Editor’s note: Ed Herendeen, the founder and producing director of Shepherdstown’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, formally welcomed actors, playwrights and other members of the 2013 company Monday evening at a picnic on the campus of Shepherd University. He agreed to share his inspiring remarks with the Spirit.
[cleeng_content id="999843504" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars ….”
– Jack Kerouac
This quote really resonates with me because it best describes the kind of artists gathered here tonight. We are all just a bit mad … mad to live … mad to create … mad to talk about serious issues, mad for radical innovation … mad for art. And we burn, for creating theater. We are fearless in our collaboration with the American playwright. On behalf of Liz Duffy Adams, Jon Kern, Jane Martin, Mark St. Germain and Sam Shepard: Welcome to the Contemporary American Theater Festival! Welcome to the future. The future isn’t just a place we’ll go to this summer; it’s a place that we will invent together. The future is where we will create fascination and passion with our 2013 repertory. The future spends the summer in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Earlier today I spent some quiet time in the empty rehearsal studios in the Center for Contemporary Art. The rooms are empty. The floor is clean, virtually spotless if you don’t count the hundreds of skid marks left there by actors from past seasons. Other than the skid marks and rehearsal tape and me, the rooms are empty. Our newest rehearsal space in the Marinoff Theater, the room is completely empty. You will be the first artists to leave your marks on this empty floor. These empty rooms are ready for you to transform them into the 2013 festival. Tomorrow we put into motion new work by our 2013 playwrights.
The first steps in this creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful. I am exhilarated by the voice thumping in my head: “Tomorrow we begin rehearsing a new season.”
Every society should have a mirror held to it by artists. The theater is a place for rebellion. The stage is a space of self-discovery and self making. Our theater festival is a place for instigating a dialogue and a conversation about our turbulent and uncertain world.
You and I are curious artists. We are curious about people, about culture, and we long to tell stories. We believe in the power of story. We believe that the stories that we present on our stages can provoke and allow us to foster empathy for different points of view. I think this is crucial. We give the audience a visual cue of what we are thinking and feeling. We are instinctively connected to the living playwright … we are a playwright-inspired theater festival. We are dedicated to producing and developing new American theater.
I love language. I love words. I am drawn to writers, directors, designers and actors who share my love of language and creative articulation. The process of creating new work always begins with the words on the page.
I remember reading somewhere that the theater is a faith-based industry. We imagine, we believe, and have faith that audiences will show up, scenery will be in place, rewrites will be embraced, and the first light cue will illuminate the truth. We are makers of belief. We create truth and belief on stage. And you and I know that belief-power on stage is awe-inspiring. Belief power is pervasive in the theater, and belief power is tremendously compelling. This is one of the reasons that audiences will sit in darkness giving us their undivided attention.
So listen to me. I love rehearsing a new play. New plays are produced without a safety net of tradition. New plays do not have a production history to fall back on. New plays are risky, and I love taking risks. I am most happy, I am stoked when I am in rehearsal making new work with a community of brave artists. I am ruthless and passionate in my pursuit of new plays. I am not interested in producing minor works. I am inspired by reading writers like Liz Duffy Adams, Jon Kern, Jane Martin, Mark St. Germain and Sam Shepard. I am compelled to produce their new plays because I am always looking to maintain “the white hot pitch” of new American theater. Their plays are like jet fuel that pumps adrenaline into my heart.
Tomorrow we will unleash a tsunami of creative energy in the rehearsal halls, shops and admin offices. This summer you and I will discover the rush of making art together with these five extraordinary, living American playwrights.
Do you realize how fortunate we are? We have the opportunity to work with the living playwright in the room. We get to give birth to three world premieres and breathe new life into two new plays this summer. We have an awesome responsibility to nurture and develop their plays by creating a resounding resonance on stage.
It is not an accident that brings us together tonight. It is never an accident when artists come together to make art. We come together because we have to share our passion with other artists. We find it impossible to stand still; we are compelled to create new work. And we insistently, in this age of demonization and fear of difference, gather to create stories about our fellow human beings with curiosity, empathy and compassion.
Our expectation this summer is that theater matters … writing plays matters. Producing new work matters. So I invite each of you to create dangerous work with me. I am asking each of you to be militantly articulate about your work. Demand more from yourselves. Don’t let your questions get safer, smaller. Encourage each other to take risks and make dangerous, bold choices. Demand to laugh. Not just at others but yourselves. Demand fun. Demand passion. Demand fury!
CATF playwright Steven Dietz says: “Art is often made in a fury. And we can learn more, in one instant on stage, from someone’s fury … how it engages, divides or offends … than we can from years of sanitized, community-approved work.”
Most of popular culture is shallow, bland and amusing. The serious theater seeks something else: illumination, deep feeling, alienation, confirmation of strangeness, the criticism of society and the criticism of life. Sentimentality is the stuff of the established culture, so the serious theater must cultivate the opposite — which is poetry … moments of true feeling, where the pleasure in the play of words and images takes over. This is precisely what our audience expects from us when they tell us to: Fascinate me. Amuse me. Comfort me. Entertain me. Make me dream. Make me laugh. Make me shiver. Make me weep. Make me think.
Tonight I am asking each of you to stand out. Be memorable. Be remarkable. Create honest and authentic work. The world is indeed better off because there are those of us who live to write, act, direct, design, stage manage, work tech, work in administration … and, perhaps most daunting of all, start and build a theater company dedicated to new work.
Let’s agree to adopt the Theater Communications Group new vision statement: “We imagine a better world for theater and a better world because of theater.” Let’s begin our new season in that spirit!
– Ed Herendeen founded the Contemporary American Theater Festival in 1991. The 23rd season kicks off July 5. For details on this year’s works, go to catf.org.