Which came first? It is a sort of “chicken or the egg” issue when you ask about the play selection process for the 19-year old Contemporary American Theatre Festival. Founder and producing director Ed Herendeen has two venues for four full productions each summer on the campus of Shepherd University in West Virginia’s idyllic small town of Shepherdstown on the banks of the Potomac River. One is a classic proscenium hall, the 499-seat theatre in the Frank Center for the Performing Arts on a hill overlooking the campus. The other a small, arena-style black box, the 129-seat Studio Theatre in the middle of the campus.
As Herendeen and his staff consider dozens of scripts of new or almost new plays each year, just how much weight do they give to the question of which show would be best in which hall? “Actually, the question of which venue fits which show usually comes after we have our lineup” he says. “It’s not a big consideration when we are lining up the ‘big four,’ but it becomes important when we consider design approaches.” And it isn’t just a case of which two are likely to sell more seats, and therefore, do better in the bigger hall. “It is a matter of the demands of the piece,” says Herendeen, as he offers two examples, one from the Festival’s past and one from this Summer’s fare.
For Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell, which was staged in 2005, he felt the need for some spectacle and the use of special effects that work best in a proscenium house. After all, if you need to stage a scene where sparks fly from a man’s zipper to punctuate pithy lines, you want all the audience to see the sparks at the same moment. On the other hand, for an intimate piece, such as this year’s two-character marriage implosion, Fifty Words, Herendeen wanted the intimacy and immediacy of an arena staging so the audience felt like it was at a boxing match looking down into the ring.
Fifty Words has drawn high praise for its powerful staging as well as for the strength of its script by Michael Weller and the high-energy performances of Anthony Crane and Joey Parsons. Set designer Robert Klingelhoefer’s design for the kitchen in which a marriage disintegrates in a single evening not only has a square footprint like a boxing ring, it has a suspended square molding overhead that echoes the shape. Klingelhoefer, the director of the Design and Technology Department of West Virginia University in Morgantown (150 miles from Shepherdstown), designed the sets for all four full stagings for this year’s festival. Two shows run in rep in each venue.
For the smaller arena-style hall, when everything including the kitchen sink of the Fifty Words set is removed he replaces it with a floor covered by chalk lines and a grand piano for the world premiere of Eisa Davis’ The History of Light, in which the piano becomes something of a character itself. Actually, while it looks like a traditional grand piano, it is a Disklavier, which uses digital technology to play preprogrammed music so that, in this case, the cast can appear to be playing and then walk away as the piano continues – with even the keys visibly operating.
On the large proscenium stage, the two shows in rep also have completely different settings. For Beau Willimon’s political drama Farragut North, Klingelhoefer uses movable platforms for the multiple locations in Ohio during the Presidential Caucus season. Steven Dietz’s Yankee Tavern, however, takes place entirely in a detailed recreation of a Manhattan bar. In designing the set, Klingelhoefer had the bar constructed just a few inches shorter than normal so the bartender was more visible.
Harendeen uses his staging of Farragut North to illustrate his point that a touch of spectacle is needed on a proscenium stage where the audience is a bit more removed from the action than they are in the arena style space which can require some innovation. The script is replete with references to the cold and snow of an Ohio January but doesn’t actually include any exteriors. Harendeen added a silent visual at the beginning and end of the play to open it up a bit, with the key character making his entrance and exit from and to a raging backlit snowstorm through an upstage portal that establishes the weather and also represents a metaphor as the “hero” recedes into the wilderness as a result of his own self-destructive behavior and its impact on his career. Klingelhoefer used the up-stage doors to the scene shop behind the stage to accommodate the effect.
A fifth production was added to the slate last year with an environmental staging of a solo-performance play and the festival continues that new tradition with another this year. Last year, Margaret A. McKowen turned a large room of the University’s new Center for Contemporary Art and Theatre into a replica of a funeral parlor for Neil LaBute’s Wrecks. This year, she turns the same space into a light and airy living room for the world premiere of Victor Lodato’s Dear Sara Jane, in which actress Joey Parsons comes systematically unglued under the twin pressures of twin sisters with overwhelming difficulties.
The Contemporary American Theatre Festival’s 2009 season continues through August 2.