Some 23 years ago, Ed Herendeen, then with the Williamstown Theater Festival in an administrative position, was invited by the president of Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to organize an annual, summer Contemporary American Theatre Festival. Since then, CATF, with Herendeen as producing director, has presented 100 new plays either as premieres or second productions of works in development.

This summer, the American Theater Critics Association held a conference hosted by CATF. Over several days of meetings, lectures and panel discussions, we attended the five new plays in this year's program which was held July 5-28, 2013.

Mr. Herendeen and I met in his office for a lively discussion of CATF. This is part of that dialogue.

CHARLES GIULIANO: Can we discuss the process of a commission for a new play this season written and directed by Mark St. Germain: Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah?
ED HERENDEEN: We do $10,000 commissions. I shop the commission around with literary agents I’ve done business with. They set up appointments, and I met with six different writers. I met with Mark in the lobby of Club Quarters Hotel on 45th in New York. We had done a Mark St. Germain play called Forgiving Typhoid Mary. I was very interested in his work.
His agent contacted me he said that Mark had a really great idea for a script. [Mark] pitched me that he had done a great deal of research. I had already seen his Freud’s Last Session in New York. The day after I saw it, we had the meeting. He told me he had been doing research on a new play that involved Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He had dug up research on a meeting they had in Hollywood in 1937. That was pretty much the pitch. It was a play about a volatile relationship between friends filled with jealousy, competition and high regard for each other. It would delve into the sacrifices of a writer’s life including the pain and suffering as well as the joy.
After I met with five other writers, I came back with this as the commission. We signed a contract and set up a payment schedule. He sent us a first draft, and we set up a schedule with him. The first draft came in the fall. There was another draft, then we did a couple of readings in New York. We did a reading here. So we did a series of three readings. By rehearsals I think we had seven drafts. It started as a two-character play and somewhere along the line, the woman was added.

CG: Actually I read the first and second draft and she was in there.
HERENDEEN: Yes, but very small. He really developed her including her flaw (a recovering alcoholic). That relationship grew, and that’s where we are today. We went into rehearsal, and he made some other changes.

CHARLES GIULIANO: When Mark premiered Best of Enemies at Barrington Stage Company, we met for an interview. That led to an ongoing relationship to discuss the development of new plays like last season’s Dr. Ruth which premiered at Barrington and Scott and Hem which transfers there after Shepherdstown. We agreed to try to discuss this new play from the first drafts to the Barrington opening. The plan emerged to see it first in Shepherdstown, then discuss it as it goes into rehearsal at Barrington. I plan to review it there.
This is, as far as I know, a unique relationship between a playwright and a critic. There are advantages and disadvantages as we explore the creative process. Coming to know Mark as a creator and friend has been insightful. It has expanded my view of what it takes to be a successful playwright. Mark has told me about how unique and important it has been to have this commission. But the reality is that $10,000 is not a lot of money. When you factor how long it takes to develop a play, and then how long it runs, it is a very precarious way to make a living. Mark is among the few who are able to work full-time at their craft. Of course, the global success of Freud’s Last Session and its royalties have really helped.
He also told me that the Contemporary American Theater Festival commission comes with no expectations of shared royalties. Can we discuss that?

HERENDEEN: I made a decision a long time ago that we would never take money from the playwright. We take no future money so we have no financial interest in this play. While $10,000 isn’t a lot of money to the writer, our goal is to get some writers attention, and that sets a course to develop and produce new American plays.
We do not have World Premiere-itis. We will produce second productions like this year’s Heartless by Sam Shepard and Jon Kern’s Modern Terrorism. We want to be a part of the process of giving birth to a new play. We are as responsible for giving birth to a new play like Modern Terrorism as the premiere production. There have been three or four drafts since the first production of Modern Terrorism.
Also, we want to instigate American theater. By offering a $10,000 commission, that means that the play will have a full production. They’ll get what we think are the best actors we can provide them with. We pay at the LORT (League of Resident Theater) scale for Equity actors. It is based on the capacity of theaters – in our case, 180 seats for that theater (Scott and Hem).
We wanted to instigate the creation of a new play. So I took six pitches and selected Mark. It’s a terrific idea. We did this over a year ago and then invited him to the festival as our guest last season so he could see it. He spoke to our board. He was one of the guest speakers at our annual board retreat where we talked about his other works. He showed clips from Freud. Our board really connected with him.
We provided him with the opportunity to come here then spend time to write. To come here and workshop it. We also raised money and received some grant money to workshop the play in New York. We paid actors to do two readings in New York.
So we’ve invested much more than $10,000. The $10,000 went to him, but in addition to that, we raised grant money to provide transpiration, lodging and travel for him to come and work on the play. And for us to go to New York and hire actors to have rehearsals and table readings for the play. Then pay for all that.
Our investments in the play is over a two-year period in helping to give him resources that he needed to hear the play out loud. We did at least three readings with professional actors. Joey Collins (F. Scott Fitzgerald) was part of all three experiences. Mark also got people together and did a reading somewhere along the line.

