A Critique of the Contemporary American Theater Festival

A town, a festival, a show, and an artform in a recently-altered society.

I am an individual. We all are — in theory. Individuals who must
fight for their ideals within a society that encourages conformity. This summer, I had an experience that not only affirmed my existence as an individual, but also furthered my desire to celebrate
my life as an artist.

The Festival

I attended the [Contemporary American
Theater Festival][catf] in [Shepherdstown][shepherdstown],
West Virginia, with Kyle, a friend and colleague. The festival, known
as CATF, is similar to the summer program run by [New York Stage and Film][nystage] where I interned three summers ago. CATF is dedicated to producing and developing new American theater and creates a profound and ever-evolving relationship between the audience and the work they are producing. Their brochure brags, “The atmosphere is stimulating, the excitement is contagious. When you come to the Contemporary American Theater Festival, you’re more than just a spectator. You’re a participant in a vibrant cultural event that stretches beyond the stage.” My anticipation was high; we were going to see theater… new theater… theater in its delicate stages of growth and development. After a stressful year and a summer that has been mostly work, I was looking forward to this trip in every way. I was going to see theater — new theater — and I was excited.

The Town

Nestled just over the West Virginia-Maryland border, Shepherdstown is a mecca for artists and visionaries. Not your typical college town in any way, Shepherdstown, home of the recently-renamed [Shepherd University][shepherdu], immediately
identified itself as a place where imagination and creation are
encouraged to thrive. German Street, the main street in town, is home to art galleries, boutiques, exhibits, bookstores, and coffee
shops. Without a single corporation in sight, this small road transcended the reality I have known since my own college days. It was Greenwich Village without the chaos or filth.

Wandering among the various galleries and shops and caught up in art, discussions about art and the implications of art, Kyle and I lost
track of many hours. All around us, similar conversations were taking place. We took in several art shows, exhibits, tours of handmade crafts, eclectic dining, political support of John Kerry, and drinks toasted among tiki torches and wildflowers.

As we looked through one of the locally-owned shops, the Bohemian in me sprang back to life. I felt at home speaking and interacting with these artists. Not having written anything since college, I again had the once-familiar urge to construct, to send a piece of myself out
there. I wanted to affirm my life as an artist. Here were people all
around us hanging their creations out for the world to see. They were taking risks and making comments, a path my life hadn’t taken in a while. But now the bug was back; I was in love with this town, and I hadn’t even been to the theater yet.

The Show

The point is that in absurd times, you need to devise absurd

We eventually made our way back to campus for Stuart Flack’s new work, _Homeland Security_. Written as a reaction to the profiling
occurring since September 11th, the show was marked as an innovative and groundbreaking piece dealing with issues of trust and tolerance in our country today. Expecting the play to trace these ideals and comment on the injustice and lack of civil rights being shown to those minorities profiled, Kyle and I were dissatisfied with the play’s almost avoidance of these issues.

The story of the 32-year-old second-generation Indian doctor and his American girlfriend who were detained for questioning at the airport on their return home from vacation lent itself to post-September 11th theories and realities almost immediately. The audience forms their own opinion as the FBI agent individually interrogates both members of the party. However, the play quickly loses its political feel when the focus shifts and becomes about Raj and Susan’s relationship and the trust, or lack thereof, they have for each other.

My criticisms of this play were many. The script was weak — too often it fell into repetition and cycles that didn’t need re-emphasis. Scenes were drawn out past their welcome. The characters were very two-dimensional, keeping the audience disengaged and preventing us from truly identifying with them. The blocking was stagnant: nothing was symbolic and there was very minimal movement and a definite failure to create any interesting visual pictures with the four actors. The lights and the music were clichéd and often distracting. The set, representative of the twin tower wreckage, was brilliant in concept and design but was ill-utilized for the purpose it could have served.

For all its shortcomings and disappointments, however, the play served the purpose director Ed Herendeen asked of it. It made Kyle and I talk. And talk we did — on and on and on about it. Any formal
post-show discussion would have had nothing on us — we critiqued it all. We decided that it wasn’t the eerie chill of the unknown and
perhaps the unknowable or the lack of easy answers the play provided or the ambiguities it left dangling at the end that left us feeling unaffected. We felt that the play failed to be a political commentary on the world as we now know it or a commentary of the ideas set forth in the Patriot Act. We were disillusioned — the play was about the hard times faced by a mixed couple involved in a relationship, not the slap in the face of authority that we were so hoping for.

