Theater Festival Returns To Shepherdstown Post COVID
During the onset of COVID-19, countless organizations and venues had no choice but to shut their doors, forcing many institutions, including those found in artistic communities across West Virginia, to adjust.
The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown is one institution in the midst of recovery. Operating in Shepherdstown, a small town with a population of fewer than 2,000 people, visitors can easily see the community’s vibrant, artistic roots.
Like other artistic institutions around the state, CATF was forced to put development of its yearly rotation of plays on hold in 2020, instead opting to look for other ways to entertain audiences in the meantime. Peggy McKowen, the theater festival’s associate producing director, worked with the staff to find new alternatives.
“Although we could not produce a season last year, we were able to continue developing the plays with the design teams, and the directors, and the playwrights,” McKowen said.
The festival’s staff got inventive with how they were able to make theater safe for audiences. The organization was able to do what McKowen calls a “deep dive” on their previously scheduled plays for 2020, while delaying the live performances until after the pandemic. Melissa Crespo, director of the festival’s performance of Sheepdog, written by Kevin Artigue, was one of the group of creatives making it happen.
“The more we can keep artists employed and get audiences watching stories again and enjoying art in different ways, the better,” Crespo said. “I’m optimistic and grateful to still be working in whatever capacity that is.”
In the meantime, festival staff uploaded a YouTube series called “The Making Of,” detailing the processes that go into their plays. They also got to work creating audio drama adaptations for both Sheepdog and The House of the Negro Insane by Terence Anthony, while also continuing to work on the stage performances. It was a completely new experience for those involved, including for William Oliver Watkins, who plays the lead role of Attius in The House of the Negro Insane.
“We were trying to -- and I hope we succeeded -- allow the listener to submerge him or herself and be almost a silent member of the cast in a way that we couldn’t even really accomplish in the theater,” Watkins said.
Watkins has been involved with multiple productions with CATF in the past, and thinks that new social norms and technologies that grew in popularity during COVID could affect how theater is produced in the future.
“I think live theater is always going to be there, no amount of Zooming can ever make up for being in a space with people and feeling that kind of energy. But the productions around it, I think, are gonna continue to take advantage of this remote technology because it does allow you to be in four places at once,” Watkins said.
CATF’s work during the pandemic will pay off this July, as they put on four weekly street parties each Friday starting July 9th. Each party will be completely outdoors in downtown Shepherdstown, with the first two parties featuring local musicians, poets, and artists from the Eastern Panhandle along with performances of selected scenes from theater festival plays .
Beginning July 23 and continuing July 30th, these events will feature listening parties for the audio drama productions of The House of the Negro Insane and Sheepdog, with headphones available to party-goers as these editions debut to the public. McKowen says these parties are the perfect way to revitalize the Shepherdstown community in the wake of COVID-19.
“We thought the best thing to do would be downtown, on the street, in the middle of the community, where everybody can see us, everybody can be part of it,” McKowen said.
The return of the CATF is important economically, It attracts tourists from 39 states, and an economic impact study estimated the festival brings in $5.8 million to Shepherdstown. But the festival is also important to the artistic heart of the community.
“I think CATF is incredibly special because it is one of the few cradles for new work within the US -- and who knew it was in West Virginia?” Crespo said. “And I know from experience there are audience members that come every year, and it’s wonderful to see that loyalty. People know when you go to CATF, you're not going to see your average play.”
As more West Virginians get vaccinated and COVID restrictions begin to relax, McKowen thinks local communities around the state are regaining an important part of what makes those communities thrive: their artistic centers.
“I truly believe that theater is the artistic medium of a community. I truly believe what we put on stage should reflect what is happening to the people in our world today, in our very communities,” McKowen said. “We can look at things, we can talk about things that otherwise might seem uncomfortable, and we can have a good conversation about that, and we can share with each other in a way that just makes our community stronger.”