CG: During the welcoming banquet, Dr. Suzanne Shipley, president of Shepherd University, described her first meeting with you in a typical outfit of t-shirt and jeans. She told us that you stated to the new president, “I have never had a college president tell he how to run my theater and I’m not going to start now.”
HERENDEEN: I can’t remember what I said. That’s her memory of that. My agreement with past presidents was that they were hands off.

CG: A case in point might be the play we saw last night Modern Terrorism, which you directed. I’m here with some 75 critics and guests of the American Theater Critics Association, and there has been a lively dialogue about that play.
HERENDEEN: That’s what we want.

CG: Some individuals were deeply offended.
HERENDEEN: Good. They should be. That’s what theater is supposed to do. They bring to that work their own self.

CG: There were remarks about how can you trivialize terrorism as comedy? I understand that the play was in rehearsal during the time of the Boston Marathon Bombing.
HERENDEEN: No, we were casting at that time. Of course, anybody has the right to say that they’re trivializing it. I’m sure that Jon Kern would not agree that we were trivializing it.

CG: We attended the post-performance discussion. The actors were asked what they thought of doing this play after the Boston bombings. Should one go forward or not? The comment was made that they had signed on and were committed to the play. How does this go down in your community?
HERENDEEN: It goes down number one, not that full houses determine success, but it’s a signature production of what we do. Theater like this is discomforting. I may be wrong, but I am not aware of anybody approaching Post-9/11, and anything between 9/11 and today, a comedy being written about that. We have a responsibility to question.

CG: Pretty outrageous don’t you think?
HERENDEEN: Absolutely. Even more outrageous that we say see how inept these guys are and see how inept our country was.

CG: Are you soft on terrorism?
HERENDEEN: No and that’s not what the play shows. To say I’m soft on terrorism is a gross misinterpretation of the play.

CG: How can you humanize a terrorist?
HERENDEEN: Because they are a person. I think we live in a country which always wants an enemy. I’ve had an enemy ever since I was a little boy. I was taught who enemies are. They were Indians and Nazis. You can go down the line. Black people became superflys. Then it was Latinos. Our country is famous for putting the bad guys into our culture. Disney is grossly offensive to me.

CG: Disney?
HERENDEEN: Disney in promoting racism in cartoons. How people of color are portrayed? After 9/11, all we heard from our government was revenge. Our current president is a killer. We kill people with drones. Innocent people. That’s factual. It’s not an interpretation. Our play is make-believe. But what our country does is kill people. We have killed innocent people as well as people we have identified as enemies of our country. That started out of revenge. The people who brought these buildings down we will go after.
The question: A great political, social and moral question is, are we safer today? Because of revenge. We can debate the Iraq war. We were lied to about that, and what did it have to do with 9/11? We have been a country of vengeance since that event. There are people who run our government, including our current government, who actually believe that we’re safer today because of what they have done.
This play looks at real people. Fanaticism and that ideology and religion. It takes a look at these people and what would cause them – a young boy, who is made fun of. He comes to this country, and what would cause this kid in Boston to do what he did?

CG: How do you feel about him being on the cover of Rolling Stone?
HERENDEEN: I didn’t see that yet.

CG: You understand the concept and have heard the outrage.
HERENDEEN: Yeah. I don’t know if I have any thought about that.

