Shepherdstown lays claim to prominence as the oldest village in West Virginia and one of the newest theater festivals in the United States.
In its unswerving dedication to the new, the Contemporary American Theater Festival is an anomaly. Not only does the CATF dedicate itself to fledgling plays, it gives them full productions and Actors Equity casts while most of the theater world settles for readings and workshop productions of new works.
"Everybody says that to me: `You're doing a new-play festival where?'" says Ed Herendeen, artistic director of the festival, hosted by Shepherd College, a liberal-arts school nestled in Shepherdstown, a picturesque village a few miles up the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Shepherdstown is a sleepy little burg (founded 1762, pop. 1,286) with one semibustling main drag, German Street. The early-morning traffic on German Street outside the Olde Sweet Shoppe may be dominated by pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles, but this quiet old town harbors all manner of artists.
Writers publish in the Bohemian Bridge, the local literary magazine, an musicians perform in the Mill Brook Orchestra. The area is filling up with city dropouts such as Carolyn Banks, a retired illustrator for the Fish an Wildlife Institute. She and her husband, who headed the college's theater department for 17 years, came to Shepherdstown some 30 years ago. "I used to be an odd duck," Banks says. "Now I'm just one of many."
The CATF, now in its fifth three-week summer season, is contributing to the town's allure as a rustic yet sophisticated getaway and is learning to market not just new plays, but a well-rounded experience.
"We're developing a young, professional audience that likes first-time adventures'" says Herendeen, 41. "They're the kind of audience that would throw their mountain bikes on the back of the car and drive 60 miles to have a nice restaurant, some recreation and take in a play in the evening."
Shepherdstownians also are avid playgoers, although Banks admits to walking out on one or two of them. "Experimental theater is good and bad," she says. It's a remarkably mature attitude toward art. Sam Felker, a manager at the Olde Sweet Shoppe and a resident of the area for 25 years, avers that Jon Klein's Betty the Yeti, one of four plays presented at this year's festival, was a little superficial - though absolutely worth staging and worth his time and money.
The "eco-fable" comedy opens with Russ, a logger and Vietnam veteran, perched high in a tree to protest the loss of logging jobs. Ironically, he's up the very same tree as a spotted owl. Klein is rather slyly getting us into the intractable debate about whose rights to the forest are greater, the logger's or the owl's, when he sneaks a yeti into the works. …