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The Playwright’s Playground: ‘The Playmakers – CATF 2014: Interview With Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen Who Preview The Season

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This Special Edition of  The Playwright’s Playground introduces The Playmaker Series: CATF 2014. In a series of in-depth conversations, I speak with the artistic teams associated with the the plays at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival.

Like never before, the CATF Producing Directors explore the step-by-step details about the programming and play selection process of the 2014 season, and the Playwrights and Directors share with readers revealing behind-the- scene insights about their inspirations and the development of their new plays.

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It’s always refreshing and reaffirming to speak with artists who are not only passionate about the work they do, but are open about sharing their creative process and motivations.

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The immersion of five new American plays every year for a month long run is a hallmark of the Contemporary American Theater Festival. The CATF continues this year (July 11- Aug 3, 2014), in their 24th season of building audiences seeking original, cutting edge, and thought-provoking material from America’s leading playwrights and emerging talents. Founded in 1991 by Producing Director, Ed Herendeen, the CATF is located 70 miles north of Washington, D.C., at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

CATF’s commitment and willingness to take risks on daring and provocative new works underscore the drive and mission of the Festival. “New plays shape the future of the American Theater, and our focus has always been on the play and the playwright,” says Herendeen.

As a leading center for the production and development of new plays, The Contemporary American Theater Festival has fully staged 100 American works, including 37 world premieres, by 72 different playwrights. Each year at CATF, a company of collaborative artists comes together to do this in rotating repertory driven by the stories, storytelling, and the ability to work with the living writer.

  Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen

For the past seven years, Ed Herendeen and Assistant Producing Director Peggy McKowen, have shaped the artistic vision and strategic success of the Contemporary American Theater Festival.

In this first installment, we go behind the scenes of the CATF as Ed and Peggy share their motivations, strategy and thought processes into the who, what, when, and why they pick the plays, playwrights, directors and cast/ crew for a season at the CATF

Sydney-Chanele: The marketing for this year’s Festival is “Bold Voices” but isn’t that a description that could be used for any year of this Festival? What is CATF’s commitment to playwrights? What themes are unique to the season you’ve curated this year?

Ed Herendeen. Photo courtesy of CATF.

Ed Herendeen. Photo courtesy of CATF.

Ed: Yes. I would like to think that any season we do is supporting, nurturing and developing bold voices in American Theatre, whether they are Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights like Sam Shepherd and Charles Fuller (One Night), or emerging artists like Christina Anderson (Ashes Under Gait City – World Premiere)  and Chisa Hutchinson (Dead &Breathing – World Premiere.)

I think when I am selecting a season I’m looking for that kind of voice – distinctive voices, unique voices. We call them bold voices. So it’s important to me to develop a season where it really does support the playwrights’ voice and that’s what we’re here to do. We’re dedicated to producing and developing New American Theatre and more importantly that means supporting the playwright – bringing their vision to life, nurturing the play.

CURATING A SEASON

Artistic Directors love to say that they look for material that is written by and speaks to diverse audiences. But as we know, many theater seasons are programmed less representative of that ideal. CATF is very successful with their commitment to that mission. What standards or principles guide you in shaping and curating a CATF season?

Peggy: Well, that’s true and it’s something that we refer to as balance. When we look at the season, get to where we have 12 plays, then we’re starting to look at how does this puzzle work – in addition to who can rep, where does it go, and those practical kinds of things. It is the idea of balance in the sense of what types of stories are we telling across the five plays. Not thematically, but do they touch the various things we’d like them to touch.  Do they have a sense of theatricality and artistry?

Ed: If I had five all-realistic plays – that wouldn’t happen because I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in different styles.

Peggy McKowen. Photo courtesy of CATF.

Peggy McKowen. Photo courtesy of CATF.

Peggy: We definitely discuss the mix, especially coming down to the wire this season. We talk about: Do we put this play in here and represent another woman playwright or do we put this play here? If all things are equal in that decision I think that we’ll always go to those artists who are not produced in other theaters as often as we would like to see them produced.

Ed: We’re very committed and as you see we have a playwright like Charles Fuller who’s the winner of a Pulitzer Prize winner and we have an emerging artist.

Peggy: That’s balance.

Ed: If you look at Johanna Adams a few years ago with Gidion’s Knot, we’re really proud that we provided an opportunity to give birth to that play, and in some ways nurture and launch a career which is now flourishing. She has become Gidion’s Knot has become one of the most produced plays in the country. We can’t feel anything but pride that we introduced it. Somebody had to do it; at some point people were going to know the name Johanna Adams!

