(above) After re-imagining how they could present theater during the pandemic, Peggy McKowen and the CATF team have continued some of these innovations for the 2022 season to enrich the entire in-person experience. Shown here, McKowen is introducing a new audio play written by Chisa Hutchinson for Dorset Theater Festival at a listening party held at the Alma Bea restaurant in April. Each patron was provided headphones to provide an immersive theater experience in this unusual venue.
The Observer put Peggy McKowen, Producing Artistic Director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), in the spotlight to answer some questions about this year’s festival, presented this July in Shepherdstown. The responses below have been edited for clarity and space.
O: 2022 marks your debut as the Producing Artistic Director for the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Should we look for changes? What can we expect to stay the same?
PM: Most of the festival experience will feel very familiar to patrons. There will be six fully produced new plays in repertory as planned. The various “talktheater” events that surround the plays [enrichment activities such as lectures and staged readings] will be very similar with a few minor changes. For example, most of the talktheater events will be live streamed so that we can control numbers of attendees in person while offering the experience to as many people online as possible. Also, the festival experience will include COVID-19 safety policies in our best effort to keep everyone safe.
The differences in the festival this year are more internal and will be present for the patron in subtle ways. Look for information about our work to create a culturally competent company. CATF will share land acknowledgements, community commitments, and statements regarding our anti-racist and anti-oppressive work.
The biggest difference for many will be the absence of Ed Herendeen in the lobbies. CATF will be celebrating his legacy in many ways this summer as we thank him for building a foundation from which many dreams for the future are truly possible.
O: You led CATF’s quick pivot during the pandemic, which used technology to provide new ways to experience theater. Will any of that experience influence what the festival does in 2022 and beyond?
PM: Yes! We learned several things from the use of technology. Online experiences can provide greater access to the art. Our creative challenge moving forward is to find the [right] blend of the live play while reaching a greater audience through the technology and incorporating the technology as part of the art. It is a different way of imagining what theater can be and how to create new plays for new communities.
O: CATF will put six plays on stage this year. And there are lectures, talks, and backstage experiences, too. Tell us what an ideal CATF experience would look like for you, from breakfast to late-night.
PM: I personally want to live in the new play bubble. I want to go to the play, talk about the play, and reflect on the play. I want to check-out from my phone and other devices and live entirely in the “make believe” world; a new play euphoria. I encourage patrons to do the same. Take the time to really escape from the other things of your life. Have a good breakfast with other new play bubble enthusiasts, see plays, join the post show discussions, see another play, have a sweet beverage in the copper canyon, and enjoy the sun. Have a leisurely dinner and a good night’s sleep and do it all over again the next day and the next.
O: You have been a longtime champion of diversity and inclusion in theater. Why is that so important to you, and to CATF?
PM: CATF was founded on the principles of fearless art and diverse stories. We produce work that represents a diverse narrative told by diverse storytellers. And, CATF makes contemporary stories that are often thought provoking and emotionally challenging. Creating a community and company that is inclusive, empathetic, respectful and brave makes better plays, better communities, and a better world. Personally, I hope that CATF is recognized as a place of belonging for all of us — that we represent community, storytelling and art that transforms and unites.
Personally, I hope that CATF is recognized as a place of belonging for all of us — that we represent community, storytelling and art that transforms and unites. I hope to be a small part of the journey.
O: CATF is returning after a two-year break for the pandemic. What impact should we expect for the local economy?
PM: Patrons come from thirty-nine different states, the Washington DC/Baltimore area, and our supportive community here in Jefferson County. These guests to the theater often have dinner, drinks, or shop before or after attending a play and we encourage everyone to partake in the local, small business community. Based on a pre-pandemic research study we commissioned, CATF is responsible for 5.8 million dollars in local economic impact [each year]. I think many businesses have felt the loss of that impact during the pandemic. We’re glad to be back in business with our colleagues in the eastern panhandle.By Staff Contributor