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The Off-Season

One of the most common questions we receive during this time of year is: “So, what do you do during the off-season? Is it just down time?”

The answer, in a word, is ‘no.’

The answer, in multiple words, is ‘No, no, no. No. Hardly.’

As a general rule, CATF operates on an annual calendar that is segmented into various activities and areas of focus.  For the general public, July is our most visible and seemingly bustling time—which it is.  As is the month of June when the full company has arrived in Shepherdstown, the shows are being built, rehearsals are happening, etc.

But what about the other 10 months of the year? Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that though CATF during the summer is a company of theater professionals that numbers nearly 90 people, for the rest of the year there are only three of us on staff to—along with our extraordinary volunteer board of trustees—make it all happen.

Once the Festival has closed, strike has been completed, and our guest artists have departed (all in the first week of August), we do, admittedly, take a breath, lick our wounds, and recover from the whirlwind of the season.  It normally takes about four or five weeks to reconcile the previous year, assess the organization’s financial picture, review attendance figures, submit funder and union reports, and post mortem the successes and challenges of the just-completed CATF season.

In September, we meet with our board and report back.  At the same time, Ed has begun his reading of scripts for consideration for the next year (he’s read upwards of 120 so far this fall, for example).  Meanwhile, Peggy and I work with our board Finance Committee to begin the budgeting process for the next year.

We dream. We think of ways to grow the Festival. We clean the office.

Oh, and we start raising money.

By November 1st, we have closed the books on the previous year (except for the annual audit, which will actually begin next week—and let me tell you, nothing screams the holiday spirit quite like three straight days of digging through deposit slips, invoices, check stubs, grant letters, journal entries, and bank statements…) and started a new one.

Around now, Ed narrows down his selection of plays—normally to his top 10.  At that point, we work on season scenarios with a mind to casting, venue, production value, etc.  This is a complicated matrix of sometimes competing demands.  With a commitment to “repping” our actors, and also the wide variance between each of our three theaters, it can be an arduous process—and yet, incredibly exhilarating.  You see, once the plays for the next season are chosen, they will become our best friends:  we will think and talk (obsess?) about them – promote and develop them – for the next seven months.

Oh, and we raise more money.

The fall is also a time of organizational “housekeeping.”  We review policies (by-laws!) with the board, strategize new programs, develop marketing strategies, get our committees situated, establish our board leadership positions for the year, and get caught up on the industry.  What others in the field are up to becomes blurred from the spring into summer as we are up to our elbows in pre-season prep, rehearsals, and performances.  One way to re-engage is to attend conferences and showcases with our theater colleagues.

This fall, we have been to two excellent events that deserve mentioning:

In early November, Jenny (our board chair), Ed, Peggy, and I were in New York City for the TCG (Theatre Communications Group) Fall Forum.  The topic was diversity and featured fantastic panels and breakout sessions and a kick-ass keynote speech by playwright Katori Hall. You can see video from the weekend on the TCG website (click here).  Our good friends Teresa Eyring and Kevin E. Moore, along with the TCG staff, put on a heckuva show.

That same weekend we had a CATF reunion with over 35 former CATF actors, designers, and staff covering almost 10 different seasons.  We also saw Samuel Hunter’s THE WHALE at Playwright’s Horizons (featuring CATF actor Cassie Beck), DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar at Lincoln Center, and a reading at the terrific new play development center The Lark (click here).

This past weekend, Ed and I attended the National New Play Network Annual Showcase, hosted at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC.  We saw six stage readings of new plays and rubbed elbows with numerous playwrights, literary managers, and artistic directors from around the country.  It’s an excellent organization that works to encourage theaters to collaborate and produce “rolling world premieres” of new plays to ensure that writers get multiple productions of their new works. Check out NNPN (click here) to learn more. Many thanks to Jason Loewith and Jojo Ruf for inviting CATF to participate.

There is much to report in future posts—the new building, American Theatre Critics Association, an update on the commissioned plays, the season.  But first, there is more money to raise (donation, anyone? www.catf.org/donate).

Until next time: think theater.

-james.

P.S.//And in case you’ve missed it, AMERICAN THEATRE magazine has just published its December issue. It features the full script to Johnna Adams’s play GIDION’S KNOT, which received its world premiere this summer in Shepherdstown (the magazine features photos from the CATF production!). Click here to check it out.

P.S. (part 2). Speaking of raising money…we are thrilled to announce two recent grants:  The National Endowment for the Arts has just awarded CATF a project grant (thank you our fellow Americans!) and a new grant was just received from the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation.  We couldn’t do what we do without this amazing support.

Ed, Peggy & James TALK THEATER.

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.

James

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?

 Peggy

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.

Ed

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.

James

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?

 Peggy

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.

 James

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? 

Ed

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. 

James

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?

Peggy

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.]

Ed Herendeen

It’s Worth The Trip

What dya’ say we go on an odyssey?… What a great sound that has.

What dya’ say we go on an adventure?

(pause, another approach)

How about…let’s just take a trek to Shepherdstown, the oldest town in West Virginia doin the newest plays in America?

It’s closer than you think…AND… It’s worth the trip!

So…what dya’ say?

Do you wanna be engaged?

Do you wanna be entertained?

Do you wanna be inspired, transformed and transported by the power of a good story?

(pause)

Where else can you see and experience FIVE new plays in rotating repertory in a beautiful, rural, historic American town? Where else can you meet other theater lovers like yourself and form an instant kinship and bond over art and ideas? Where else can you have total access to the makers of the art and engage in a living conversation? Where else can you dine, relax, walk and talk-theater?

(pause)

There is no place like the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Our 21st Odyssey continues with a rotating repertory of FIVE new American plays by:SAM SHEPARD. DAVID MAMET. TRACY THORNE. KYLE BRADSTREET.  LUCY THURBER.

So…What dya’ say we go on an odyssey…an adventure…and discover new American theater?

(pause, very simply this time)

How ’bout let’s just drop everything and go to the THEATER FESTIVAL?

Wanna join our artistic community…in July? Do you wanna share our journey to create the future?

Come on…What dya’ say?

BE AMAZED!– BE CHALLENGED!– BE ENTERTAINED!– BE INSPIRED!

Be present for the future of the American theater.

BE HERE NOW! The future spends the summer in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

So…What dya’ say?

Ed Herendeen, Producing Director

OUR 21st ODYSSEY

The Contemporary American Theater Festival has grown beyond my wildest dreams. More importantly, it’s remained true to it’s mission and core values: a theater that celebrates truth and beauty without ignoring the destructive forces of a dangerous world; a theater company that poses provocative questions about contemporary issues. The work is often personal…sometimes political…sometimes controversial…often profound…and entertaining.

In every Festival Season you will find love and loss, paradox and mystery. But you won’t ever see mindless, escapist entertainment–because CATF doesn’t distract audiences with status-quo work. In an age of commercialism, we’re something of a miracle: serious artists producing challenging new works for the American stage.

I can’t promise you that every play, lecture, talk-back or performance will enlighten you, or cure even one tiny neurosis. I can promise you that each Repertory will contain some of the most radically intimate and socially conscious writing being performed today. The Contemporary American Theater Festival is a annual reminder that everyone has a story to tell and a voice to tell it. Those who attend the Festival and the playwrights and theater artists who create it are joined in an uncommonly close way. We are an artistic community. Every summer we come together to celebrate the glory and the heartache of being human.

I personally invite you and your friends to join me on our 21st ODYSSEY beginning on July 8th 2011. We will announce the 2011 Repertory later today.

Ed Herendeen, Producing Director