CG: It’s current.
HERENDEEN: Where is the compassion for people? Where is the empathy? I think that Jon’s play attempts that through comedy. Our theater has a long history of that. I was talking to somebody about when I was a freshman in college and the height of Vietnam when “M*A*S*H” (1970) came out, and people were outraged that we could make fun of the military. How important that movie was in changing cultural attitudes.
The American theater stood up during the Vietnam War. American theater was a voice during the Vietnam War when our country was divided. Where has the American theater been on this issue? Where is the rhetoric in understanding why people hate us? Why do other cultures want to hurt us? Where is the understanding to reach out and try to understand other cultures? Unfortunately we have a long history of not even trying to understand other cultures. Instead we are immediately attacking it.

CG: I would like to make a differentiation between agit-prop art.
HERENDEEN: I hear that a lot but don’t know what it means. From guys like you.

CG: Academics.
HERENDEEN: I’m not going to defend the play. The play speaks for itself.

CG: Consider two films about Vietnam: “Platoon” by Oliver Stone and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” “Platoon” was literal, while “Apocalypse Now” was allegorical. When I first saw “Apocalpyse Now,” it was disappointing. What the fuck is this? Going up the river to get Kurtz (Marlon Brando)? As a project for a humanities class, I assigned students to read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and then we viewed the film, which few of them had seen, in class. The focus was to explore how the novel was adapted as the film.
By contrast, “Platoon” is now a forgettable film. I don’t care about it. “Apocalypse Now” endures as a metaphor and masterpiece that emerged from, and poetically defines, Vietnam.
In terms of this play, as an example of agit-prop, it’s fine that it responds to a ripped-from-the-headlines event. But as art, theater needs to cross over into something else to have a real and lasting impact.

HERENDEEN: I don’t go into those expectations. This young writer, Jon Kern, has an original voice. He had the balls, he had the courage to take a subject that, to my knowledge, no other playwright or even novelist, has taken up the challenge to deal with satirically or as comedy. We have a few films that almost sentimentalize this event. There’s an Israeli film I have heard great things about – but haven’t seen – called “Attack.” I’m reading the novel right now. But where’s the comedy? Comedy has responded to other crises. There are other moral events in our country including wars. I used M*A*S*H as just a quick example. When I was in college in the midst of Vietnam, we had David Rabe, Tom Cole, Meghan Terry. You had writers responding to what was happening. It wasn’t ripped from the headlines. They were plays that can change people’s lives. Attitudes. Do I dare say, like Brecht did. We had writers in American theater who responded to something.
There are plays out there but I don’t see American theater today responding like this young guy (Kern) who is responding to the absurdity. The Times Square bomber was kind of inspirational for him. He locked in the keys to the getaway car. What dark imagination. What an incredible conversation that must have been with his landlord. He’s writing a play about people. These guys who do these horrible things are real people. I won’t defend humanizing them, but that’s what plays are. People that say that are –

CG: What?

CG: Is that your word for critics? (laughs)
HERENDEEN: No, I’m not even talking about critics. I’m talking about anybody who is offended that they’re humanized. They’re not living on this planet. They are human. That kid in Boston is a human being.

CG: Would you run this play in Boston right now?
HERENDEEN: Yeah. I don’t think I have any rules that say I wouldn’t run it anywhere right now. I wouldn’t do the play if I didn’t believe in it. There’s not a rule against that.

CG: I’m just trying to understand. I’m a native Bostonian.
HERENDEEN: Me too. I grew up in Brookline.

CG: So did I. Did you go to Brookline High?
HERENDEEN: No, but my mother went to Cambridge High and Latin.

CG: I went to Boston Latin School. Where did you go to high school?
HERENDEEN: In the north shore in Hamilton. Would I do it in Boston? Yeah. I don’t think there is anything that would prevent me from doing this play there.

CG: During the post-performance discussion last night, I asked if there is a statute of limitations for when comedy is appropriate after a tragic event. I asked the group when they heard their first 9/11 joke? How soon after? A day, a week? In what way does gallows humor allow us to deal with the horrific?
HERENDEEN: If you were to tell me there is a statute of limitations, say a year, then I would feel free to break that rule. It’s been a long time, but I would never consider that. I think back on a writer like Brendan Behan who wrote a play called, The Hostage. It was at the height of the Irish troubles. It’s a comedy set in a brothel. It deals with the politics of the time on both sides. There is a young British soldier held hostage in the brothel. If it’s done correctly, it’s a very funny play. At the end of the play, it turns very similar to Modern Terrorism when they kill the hostage. It turns like that to a very horrific ending. I paraphrase Behan who said, "I love to get the audience laughing then sneak up behind and hit them over the head with a lead pipe."
Comedy has always been a very powerful weapon. It’s a powerful storytelling technique. It goes back to Moliere and the Greeks. Moliere wasn’t afraid. Is it that people are afraid to write a comedy about terrorism today? People are afraid to write comedies about people who put bombs in their underwear? It’s factual that people put bombs in their shoes to take down airplanes. They put bombs in printers. They lock their keys in a car full of explosives. What is preventing our writers from telling that story?
Here, at this theater festival, there’s no rules.

