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Contemporary American Theater Festival: New theater in an old town

Friday - 7/18/2014, 5:12pm  ET

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Alex Podulke as Julian and Barbara Kingsley as Claire in 'Uncanny Valley,' one of five new plays produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown. (Courtesy of Seth Freeman)
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The Contemporary American Theater Festival

WTOP's Shawn Anderson and CATF founder Ed Herendeen

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Sophie Ho, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- In one of the more famous scenes of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," the prince urges actors to hold a "mirror up to nature" in their craft -- to reflect and expound on society through theater.

The message embodied in the centuries-old statement -- that great art must be relevant and evocative of the day and age -- is accurately presented at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, a summer performing arts festival that celebrates theater's newest voices in one of America's oldest towns.

Those looking for a pleasant weekend getaway, spent on the edge of their seats, might consider attending the popular contemporary theater festival, which is nestled in the Shenandoah Valley and runs through Aug. 3.

According to founder Ed Herendeen, the goal of the festival is to provide an opportunity for new American works to receive full production by professional artists.

Since the festival opened in 1991, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Visitors from 37 states have filed into the festival, which sold more than 11,000 tickets last year. About 60 percent of festival goers hail from the Washington and Baltimore areas, but the festival is attracting more international attention.

Shepherdstown was recently ranked one of the 17 best towns for theater by Policy Mic, joining the ranks of Athens and Tokyo, largely due to the festival's "innovative theater."

The festival has built an impressive portfolio of plays over its 24-year history, many of which premiered there, such as Johnna Adams' "Gidion's Knot" and Neil LaBute's acclaimed "In a Forest, Dark and Deep."

The standards are high for writers hoping to get their work produced at the festival. Herendeen reads dozens of scripts in the fall -- submissions sent by literary agents largely out of New York. All works submitted must be new.

When asked how he chooses which scripts to produce, Herendeen says, "When it hits me in the gut."

"I'm looking for new work that matters, and voices that are expressing the American landscape in a contemporary society," he says.

The five plays produced this year -- "The Ashes Under Gait City," "Uncanny Valley," "North of the Boulevard," "Dead and Breathing" and "One Night" -- touch on controversial topics such as sexual assault in the military, the economic crisis and cult personality.

"One Night," by Charles Fuller, for example, is what Herendeen calls a "big idea play," written as a mystery. The work details the struggle of two Iraq war veterans trying to make sense of their violent past as one grapples with being a survivor of sexual assault.

Bruce Graham's "North of the Boulevard," a work Herendeen characterizes as hilarious and "very politically incorrect," tells the tale of an auto mechanic shop in a declining neighborhood. When the main characters are faced with a big decision, the play begs the question: Do the poor and the desperate get a free pass when it comes to morality and ethics?

The dialogues that follow the plays are perhaps just as important as the works themselves, Herendeen says.

"The plays tend to ask more questions than provide answers, so what happens, just sort of magically, is conversations take place, whether it's at a bed and breakfast or at local pubs," he says.

The festival also provides more formal conversations and forums, as well as events in which patrons can access the actors.

Herendeen also hosts a handful of breakfasts with festival attendees. It's all part of the experience -- a total immersion in contemporary theater.

To see all five plays, visitors only need two days; the schedule is set up so that the plays continually rotate.

To those skeptical of what the festival can provide, Herendeen says "seeing is believing."

"So much of what we're doing, it's entertaining but it's serious art and we really believe, we passionately believe, that new plays matter, that writing plays matters," Herendeen says. "Producing contemporary art matters because the American theater persists because of new plays."

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