It isn't as well known as the 24-year-old Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, but Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, is celebrating its 10th season July 7-30 with three world premieres.
Joyce Carol Oates will be in residence while her new Marilyn Monroe-based play, Miss Golden Dreams, a play cycle, is developed and performed in repertory with works by Richard Dresser, Sheri Wilner and Catherine Filloux, who will also be in attendance through rehearsals and production.
Ed Herendeen, producing director of the festival on the campus of Shepherd College, will direct the Oates play on the fest Main Stage. The world premiere drama explores the life of movie actress and cultural icon Monroe. The play will appear three months after the release of her new novel, "Blonde," also about Monroe.
The festival is dedicated to world premieres or recent American plays, and includes the following works in its 2000 season on two stages:
• Something in the Air, Richard Dresser's dark comedy about a man who hits rock bottom and then discovers the answer to his financial prayers. It had a previous staging elsewhere. (Main Stage.) • Hunger, Sheri Wilner's sensuous world premiere drama about longing and desire involving a newlywed woman seduced by a man named Seymour who had emerged from the ocean. (Studio Theater.)
• Mary and Myra, Catherine Filloux's world premiere retelling of Mary Todd Lincoln's troubled life and her relationship with son Robert Todd Lincoln and friend Myra Bradwell, the first female attorney in the U.S. (Studio Theater.)
The festival takes place in scenic, historic Shepherdstown, a small town overlooking the Potomac River in West Virginia's eastern panhandle (about a 75-minute drive from Baltimore and Washington). A commuter train from Washington DC stops in a cornfield in the bed-and-breakfast-dotted town. Espresso finally made it to sleepy Shepherdstown recently, said Herendeen.
The Contemporary American Theater Festival was started in 1990 by Herendeen in an agreement with Shepherd College, a state liberal arts college in Shepherdstown. CATF produced its first season in the summer of 1991, operating under the umbrella of The Friends of Shepherd College.CATF is a rare thing for West Virginia: It's one of only a few companies in that state with a relationship with Actors' Equity. When it opened, CATF became the first theatre in West Virginia operating under a regional (SPT/small professional theatres) contract with Actors' Equity Association. (Theatre West Virginia in Beckley, founded in 1955, has used an Equity guest artist contract in the past.)
Herendeen told Playbill On-Line the budget for the first season was $91,000. In 2000, the budget is about $500,000. A long-range vision includes six plays in three venues and a longer summer season. Herendeen agrees that the festival is one of the best-kept secrets in East Coast theatre, but hopes it won't be a secret much longer. In 1999, more than 3,500 people attended festival events, according to managing director Catherine Irwin.
The first season featured the East Coast premiere of Accelerando by Lisa Loomer, staged in the 450-seat Frank Center for the Creative Arts, and two non-Equity productions in the 99-seat Studio Theater.
In 1992, the fest expanded to four plays: two Equity productions in the Frank Center, and two non-Equity productions in the Studio. In 1992, CATF also offered its first staged readings and a series of special events that included contemporary visual arts, music, and avant-garde cabaret. In 1993, a managing director was hired and between 1993 and 1996, four plays a year were staged.
In 1995, CATF expanded its contract with Equity to include the Studio Theater, allowing for professional actors in all four productions.
The company bills itself as West Virginia's only constituent member of Theater Communications Group (the national organization for America's regional theaters), and upgraded its contract with Equity to LORT D status.
As funders and audiences grew, CATF issued its first commissions in 1997. Commissions Carry the Tiger to the Mountain by Cherylene Lee and Interesting Times by Preston Foerder has their premieres in 1998.
For information about the festival, call (800) 999-CATF or check out the website at www.catf.org.
-- By Kenneth Jones