New Martinsville, West Virginia — a river town in the state’s northern panhandle known for chemicals, glass, and aluminum — seems a surprising place to cultivate the talent and temperament of the new Artistic Director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), Peggy McKowen. Early experiences in her hometown, however, fostered McKowen’s view of theater as a means to build community within the production process, with the audience, and beyond.
July 2023 marks McKowen’s debut in her new role in which she’ll select and shape five plays to premier at CATF, considered one of the country’s top festivals for new plays. Starting in 2006, McKowen worked with Ed Herendeen, CATF’s now retired founder, as costume designer and later Associate Producing Director, to present first-class theater productions and related programs. Now, she intends to uphold CATF’s traditions and pursue new ones.
McKowen credits her family, in particular her mother, an artist, art historian, and teacher, for igniting her artistic passion. “My mother wanted to be a good citizen, and saw art as the way to do that.” But her whole family engaged in the arts. “My family believed art was a necessary part of life. We breathed art.”
Training began early, when she learned to sew and designed costumes for junior high productions. Next came scenery and lighting. “I wanted to do it all, the whole production.” Still a student, she used art to reach a group of disabled students and learned the value of education through art, a component of CATF’s programs she intends to grow.
She pursued theater at West Virginia University and moved directly into an MFA-theater program at the University of Texas. From there, McKowen taught part-time at Dickinson College and worked for many years at New York’s Jean Cocteau Rep, a highly regarded small theater with a permanent core of actors. It’s where McKowen met founder and Artistic Director Eve Adamson, a key influence in developing her own artistic sensibility. “Eve believed that theater was a sacred art. She infused her productions with the values of passion, drive, and commitment to the theater. She drew to her company talented people who shared her values.” Like Adamson, McKowen selects plays on the basis of whether they explore values important to CATF and her.
A Platform Different Voices
McKowen traces her strong commitment to confront racism and oppression, both in the act of producing theater and through the plays themselves, to a former colleague at WVU, Theresa M. Davis. “Davis’s powerful engagement in giving voice to other communities is genuine and gracious.” McKowen continues to work with Davis, who is now the Associate Artistic Director at CATF, and strives to select playwrights who traditionally may have gone unnoticed. Race and oppression are explored in this season’s Redeemed by Chisa Hutchinson, a play in which a woman argues with an inmate guilty of a hate crime, the murder of that woman’s brother. A star of the debate team in high school, McKowen appreciates the debating tactics in this play.
Looking Forward, Asking Questions
This season also presents daring plays that expose new challenges and threats to humanity. In Your Name Means Dream by José Rivera, a lonely, feisty, elderly woman is placed in the care of an almost human AI entity. Their “relationship” lets the audience imagine a future that perhaps has already arrived. McKowen acknowledges the fact her 89-year-old mother, who lives with her family and still attends the CATF season along with McKowen’s son, might have influenced the choice of this play a little. Also daring, The Overview Effect by Lynn Rosen invites us to consider what happens when the race to Mars, a planet offering solutions to problems caused by the human race, is undertaken by that same flawed human race.
All five plays ask a question, McKowen says, that interests most everyone “because the right to justice is in doubt for so many. That question is “How am I living my life?” Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) by Jeffrey Lieber shows how we fare when our love relationships are knotted with lies and loss. With the Covid pandemic barely in the rear-view, Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance by Dael Orlandersmith examines not only how we live but how we die.
McKowen says that while practical considerations, such as budget constraints, must play a role in the selection process, her most important requirement is that the play be “powerful, impactful, and accessible. It must touch the heart.”
McKowen has her own dreams for CATF’s direction. She hopes for the latitude, especially from audiences, to innovate, make mistakes, and see what works even better. She wants audiences to engage with strangers and share a sense of belonging in a creative, adventurous endeavor. Finally, she wants the choice to go out to the theater to become second nature.
“What d’ya want to do tonight?” — “I know, let’s go to the theater.”
This year’s Contemporary American Film Festival will kick off on July 7 and run through July 30, with daily performances each week Tuesday through Sunday. The festival will present five plays along with CATF’s talktheater series and other events.
This year’s plays, all premiering for the first time at CATF, are Redeemed by Chisa Hutchinson, directed by Marcus D. Harvey; Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) by Jeffrey Lieber, directed by Susan V. Booth; Spiritus/ Virgil’s Dance written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, directed by Neel Keller, a co-production with Merrimack Repertory Theatre; Your Name Means Dream written and directed by José Rivera; and The Overview Effect by Lynn Rosen, directed by Courtney Sale.
The festival will use three venues on the Shepherd University campus — the Marinoff Theater, Studio 112, and the Frank Arts Center — along with the newly renovated Shepherdstown Opera House in downtown Shepherdstown. Schedule, program details, and tickets at CATF.org.
Lee W. Doty is a retired lawyer and Shepherdstown resident who writes the Norma Bergen mystery series.By Lee Doty