CG: One could go back to Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a comedy about the Peloponnesian wars. We might talk about Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” They were outrageous and risk taking for their time.
HERENDEEN: That and “Dr. Strangelove.” “Modest Proposal” is very inspirational for the style. People you’re quoting, and I don’t give a shit that they’re critics, you’re talking about real people who saw the play last night. They’re intelligent regular people. The same way that “Modest Proposal” was presented during the Irish Famine, there were people who actually thought that Jonathan Swift was telling them to do that (raise and sell their children for food). And eat the babies. Similarly, there are people who have seen this show and are using the words that we are humanizing terrorism. I sit here and think, “they’re not monsters. They’re real people. They had mothers and fathers.”

CG: So did Hitler.
HERENDEEN: Absolutely. There are plays about Hitler.

CG: So did Jeffrey Dahmer. So you give everyone a free pass?
HERENDEEN: I don’t know what a free pass is. I think it’s a story worth telling.

CG: Do you believe in good and bad, sin and punishment?
HERENDEEN: I love plays about redemption. I definitely do not believe in the Pearly Gates. I’m not going to judge other people. I’m certainly going to tell stories. There’s a good line in the Shepard play: “Sin is sin. It’s guilt we’re trying to squirm out of.”

CG: You started with another summer program: the Williamstown Theater Festival. What are the similarities and difference?
HERENDEEN: Similar in that we both do our work on a college campus. With Williamstown, their offices are located in New York City. They have an arrangement with Williams College to take over during the summer. That’s been long standing since Nikos (Psacharopoulos) started it.

CG: They do seven productions each season, and you do five. Yours are scheduled over a month so during a three day stay, a visitor can see all five plays.
HERENDEEN: Right, and everyone has to come here to live. Then everyone has to come from someplace else to see it. So that’s similar. What’s not is that we are close to a large metropolitan area. We reap the benefit that people can come for the day from Washington, D.C. or they can come for two days. We also have a very educated audience. In a survey that we took, 85 percent have a post-graduate degree. We’re tapping into the Washington/ Baltimore metro area.

CG: Talk about your time at Williamstown, which will be of interest to our Berkshire readers.
HERENDEEN: I was there in, gosh, was it ’89 and ’90? I have to check the dates, but I was there for three years. The first year was with Nikos Psacharopoulos (artistic director for 33 years) and then he died (1989). The following year, there was a triumvirate of artist directors Peter Hunt, Austin Pendleton and George Morfogen. (Hunt was named artistic director. In 1996, long-time WTF stage manager Michael Ritchie became artistic director through 2005. Roger Rees took over for three years, then Nicholas Martin from 2008-2010. This is the third season for Jenny Gersten, who previously assisted Ritchie.)
I broke contract in my third year at WTF to start this festival. We’re different, also, in that we only focus on new work. They do a mix of new works and classics. We are in a legal and professional partnership with Shepherd University. I don’t know what WTF’s contract is with Williams. We’re here year `round supervising a theater minor for the university, raising money, developing and planning the season. Then producing during the summer, which is similar to WTF.
We have development plans to create a writing program year `round in partnership with the university.

CG: I reviewed Clybourne Park on Broadway. For my own website, I’ve also posted reviews of the play from Los Angeles, Boston, Indianapolis and Vermont. Barrington Stage is doing it this fall. This is the Clybourne Park syndrome. Regional theaters all over American seem to be producing the same short list of plays.
HERENDEEN: That’s great. They are reaching their audiences with a very important play.

