas To Shenandoah Valley

Festival Brings New Dramas To Shenandoah Valley

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For 20 years, in the oldest town in West Virginia, new plays have had a home and a loyal audience. The Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University is a dream for the writers of those plays. Over the years, both up-and-coming playwrights and big names, like Sam Shepard and Joyce Carol Oates, have premiered works there.

As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, that's in large part due to the festival's hard-working founder.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: One of the plays at this year's Contemporary American Theater Festival is called "Inana," named for the goddess of sex and war. It was written by Michele Lowe.

An Iraqi curator leaves his country for London, with four mysterious suitcases and his new wife from an arranged marriage.

Mr. BARZIN AKHAVEN (Actor): (As Yasin Shalid) That's the doublet.

Ms. ZABRYNA GUEVARA (Actress): (As Zabryna Guevara) I thought it would be bigger.

Mr. AKHAVEN: (As Yasin Shalid) Yes, its small but its intact. Thats unusual.

Ms. GUEVARA: (As Zabryna Guevara) And you say it's important.

Mr. AKHAVEN: (As Yasin Shalid) It outlines the wars between the Assyrians and the Egyptians.

BLAIR: "Inana" is about many things. It's about stolen art. It's a love story set in the context of war.

Ed Herendeen says it's exactly the kind of play he looks for.

Mr. ED HERENDEEN (Founder, Contemporary American Theater Festival, Shepherd University): Here is a play where we're looking at Iraqi people in a positive light. These are not terrorists. They're not going to bomb anybody. These are people who love their culture and are desperate to preserve it in a time when they're being invaded by another country.

Ms. GUEVARA: (As Zabryna Guevara) But the Americans...

Mr. AKHAVEN: (As Yasin Shalid) We dont know what the Americans are planning. Things disappear in war. Objects in museum vanish.

Ms. GUEVARA: (As Zabryna Guevara) You care so much for these objects. What about the people?

Mr. AKHAVEN: (As Yasin Shalid) The objects are part of the people. They're the deepest, hidden, most secret part. They're the best part and the most important part to protect.

BLAIR: One critic called "Inana" an international thriller.

Ed Herendeen founded the Contemporary American Theater Festival, or CATF, 20 years ago in partnership with Shepherd University. That first season they did three plays and sold about 2,000 tickets. Today, they do five professional plays and sell over 11,000 tickets. It's a big tourist draw. It helps that Shepherdstown is in the Shenandoah Valley.

What's unusual about CATF is that Herendeen says he's never tempted to do a popular play in order to draw more people.

Mr. HERENDEEN: The audience we've developed really is expecting us to do new plays. So because we never veered from a mission right from year one, we are known for doing adventurous work.

BLAIR: Herendeen says on average he reads about 75 scripts a year. He also scopes out new plays other regional theaters are doing. He first saw a reading of Inana two years ago at the Denver Center Theatre Company.

And this is something else about Herendeen: He doesn't suffer from what he refers to as world premiere-it is, because that can hurt living playwrights.

Mr. HERENDEEN: One of the things that I've learned over the years, especially working with writers, that it's very difficult to get the first production. But writers tell me it's even more difficult to get production number two. In other words, once your play has had its world premiere, lots of theaters don't want to do it because it's already done that. And then how does your play move on? How does your play have life beyond the world premiere?

Ms. MICHELE LOWE (Playwright, "Inana"): That's a wonderful thing for a playwright to hear.

BLAIR: "Inana" playwright Michele Lowe.

Ms. LOWE: A theater is really taking a chance on this, and this is an artistic director who's going to make it work.

BLAIR: This is not to say Ed Herendeen shies away from world premieres altogether. He says he too likes the buzz you get from being first. This year CATF is doing two world premieres. One of them could almost be called a musical.

(Soundbite of play, "Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Good evening, you humans of both sexes. Thank you for pressing play on whatever electromagnetic radiating device you own, thus activating my voice and bringing me to life.

Mr. HERENDEEN: I can't tell you the excitement and the buzz and the fear that we have - it's good fear - producing the "Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show."

BLAIR: Got that? The "Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show." This play is set in some kind of group home somewhere in the U.S., and everyone who lives there is addicted to a TV show called "Eelwax Jesus." It was co-written by Max Baker.

Mr. MAX BAKER (Co-Writer, "Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show"): It's set slightly in the future, where going outside is extremely dangerous because of the swine flu in the air, all the monkey pox, you know. The air is being turned into toxic fumes, so everyone's stuck inside and they're fed this entertainment. But the entertainment systems are so advanced that it looks like the person - it's like as real as I'm sitting here.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Whether you notice it immediately or later, listening to these songs from the "Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show" will put you in a notably better mood than the one you were in before it began. I like...

BLAIR: Max Baker and his co-writer Lee Sellars are also actors based in New York. Sellars has been playing Officer Krupke in "West Side Story" on Broadway for the past couple of years. He's a Shepherdstown regular, acting in plays at CATF for about nine years.

I asked him if he's surprised the festival has lasted for two decades doing such edgy, unfamiliar work.

Mr. LEE SELLARS (Co-Writer, "Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show"): Yes and no. It does surprise me in, you know, the real world, the business world how does do it. But then you meet Ed and you meet the other - the people that he's surrounded himself with down here - the creative team, the artists and everything. And then it really doesn't surprise you, because you're like, of course this is going well. You know, he just single-handedly refuses to let it fail.

BLAIR: But ask Ed Herendeen the same question and he'll say it's because they have a great partnership with Shepherd University, that they've got an engaged board of directors and that they're in a state, West Virginia, that's friendly to the arts. Herendeen doesn't get sentimental about the past.

Mr. HERENDEEN: The thing about theater people is, we do a production, we spend all this time creating a play and then we take the set down. We call it strike. We strike the set and I'm already thinking about next season. So we're always looking to the future, you know, cause theater is not permanent. You know, it lives in the moment and I'm more interested in talking about the next 20 years in many ways.

BLAIR: In other words, there is still a lot of work to do. The 20th Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University runs for three weeks beginning July 9th.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Incessantly. Whether you're listening to this for the very first time or youve heard it all before, this song will shortly end. And sadly, when it does so my voice dies. But dont let that stop you from enjoying...

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(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #2: I like MoonPies. I like blue skies. I can recognize the difference. I like MoonPies. I like mudslides. I dont know why I kept singing.

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