But for the season, we get it down to about 12 plays and then even economics comes into it. What if the twelve plays all have 15 characters?  In some ways, a play might get eliminated because it doesn’t fit. There can be a play that I’m burning to do – as has happened – but I’ll do it the next season. So this season, we knew before I started reading in September that we were already committed to The Ashes Under Gait City even when it wasn’t completely written. So I already knew I had an all African-American cast.

How does the timing of CATF and the limitations of your budget effect your play selectionprocess?

Ed:  I don’t consider it a limitation, but budgets are a reality. When we determine what we can afford in terms of the number of contracts – I know there is a threshold of the number of equity contracts. Most theaters have a budget and a year from now they have already picked their seasons. I don’t have the season picked until the end of December.

So I’m working with a budget at this point without even knowing what the set requirements are in some cases, if there are special effects, that kind of thing. So that starts the ball in motion. Then I start reading other scripts that I’m burning to do, and that’s how it starts to come together. But in that mix there are plays that I had to pass on that I really wanted to do and still want to do, but they didn’t fit into the way our season works.

PROGRAMMING and PLAY SELECTION

Going back to what you mentioned earlier, what was it about The Ashes Under Gait City that grabbed your attention for you to say ‘we’re doing this’? Did you find this play last year? Please elaborate more about your process.

Ed: I go to New Dramatists all the time to see the incoming group of playwrights. A year ago, I saw a ten-minute scene – the first scene in The Ashes Under Gait City – and immediately came back here and said, ‘get me the script, we’re going to do this play.’ We locked that play down because we wanted to do it without even seeing the end of the play. We brought Christina in to see the work last season, did a reading of a draft of The Ashes Under Gait City and contracted the play.

Before I started reading for my four other plays for the season, I already had a play selected and a ball in motion that said there are five African American actors of various age. So if I find a play – whether there are African-Americans in the other play or non-traditional casting – I know these genders and this age range is needed. So, while they have to be a specific race for this play, I have this group of people I would like to double.

Then I get word, that Charles Fuller has written a new play. I immediately get in touch with his Agent and tell them that I’d like to read it. He says you can’t because I can’t get it to you until after Cherry Lane Theatre (in New York) does the play. Cherry Lane does it, and I get in touch with the Agent again and say ‘I would still love to read it. Would Charles be interested in working it on it?’ The agent said I’m so glad you asked because he really wants to because he didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do with that play in that first production for various reasons.

We got the script, decided to do it, and yes you will see some of those actors in Ashes are the actors that are going to be in One Night. So now I’ve got two plays that are fitting together. (It turns out that three of the actors from Ashes are also in One Night, and three go to North of the Boulevard.) Now I haven’t got Boulevard yet but I’ve got two plays that are starting to rep pretty well.  You see, so already I’m moving down the road … and still reading …

FEMALE PLAYWRIGHTS

It’s exciting to see the number of female playwrights represented in this year’s season. Not only the playwrights, but female directors are well represented. Is this a banner year for the number of female playwrights and directors represented in one season? Was this a deliberate, conscious effort? Does it have anything to do with the upcoming season of DC area theaters presenting plays by female playwrights?

Ed: No, not at all. You know we hit 100 plays last year, and as an exercise I asked everybody to count up the plays and find out (the number of female playwrights.) Out of that conversation I was just curious because that conversation had nothing to do with my selection of plays. But you know we produce a lot of female playwrights, let’s find out how many we’ve done.

Out of 100 plays, 47 were done by women. I think it’s important for me to tell you that it was not a conscious choice. I read plays; I produce the plays that I’m compelled to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that’s the way it turned out. You could literally take the playwright’s name off the manuscripts that I read, if I’m going to respond to the play … Now yes, when you’re putting together a season it’s nice to have an eclectic mix. You can look at the leadership of this company, and look at our designers over the years.

Peggy: But I would amend that just a little bit. We do though make an effort to solicit a variety of artists. To say that we are not conscious of it is not entirely the case. I think we really do make an effort to say to people, send us your women playwrights, send us your playwrights of color, send us your playwrights that represent a different cultural perspective … I think there is a consciousness about that. Now the final decision is about what is the best play for us. But I do think we gather as diverse and varied a group of artists as we can.

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In Part Two: The conversation continues with Ed and Peggy as they discuss the themes of this year’s CATF plays, their artistic partnership, and detail the development of CATF plays.

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The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) runs July 11- Aug 3, 2014. Performance tickets to CATF can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, Monday to Friday from 11 am to 5 pm, by calling (800) 999-CATF (2283), or visiting online.

LINKS:  Go HERE to learn more about the plays, or HERE for a look at the full schedule.

DCMTA 2013 Interview – Artistic Spotlight: Ed Herendeen.

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwright in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Series, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art.

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