CG: It’s a phenomenon of American regional theater. This short listing. Compared to which, in 23 years, you have presented a hundred new plays. What is the necessity of that?
HERENDEEN: My passion is to direct new work. I learned that in graduate school at Ohio University. George Sherman was my mentor/ director. In our second year, he required us to work with a living playwright in the MFA program. Three of us had to work with one of the playwrights. When I had that experience, and I was in the room with the playwright, I knew that any opportunity I would get to do that would be very exciting. I’ve always had that passion to direct new work.
Here, as I’ve said, we define new work in many different ways. We wouldn’t do a Clybourne Park because it’s had its development. It’s had its first and second production. Even with a third production, if the writer is still working on a play, that’s great. Or, if it’s not being done anywhere else, I would be interested. I saw the New York production at Playwright’s Horizon. If it wasn’t picked up in the D.C. area – it was by Woolly Mammoth Theater – I would have jumped on it in a minute. It’s a play that I’m quite attracted to. But it’s being done, and people have an opportunity to see it.
I will take a second production. Nobody’s jumped on (Sam Shepard’s) Heartless yet. I happen to think it’s a very important play and a play I’m attracted to. It’s a play I think our audiences are responding to.
Modern Terrorism was a play I actually had before the New York opening. I was quite interested and didn’t get on it fast enough. We’re reaping the rewards that he has a shot at it and then went back in and started working on it. I believe that he’s going to continue to work on it. So I think of Modern Terrorism, which was only done in the fall, as a very new and still-developing play.
Scott and Hem is a play I commissioned on an idea. It will go to Barrington Stage based on an agreement we made with Julianne Boyd. We were willing to say you can have the `Rolling World Premiere’ because all we’re –

CG: Rolling world premiere?
HERENDEEN: That’s what she wanted. She wouldn’t do it unless it had the words Rolling World Premiere. Frankly the words `World Premiere’ mean nothing to me. It’s bullshit. But if she needs it to sell tickets. . . My audience comes to see new plays. They don’t care if it’s a world premiere or what. But that’s very important to her to have the words World Premiere. We don’t have World Premiere-itis. All I cared about was Mark (St. Germain) getting another shot at this. If she wouldn’t do the play because she couldn’t call it `world premiere,’ then let’s come up with some creative language.

CG: It seems that it’s easier to get a first production than a second one.
HERENDEEN: You hear that a lot. A lot of theaters want to do the world premiere. Then they won’t do it if you’ve already done it. So I’m happy to let people do the second production.

CG: If you don’t make it on the first shot…
HERENDEEN: Which is crazy. We both know that it takes several productions before a play is finished. Especially a play that’s commissioned. This is the first audience to ever hear Scott and Hem. I can only imagine that he will do work between when he left last week and Barrington when it starts rehearsals. He will learn from the Barrington experience. I have high hopes that this play has a long life and that it will continue to get work until it gets its New York or big regional production.

CG: Last fall on Broadway, we saw David Mamet’s The Anarchist.
HERENDEEN: They sent me the script and wanted me to do it. Jeffrey Richards wanted me to do it.

CG: It got trashed. It bombed on Broadway, and critics hated it. Did you see it?
HERENDEEN: I read it.

CG: There were problems. It was an intimate play that never should have been on Broadway. It would have done much better in a smaller house. I came from that radical background in the 1960s as a Brandeis graduate. I totally understood and appreciated the context of the play. I knew Angela Davis –
HERENDEEN: I hired her niece.

CG: While dead on Broadway, that strikes me as a play that would do well in regional theaters.
HERENDEEN: Right. It’s a shame.

CG: Would you consider taking a play like that?
HERENDEEN: I did consider it. There were other plays I was interested in doing. I have five slots, and they all have to fit together. Our mandate is that the writers who come here leave with a better script. We hope that Mark has benefited from a full production with these actors.

CG: In terms of new plays, there seem to be a number with a single actor, two or three. The Anarchist, for example, had two actors (Debra Winger and Patti LuPone) and a very simple set. That would seem to be a compelling and affordable production for regional theaters. Is that a paradigm of how new plays are being written and produced?
HERENDEEN: We’ve done shows with larger casts, from five to six characters. We did The Overwhelming (2008) by J.T. Rogers, which had a large cast. Economics will determine how many Equity actors you can use. This year, I budgeted 16 Equity contracts for five plays. The actors who play Scott and Hem play two Puritans in Discourse. The characters of Abigail and Mercy in Discourse are Sally and The Nurse in Shepard’s Heartless.
We are committed to repertory. You’re going to see all five plays this week. Every two days, you can see all five. You will see Joey Collins as Fitzgerald and as A Puritan. On Saturdays, he’ll have a matinee as Fitzgerald and be in Discourse that evening. In rehearsals, they have four hours on one play and four hours on the other. That’s true rep.

