One of the great things about theater, and writing in general, are stories within the story. The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) is literally built upon such a notion. Each year, the event attracts a global audience to Shepherdstown—for many reasons—but mostly, because of the stories being told.
One such story that transpires almost exclusively behind the scenes is CATF Founder Ed Herendeen’s personal process for getting each season together. To put it in perspective, he read 125 scripts between August and the end of November last year, which ultimately became the six new plays for 2017.
“Stories are incredibly powerful … and of course, you can’t discount the entertainment—which leads to the healthy conversations that we all need and want,” Herendeen said in a recent interview.
In the early years of CATF, however, it was a challenge for Herendeen to even get an agent to call him back so that he could cultivate said stories and conversations. “Once we started to get a reputation, it was obviously easier and easier,” he explained. “But it was probably our fifth season, when we commissioned Jeffrey Hatcher to write Compleat Female Stage Beauty—based on his pitch—and that play went from here to Pittsburgh to San Diego (The Old Globe), and was scheduled to go to Broadway—when De Niro [Robert] bought the rights and it became a film. Suddenly a whole different thing started happening in the meetings. Instead of meeting with assistant agents, we started meeting with agents that were representing A-list people.”
The “meetings” take place in New York every fall. “I only do agent-submitted scripts these days,” Herendeen noted. “In a two-year period, I try to meet with everyone from the large literary agents, like ICM and William Morris, to boutique agencies. They all represent writers, and they pitch me what their writers have just written. Based on those pitches, I’ll say: I’d like to read that.”
When Herendeen returns from New York, it’s all business. “I do all the reading myself; I’m old school for sure,” he admitted “I start by going back to last year’s scripts that I didn’t do—what I liked—and then I move to commissions that start coming in in August. If they get a mark in my log, they’ll get a second read. Anything I’ve highlighted, I read again in November, and then start to finalize.”
Each morning starts at around 6:30am for Herendeen, for several months, complete with Bose headset in place (with or without music playing). “I read at least three scripts—and do a script in one sitting—because plays are different than novels,” he emphasized. “The playwright intended for it to be seen in its entirety, so that’s how I read it. If I’m interrupted, I start over. If it hits me in the gut, emotionally, cerebrally, and if I actually forget I’m reading, and turning pages—then I know something is happening. At that point, I’m trying not to think of the economics yet (how many actors, cast members, set requirements). I just want to be compelled to read it again.”
By the end of November, he’s just about ready to roll out the season—save for any late submissions, which have been known to happen, and cause some changes. “December is about as late as I can go because I announce the season to the Board in January, and then we go public with it in early February.”
It won’t be long before Herendeen is headed back to New York to begin developing the 2018 season, but for now, all attention is rightfully directed at CATF this month. “The one additional thing that is equally important to us,” he added, “is that we want to make our theater fest as affordable and accessible as we can to our community. We provide the pay-what-you-can previews, West Virginia Weekdays, Sunday evening discounts, and our new hostel youth program—where students can achieve lifetime tickets to CATF.”