The following marks the first installment of a discussion between CATF Producing Director and Founder Ed Herendeen, Associate Producing Director Peggy McKowen, and Managing Director James McNeel. Join the CATF staff throughout the year as they discuss theater, festival machinations, the 2012 plays and artists, and much more.
Okay. Here we are, 2011 coming to a close – we had a great year and season, with record-setting attendance, the groundbreaking for the new theater here on Shepherd University’s campus (to open in 2013), former CATF plays hitting the big screen and Broadway, Ed joining the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) board, etc., etc. But what are your most striking memories of the past year? Shotguns? Finicky fans?
Wow! I heard this question and I stopped to think about a striking memory and everything was truly a blur. Perhaps oddly enough, some of my most memorable moments came from our additional programming. I thought watching Dr. Aaron Anderson, or resident fight genius, work with our audience in a stage combat session was just priceless. Listening to our audiences argue and debate the merits of WE ARE HERE in a talk-back was enlightening to me. At a Lunch & Art session, one of the artists brought his parents to participate in the conversation and listening to them talk with pride about the work of their child and his involvement with CATF was simply rewarding to hear. I guess what I realize now is that it is truly the exchange we have with our audiences that reaches through the plays to a deeper, more powerful relationship.
The past year has seen protest, unrest, and upheaval around the globe. Here at home we are all painfully aware of the political stagnation and divide, as well as the continued economic uncertainties. Through it all, life and art went on – it was not only at CATF that there was record attendance, but around the world – at the Epidaurus Theater, Barcelona Festival, France, etc. An article in The New York Times in August – which featured conversations with a number of artistic directors – hypothesized that “perhaps people turn to art in difficult times.” If so, this impulse—this reaction—continues to be interesting to me and I’m hopeful CATF is feeding and responding to that need in some way.
Personally, one of my fondest memories from 2011 was the opportunity to direct the world premiere of FROM PRAGUE by Kyle Bradstreet. It was exciting to have the “living playwright” in rehearsal and work with the cast and him on developing the script during those four crucial weeks leading up to its performance run. Plus, of course, talking to Sam Shepard about AGES OF THE MOON – he gave me excellent insights into his script which helped tremendously. And working with props designer Sean McArdle – who has worked on several of Sam’s plays now – on the fan provided a great special effect. The RACE rehearsals sizzled – the cast was fantastic and it was a joy to work with them on the tempo and rhythm of a David Mamet play. Also, I am so proud of THE INSURGENTS – it’s always a risk to commission a new play; as they are produced without the safety net of tradition. Lucy Thurber was a joy to work with. Commissioning a work is truly collaborative process – from the donor (our friend Katha Kissman) taking the lead, to the creative team, the director Lear, the actors – and I am thrilled about our partnership with this important and original voice. You don’t have to look deeply into the year’s news headlines – “we are the 99%”, “class warfare” – to see how prescient Lucy was with this play.
Peggy, I’m sure for many of our CATF friends and patrons – beyond June and July – they don’t know what we do with the rest of our year here. Once the final performance comes to a close and our incredible production team strikes the sets, we go from a company of over 90 theater artists to just the three of us, and our terrific board, left standing. How have we been passing the time since? Obviously sleep was priority number one in August – then what?
I think many people have some inkling of the process to take down the scenery, put the costumes away and say goodbye to all the artists, but I often wonder if people truly understand the level of administrative detail that closing a season involves. We have $800,000 worth of receipts, payroll stubs, deposits slips, etc. to be accounted for, filed, and prepped for an extensive annual audit. Just think of what you do to prepare your household taxes! Analyzing the previous season for financial trends as we prepare the upcoming season budget is always fascinating and informative by providing a tangible sense of what occurred the previous season. Manuals, handbooks and policies all need finalized before the close of each fiscal year. The “paper closing” seems endless sometimes.
And then, while the ending of one season is consuming us, the beginning of the next must simultaneously happen. What do we want to improve on next year? How can we provide more opportunities for our audience to really participate with us? What plays will we do? How do we raise the money to do that play? When is the grant deadline? Who will the artists be? What does the marketing look like? Each question takes more than a minute to answer, often requiring weeks of the team’s collaborative work to come up with the 2012 solution.
Ed, without giving too much away, what are your first reactions to the plays you’ve been reading (and now have selected) for the 2012 season?
I am overwhelmed by the 75+ manuscripts I have read this fall. The work is full of pain and joy; drama and conflict; and social issues and personal moral and ethical character choices. The economy, housing crisis, violence, evil acts done by real human beings, dysfunctional families – all dominated my reading. Comedies were mostly absent – while dramas and political and psychological thrillers were common. Plus, I read a lot of historical plays set in the civil rights period, Nazi Germany, the War of 1812. Every fall, I feel like I am given a front row perspective on the pulse of the country and world through the lens of our contemporary writers. I think the 2012 season of plays will provide a diverse snapshot on the issues and ideas dominating our world and thinking right now.
Peggy, you and I have the unique perspective of watching Ed build, practically from scratch, the annual repertory of plays. What’s the process like?
It’s like riding the biggest, fastest roller coaster ever while knowing that Ed Herendeen is driving the lead car. You jump in the car thinking, I’ve been on a roller coaster before—what’s the big deal? As we climb, Ed talks you through his ideas about the season and then suddenly there are three new, fabulous plays to consider. He absolutely loves them and you’re whisked away in a rush of passion and intensity and you think, ‘we will never discover more exciting plays’. On the next upward climb we discover that the rights aren’t available or it won’t fit with the parameters of the casting pool and the climb seems to keep going forever. The following morning, Ed is back in the lead talking about another new play and you think, ‘this is it! How could we do better?’ But as we read the play aloud to each other we discover that the play doesn’t live up to its “selling pitch” and so the climb continues. Finally, at a certain point the ride just has to end…so CATF slows down — Ed has found work that fits into our budget, the casting matrix, and venues and we are ready to produce a (well vetted, read, discussed, debated, and reread) selection of plays. And then, before you know it, we’re right back at it preparing for another year, as if it the ride had never really stopped.
[The 2012 season will take place July 6 – 29. Look for the full season announcement in late February. Want to be a part of the process? Consider a tax-deductible contribution by visiting www.catf.org/donate.]