CG: There have been a number of opinions that it was not a great season on Broadway. Also, we have the phenomenon of regional theater not taking chances with new work. They seem to program what they think the audience wants to see. Can you comment on the current state of American theater?
HERENDEEN: I’m so immersed in this theater that I think American theater persists because of new plays. I am passionate that new plays are produced without a production history. There’s nothing to fall back on. New plays are presented without a safety net.
I understand the economics of a large regional theater producing Clybourne Park because it has a production history and it has a safety net as it has pull quotes from positive reviews. If you do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire, there’s a production history there. Those are good plays worth seeing.
What’s important about what we’re trying to do, and other theaters committed to new work, is that we produce without that safety net. We’re giving birth and instigating, as is the case with Mark’s Play and Jane Martin’s play (H2O), we’re actually instigating the creation of that new work.
Maybe our $10,000 helped to make that play happen. Now rather than later. In the case of Jon Kern and Modern Terrorism we are giving him the opportunity to work on a play that was recently done. In many ways, I hope, we’re contributing to the future of literature for the stage.
Does that mean that all five of these plays will make it around the regions like Clybourne Park does? Will they get New York openings? I never know the answer to that. I hope there is an audience for these plays and that they have a life beyond Shepherdstown. That’s always the hope.

CG: What’s the attention span for what you are doing from the theater community? Do artistic directors come to see the plays? Are they cherry picking your productions?
HERENDEEN: Yes. There are people coming down to see them. There have been people already and more producers coming to see plays. They’re coming this week and next week. We do our best to try to invite people to see the plays.
We know that Mark St. Germain’s play already has a home in another month (Barrington Stage Company). They will be in rehearsal again, and I’m thrilled with that. I also have faith that with his reputation and the subject matter, this play will have a life.

CG: Is anything in the works for the other four plays?
HERENDEEN: Yes, a lot that I can’t reveal. We are hearing and having conversation that there is tremendous interest in H2O. There’s good buzz. So that we are quoted correctly: there’s a lot of buzz about H2O in the theater community.

CG: Do some plays bomb here?
HERENDEEN: We don’t even know what that word means. If you ask Mark, “Why do you choose Shepherdstown to do your work?” I think we provide a safety net for the writer.
At our theater festival, we take the fear out of failure.

CG: Have you said that before? Is it your mantra?
HERENDEEN: It’s my mantra to the company. This is the place for you to take your chances. Because, what happened to The Anarchist will not happen here. Not being looked at as an opening that will make or break a play. You can write the play you want to write here.
I don’t know what bombing means, but you will play to pretty much full houses. We play to full houses then stop. We could keep going. H2O is totally sold out for the run. I think we have just seven tickets left. We could extend it if we had that ability.
But how do you define a hit in a non-profit theater? We close it. So that lingo, bombing, personally, is a bad word for a new play. New plays deserve more nurturing. So when you hear, “That play’s a dog” or “Bombed” what does that mean?

CG: How does it feel have 75 critics and guests visiting from the ATCA conference?
HERENDEEN: I think it’s great. Whatever you say about us is going to bring us more attention. We have a really great story to tell. So we are delighted to have you here. However you tell the story it’s a story that’s going to resonate.

CG: It’s nice to feel welcomed and appreciated.
HERENDEEN: We welcome anyone who comes and sits in our chairs. We especially welcome people who are story tellers. Nothing will make me happier than that some of those people you said were offended (by Modern Terrorism) will talk about it. That will only bring me better plays.

CG: Taking a straw poll, it could be a better play. It could have been directed more sharply. There could be more character development. I would like to know more about the motivation of why this kid is willing to blow himself to kingdom come. We assume that we know why because we have read so much media and background on these terrorists. But it seems that in the play there is a lot of Morse code going on rather than in-depth character development. Chatting here with colleagues, however, they see things in the plays that I do not. Attending an ATCA conference, there is a remarkable critical mass of knowledge about contemporary theater. I learn that there are many details that I completely miss or simply get wrong.
There is an amazing spectrum of opinions, from those who say that they enjoyed the play and thought it was funny to those who say that I only laughed three times all night. To individuals saying, `I’m deeply offended; how could they do that?’

