Ed Herendeen on Shepherdstown's Theatre Festival

Presenting and Defending New Plays at CATF

By: - Jul 28, 2013


Some 23 years ago, Ed Herendeen, then with the Williamstown Theatre Festival in an adminsitrative 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 has presented 100 new plays either as premieres or second productions of works in development.

This summer the American Theatre 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 from July 5 to 28.

We met in his office for a lively discussion of CATF. This is part one of that dialogue.

Charles Giuliano Can we discuss the process of a commission for a new play this season 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. When his agent contacted me he said that Mark had a really great idea for a script.

He 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.

EH 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. (St. Germain is the director of his play.)

CG 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 (link to Dr. Ruth dialogue) 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, an 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 Theatre Festival commission comes with no expectations of shared royalties. Can we discuss that?

EH 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 writer’s attention and that sets a course to develop and produce new American plays.

We do not have World Premiereitis. 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 theatre. 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 Theatre) scale for equity actors. It is based on the capacity of theatres in our case 180 seats for that theatre (Scott and Hem).

We want 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 spend time to 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 but 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 theatre and I’m not going to start now.”

EH 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 (American Theatre Critics Association) and there has been a lively dialogue about that play.

EH That’s what we want.

CG Some individuals were deeply offended.

EH Good. They should be. That’s what theatre 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.

EH 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?

EH It goes down number one, not that full houses determine success, but it’s a signature production of what we do. Theatre 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?

EH 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?

EH 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?

EH 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?

EH 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?

EH I didn’t see that yet.

CG You understand the concept and have heard the outrage.

EH Yeah. I don’t know if I have any thought about that.

CG It’s current.

EH Where is the compassion for people? Where is the empathy? I think that Jon’s play attempts that through comedy. Our theatre 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 Mash (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 theatre stood up during the Vietnam War. American Theatre was a voice during the Vietnam War when our country was divided. Where has the American Theatre 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.

EH I hear that a lot but don’t know what it means. From guys like you.

CG Academics.

EH I’m not going to defend the play. The play speaks for itself.

CG Consider two films about Vietman: 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 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. While 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, theatre needs to cross over into something else to have a real and lasting impact.

EH 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.

In the Washington Post “Banned by Lebanon, ignored by Arab countries and praised by U.S. critics, the suicide-bomber drama The Attack finally got a splashy sold-out Middle East premiere — in Jerusalem.

“Many people settling into their seats at the recent Jerusalem Film Festival screening in the plush Cinematheque, which overlooks the Old City, had lived through the years when Palestinian suicide bombings roiled Israeli society, killing hundreds of people in crowded cafes, buses and markets.

“Now, as the theater grew dark, Israelis were asked to examine their country’s security equation through the eyes of Amin Jafaari, an award-winning Israeli surgeon of Palestinian background who is shocked to discover that his beautiful wife is a suicide bomber, responsible for a blast at a Tel Aviv cafe that claims 17 victims, including 11 children…”

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 Mash 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 Theatre who responded to something.

There are plays out there but I don’t see American Theatre 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?

EH Cloudy.

CG Is that your word for critics? (laughs)

EH 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 (bomber) in Boston is a human being.

CG Would you run this play in Boston right now?

EH 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.

EH Me too. I grew up in Brookline.

CG So did I. Did you go to Brookline High?

EH No but my mother went to Cambridge High and Latin.

CG I went to Boston Latin School. Where did you go to high school?

EH 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?

EH 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 story telling 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. That put bombs in printers. That lock their keys in a car full of explosives. What is preventing our writers from telling that story?

Here, at this theatre 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.

EH 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 Johnathan 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.

EH Absolutely. There are plays about Hitler.

CG So did Jeffrey Dahmer. So you give everyone a free pass?

EH 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?

EH 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.”

Part Two of Interview