Ed Herendeen, the founding director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is retiring in December. Courtesy photo

The Legacy of CATF

In the year 1990, former president of Shepherd University (then Shepherd College) Dr. Michael P. Riccards recruited Ed Herendeen to work on a professional summer theater; Dr. Riccards also wondered what it would take to start a professional theater. The president wanted to have a nonprofit, professional theater over summer.

“Why don’t you think about doing a theater dedicated to new plays? He [the president] said, ‘That’s a good idea, why don’t you do it?’”

On Monday, Oct. 11, Herendeen will reflect on his legacy at Shepherd University at the Shepherd Speaks StoryCorps Program at the Frank Center starting at 6:30 p.m.

Before joining Shepherd College, Herendeen was working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshire Hills in Western Massachusetts for three years. He was in charge of the Act One Company and Workshop director. He finished his work with them in August, then made his way to Shepherd College and started his first season the following summer in 1991.

Herendeen had a passion ever since graduate school about working with the process of producing and developing new plays. Thus, the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) was created. However, he did not know how to start with the process; the people working alongside him knew they all wanted to create new plays.

“What a wonderful opportunity for a college, a liberal arts institution, to have a professional laboratory of theater professionals on its campus to work with students, early-career artists, to give birth to new literature.”

The one thing that was certain was this: the audience should be able to see more than one play. So, the creation of a repertory (showing of more than one play) was born. For the audience and the art makers, provocative thinking processes and conversations should be occurring.

The plays stimulated engagement; they might have been uncomfortable for some, but the topics presented were about what was happening at the time. They consisted of serious works of art and some comedies, but all had “staying power” or were worthy to be witnessed.

“Art should engage us . . . Lately, we wanted to have more of a global, international, impact.”

Shepherd College gave the students a chance to have hands on experience. Not only was the goal for people to witness the work of newly written plays, but Herendeen wanted the college to participate in the festival. Plus, he was creating this big event in a historic town in West Virginia.

Herendeen saw the potential in this small town and believed it was the right time to produce something like CATF during that time. His vision never spelled it out specifically, but he knew that the work produced would have a long life after Shepherdstown. No one knew what would happen to the plays until many of the plays became films, went to Broadway or off-Broadway. Many were world premieres.

For example, “Dead and Breathing” by Chisa Hutchinson (2014) was a world premiere, with recent productions in Liverpool and London. This play starred Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn, who played the part in both England productions. “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon (2009) got adapted into the film “Ides of March,” starring Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The plays produced at CATF breathed life into the scripts. Even if the plays were fictionalized, they contained real events, which often helped to transform any judgment viewers may have had into a new kind of emotion. During the festival, writers and actors would hold real discussions, talks, and lectures because some shows demanded people to talk with one another.

“Theater gives us the chance to talk about, to have a conversation, with empathy and compassion . . . The best ones were the ones that happened like in the B&B [bed and breakfast] at their breakfast table . . . and started talking about the play that they had all seen last night and didn’t know each other, but now they’re discussing what their feelings were about the words of the characters.”

Working with the rest of his colleagues, Herendeen said that he purposefully surrounded himself with outstanding people and artists. It is not made of one person, but a group of people that are “makers of belief.” The work that everyone has put together every summer has made CATF one of the most important producers of new work in contemporary theater, he said.

After retirement, Herendeen believes the leadership will continue making big risks. However, he said “My retirement has nothing to do with the theater festival.” He believes the work that has been done within the 31 years he has been working with CATF will be worth the excitement, and curiosity, of seeing what the leadership does as a citizen.

“I can tell you this: I don’t know. I’m purposefully not making a plan . . . I want to listen, I want to reflect, I want to daydream, imagination is important to all of us and artists . . . Everything is teed up for success.”

His vocation is to tell stories and share the voice inside with him purpose, whether it be related to theatre or not. Last August, he knew that this was the right time for him to retire. He reflected on how much work was put into the festival and the events that had taken place soon after.

“Our plays were successful because they mattered. Their words mattered. Their words were important and relevant. Their words contained big ideas. We wanted to be the future makers of American stories for the stage. Shepherd College should, I would hope, to be very proud of the legacy . . . This couldn’t have happened without Shepherd College.”

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