Ed Herendeen, director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), was listening to readings of this year’s six chosen plays when he realized something.
“The scripts seemed to be talking to each other,” he said. “There’s a connection between these plays.”
A glimpse at this year’s catalogue might leave you wondering what the six plays could possibly have in common. Each one sits in a genre of its own—a comedy-drama, a dystopia, a political thriller, a family drama, and a love story. The characters themselves are incredibly diverse, so much so that almost anyone could walk into a performance and see a version of themselves on stage.
Even the settings cover a vast range of times and places. Three are set at different points in history—A Late Morning [in America] with Ronald Reagan, by Michael Weller, is set in Reagan’s home office near the end of his lifetime; Memoirs of a Forgotten Man, by D.W. Gregory, takes place in cold-war Russia; and Berta, Berta, by Angelica Cheri, occurs in 1920s Mississippi.
“People may wonder, why are three plays set back in time?” Herendeen said. The reason, he explained, lies in the themes. “In Berta Berta, for example, we learn what society would’ve been like in rural Mississippi for a black man and a black woman, and what that could teach us today.”
CATF’s Associate Producing Director Peggy McKowen described a similar effect in Memoirs of a Forgotten Man, which deals with Josef Stalin’s desire to eliminate aspects of public history. “The idea of fake news we have now is so parallel in a lot of ways,” she said.
The same way plays set in the past can speak to present situations, so can plays set in the future. C.A. Johnson’s post-apocalyptic drama Thirst deals with race, war, and crisis in the frame of a fight for depleting natural resources. “And at its core,” explained Herendeen, “it’s about the changing face of the American family.”
Herendeen noticed early on that even the plays that were set hundreds of years and thousands of miles from the present still proved fiercely relevant. While the festival’s productions often reveal underlying themes that mirror those in current events and politics, it’s no coincidence that this year, the themes emerge bolder and louder.
“Writers are instinctively in touch with what people are feeling and thinking in the moment,” explained McKowen. “I think we are going to see more and more writing about these major issues of world existence because it’s such a heightened awareness right now. People are living in a different state of consciousness.”
Overall, Herendeen sees a thread running through these plays that transcends political or social issues. “There’s a universality about the plays this year that seems to connect them. They go beyond even such important issues as equality or religious freedom, and really bring into question tolerance, acceptance, compassion, family.”
McKowen agrees. “Audiences crave something that is about their world—not only something that speaks to their world, but something that might challenge the ideas that exist in their world.”
“Theater invites us to places where we never would’ve thought to go,” Herendeen added. “Questions emerge that make us think, and that causes us to self-reflect.” After all, he noted, “… with good art, we often learn more about ourselves.