HERENDEEN: I love it. That tells me something good is going on. We provide a lot of opportunities for our audiences to discuss these plays. What I want to call conversations. The biggest segment of our audience see all five plays.
It’s not like Humana where we all go to shop. [ATCA will hold a conference next year at the 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays, in Louisville, February 26–April 6, 2014.] People come to see five new plays. They are immersed in plays that all have been pretty much written within the last year.
So they’re getting a snapshot of the American landscape within the last year. I think it’s terrific that critics want to talk about it. Theater creates a forum for living conversation. In some cases, with the living playwright.

CG: Last week during interviews at the Williamstown Theater Festival, I was talking with the writer of Johnny Baseball.
HERENDEEN: Richard Dresser. We’re done five of his plays. Johnny Baseball started at ART.

CG: I asked him about the relationship between a playwright and the critics. He told me about a play he did in St. Louis. There was a critic from the New York Times who wrote a positive review. When the production moved to New York the same critic panned the show.
HERENDEEN: That play was Rounding Third, which we did here.

CG: Do you get a pass being in West Virgina?
HERENDEEN: Again I don’t get that lingo, a pass?

CG: Is there a difference in being out of a major urban center?
HERENDEEN: We choose to be out of a major urban center.

CG: If New York, Chicago, Los Angeles are hardball, what’s this?
HERENDEEN: That’s not why I’m doing theater. What does hardball mean?

CG: Chin music. High inside heat.
HERENDEEN: We’re not a commercial theater. We don’t have to worry about filling seats with reviews. This will sound awful, but we’re pretty much review-proof.
CG So you don’t give a fuck what we think?
HERENDEEN: I do. But in terms of commercial, it’s not impacting our ticket sales. Actually, a play that is controversial might have a positive impact on our ticket sales. That’s great. If we’re looking at hardball as commercial success, that’s not our mission. Our mission is to produce and develop these plays. Let them breathe and go somewhere hopefully. Out of a hundred (in 23 years), we can’t predict which ones will do that.

CG: Who is evaluating you? At the end of a season, whom do you report to in terms of was it a good or bad program? Is that your board? The President of (Shepherd) University?
HERENDEEN: Not that I know of. I guess I would be my own worst judge. If there weren’t people sitting in the seats, and we were running up the budget, running deficits and going into debt. . . Our board is fiscally responsible for the festival.

CG: Twenty three years is a long run for an artistic director. That seems to be the case with founders of companies. Williamstown, for example, is on its fourth artistic director in the past ten years.
HERENDEEN: Yes, but Nikos ran it for 33 years. If you look at other founders . . . That’s actually making me think. I want to investigate the word `founder.’ That would be a great story. To look at the founders of some theaters. Joe Papp (June 22, 1921–October 31, 1991 founder of Public Theatre). William Ball (April 29, 1931–July, 30 1991) was an American stage director and founder of the American Conservatory Theater. Look at people who started something with a particular vision for theater. When Bill Ball started ATC, he had a very specific vision for that. It’s a great theater, but where have people taken it? That would be an interesting thing to look at.
I started this out of a passion to do new work outside of the urban glare. I don’t have the concerns of my colleagues in regional theaters who have to fill more seats. It came at the right time. We came here when the then-president of the college was interested in starting an Equity theater during the summer. He saw the proximity of urban centers (Baltimore and Washington, D.C.) and the advantages of culture. We don’t have a training program, but theater is an important part of our education, especially as an undergraduate. Theater on college campuses is important. He saw that and wanted to up the stakes by making it an Equity theater. That’s how I came into the picture. But I convinced him to make it an Equity theatre to do new plays. Thus, the vision of contemporary theater outside the urban glare.

CG: How does the college benefit?
HERENDEEN: Students get to intern. Stories are being written about this festival for the past 23 years that the college didn’t reach before. It brings attention and publicity. But mostly that we are creating new literature, and where else but at the academy? Where else can you be allowed to fail than at the academy? Which is why it is a great partnership for new play development to be in an academic setting. With no strings attached. Because we have the ability to try something. We take the fear out of failure by creating such joy in the creative process.



Key Subjects: 
Ed Herendeen, Contemporary American Theater Festival, CATF, Modern Terrorism, Mark St. Germain, Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah
Charles Giuliano
July 2013