I have to disclose that I have a personal interest in CATF: I spent two seasons with them when I was a sproutling, and the experience at that place cannot be topped. I was surrounded by amazing and talented friends, worked harder than ever before, had a f*@&ing blast, and learned more than I could’ve learned in a year of school. On a deep level, I think I admire them most for their unruffled attitude, whether it’s intentional or not. So many regional theaters concern themselves with appearing edgy or hip (good luck) or New York-tied, but CATF is unabashedly its West Virginia self, and you know how it goes–truly cool kids don’t need to say they’re cool. They just are.
Elizabeth Blair’s interview includes one of artistic director Ed Herendeen’s central matter-of-fact ideas about playwrights:
“One of the things I’ve learned over the years, especially working with writers, that it’s very difficult to get the first production, but writers tell me it’s even more difficult to get production number two,” Herendeen says. “In other words, once your play has had its world premiere, lots of theaters don’t want to do it because it’s been done. And then how does your play move on? How does your play have life beyond the world premiere?
As a wanna-be playwright, I wonder the same thing. “World premieres” are sexy, they get highlighted in grant applications and plastered on postcards. There are plenty of theater-to-sex analogies out there, and this is one of them: world premiere = vestal virgin. Although the play remains the same lovely piece of art as it was the day before, it somehow loses its appeal after the run, apparently. What’s to become of all those plays that’ve been had for the first time?
If you’re a producer like CATF, world premiere status doesn’t even matter that much–Ed has the ability to travel and bring new plays from far-away theaters home to WV, and it makes no difference to the audience whether the play premiered at CATF or elsewhere–it’s brand new to them. If you’re a writer, what do you hope for? If you strive to get produced, it’s a catch-22 situation: you can’t get produced if you don’t have a production history, but if you have a production history you can’t get produced. I’m generalizing, I know, but chances are if an idea is convoluted and ridiculous, it’s probably true of the theater industry.
American Theater: We don’t make no sense!®
Working with playwrights, some famous and some not, is Ed’s game, and I sure wish he wasn’t such a one-of-a-kind guy. Many, many more theaters in this country should be like his. What’s the point of theater–a living, of-the-moment art-form–if people continue to show The Cherry Orchard for the 1 billionth time? I suppose this might sound odd coming from someone who works with a Shakespeare-centric company, but we don’t need to agree on everything, do we? (Much love to you, TPTC.) My friends are talking about producing a play I wrote in the winter, and even after being in theater as long as I have, I really don’t have a clue as to what to do with the piece afterwards. That’s kind of sad.
Playwrights shouldn’t be limited to seeing their work premiere and then fizzle out. CATF shouldn’t be as radical as it is. People who disagree will say, “But new plays don’t sell tickets!” To that I say bollocks. If you do good work, people will come. Besides, any play lacking a household name (Shakespeare, Andrew Lloyd Webber and uh… Shakespeare) might as well be brand new; even mainstays like Albee and Shepard are considered a “risk” for audiences.
If the Beatles had produced Please Please Me and nothing else, and continued to play songs from that record over the next decade, no one would like them either. Theater suffers from an overarching boringness, so three cheers to CATF and folks akin who are making new work happen.