Ironically, I was almost glad that I didn’t like the play. If I had
enjoyed it, I might not have felt as passionate about it as I did. I
was talking about theater again — and not just the Broadway shows or community theater productions I have been limited to experiencing lately. I was given the opportunity instead to really analyze and process something brand new — something on its way to redefining American theater. Thank you, Stuart Flack and Ed Herendeen.

(Side note: _Rounding Third_, another play at the festival
directed by Ed Herendeen, was fulfilling and satisfying in the way
good theater should be.)

The Artform

I don’t pretend to be all-knowing when it comes to theater. But after
12 years of experience and a major to boot, I’d like to think that
I know something. I know how theater as an art form is different for
people in diverse cultures. I know that theater, like all things, is
part of a progression. I’ve studied how American theater has shifted
focus, intent, and purpose again and again throughout history. People have seen forms of theater come and go.

Right now is an exciting time for theater advocates. Were in the
process of a change, a new movement that will redefine theater once
again. I had the great fortune of attending _The Undiluted
Truth_, the third contribution to CATF’s Under the Tent Lecture
Series. This lecture, given by Nelson Pressley, writer for the
_Washington Post_ and _American Theater Magazine_, focused
on the social issues found in the 2004 CATF plays and addressed major issues impacting our society today.

Pressley pointed out that plays thrive on conflict, an idea not new to
me. He asserted that conflict is not always bad and that theater helps to spur the debate and discussion resulting from conflict. Civilization today _is_ conflict. He went on to describe the vital role theater plays in the commentary of our society. Unlike news broadcasts, debates, photographs, and even newspaper articles, which are given off the cuff without any time for careful thought and deliberation, drama is a refinement of political issues and opinions.

A playwright has a chance to observe, absorb, process, and really
formulate the ideas and opinions he or she wishes to examine in a
play. Playwrights have time on their side. They are allowed a thought processing similar only to film makers. I was amazed that this obvious assertion was just now penetrating my psyche. American theater, in such a unique situation, has an obligation to comment on the current reality. With our nation so immersed in conflict and turmoil, plays not only have the opportunity to thrive, they have the opportunity to comment.

Although Stuart Flack’s _Homeland Security_ failed to provide
such political commentary, Lee Blessing’s world premiere of _Flag
Day_ at the festival apparently did the job. To hear Pressley speak
of _Flag Day_ was to be truly inspired. I was amazed by the
audience’s reaction to Pressley’s mere mention of this play. The crowd at the lecture became impassioned as Pressley led his commentary on this work. They wanted to discuss, debate, argue, extend; not enough could be said about the work or its criticism on our society. After hearing his comments and the audience’s reaction to them, my biggest regret is not having seen this show.

After his lecture, Pressley opened the floor up for discussion. What I
then witnessed was a testament to the festival, the town, the shows,
and to theater as an artform. Old and young alike came together to
discuss the ideals of theater and its role in our recently altered
society. From theater professionals to theater fans, the audience
became involved in a discussion that provided me with the faith that
this artform will continue to thrive. It was beyond refreshing to sit
under that tent and listen to ideas being born.

Pressley and Ed Herendeen, who is also the Founder and Producing
Director of the festival, brought forth a thank you and a call to
action that I took to heart. Both acknowledged the CATF as a forum for artists to come together to discuss the role theater plays in our
society, and they commanded each member of the audience to continue to make that happen. They emphasized how crucial it was for artists to always create and critique.

I was inspired. Their assertions are correct — it is our obligation
and the obligation of the theater to continue to produce works that
question and help us to understand the world around us. As Herendeen writes, “Art, theater can help us find understanding. Art illuminates the possibilities by asking questions. A dark theater actually illuminates awareness and self discovery… at CATF, we dare to awaken our audience with contemporary, theatrical stories about the now.”

They made the call; I want to do what I can to answer. Hopefully,
anyone who reads this will check out the festival; maybe some research will be done, maybe the small hamlet of Shepherdstown will enter your radar. Maybe your responsiveness will be piqued; maybe your own political awareness and how it relates to art will be refined. I hope so. But for me, Ive been changed. Its time for me to return back to some of my more Bohemian roots. This festival, this town, the shows I saw, and the people I met have motivated me. I want to write more, produce more, see more — do my best to become part of this change that will once again redefine American theater.

[catf]: http://www.catf.org/
[shepherdstown]: http://www.shepherdstownvisitorscenter.com/
[nystage]: http://www.newyorkstageandfilm.org/
[shepherdu]: http://www.shepherd.edu/

Article © 2004 by Katie Kolacki