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Enjoying a Stellar Theater Marathon in Charming Shepherdstown, WVA

By Dave Zuchowski with  all Photos by  Bill Rockwell  Except Where Noted

A Parking Lot Party at the CATF Credit: Courtesy Photo

It had been years since I first discovered lovely Shepherdstown. I had fond memories of the West Virginia hamlet, the state’s oldest, founded in 1762, that lies serenely along the banks of the Potomac. Once or twice years past, I attended the Contemporary American Theater Festival, a magnetic draw for those with an affinity for live theater.

Just across the river, Sharpsburg dredged up opposite feelings of a prior visit that introduced me to the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War at Antietam.

On a more pleasant note, Shepherdstown’s striking, eye-catching architecture, artisan shops and praise-worthy restaurants and eateries alone made a return visit worthwhile. However, one of the nation’s top theater festivals makes the town even more of a must-do for lovers of theater like me.

Another Parking Lot Party at CATF

Hosted by Shepherd University, the festival was founded by Ed Herendeen in 1991 with a budget of only $90,000. It has continued each summer since, save for the covid interruption of 2020 and 2021, producing five to six plays in repertory. Now in its 33rd season, the festival budget has currently swollen to $1.5 million.

This July, in this history-laden, small town of 1,531, audiences, myself included, are able to see five full productions of world-premiere plays by American playwrights. To add to the experience, festival administrators have added backstage tours, brunch with artistic director Peggy McKowen, lectures, post-show discussions and more.

Over the span of two days, I was able to view all five full-length plays performed in four different theaters. My most challenging schedule had me start the day at noon to catch the first play, then follow up with others at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Day two, as you might suspect, was a bit more leisurely, but never was I rushed, for, in between, I had ample down time to relax, catch a bite to eat, and reflect on what I’d just seen. Pace is everything, and I managed to indulge my theatrical interests without being hurried. Even on day one.

Outside the Frank Center for the Arts


Known for its audacious, adventurous and provocative repertoire, the festival choices this year are diverse and varied. With themes covering the cost of lies and the price of truth and considerations of how we live our lives in either meaningful or directionless ways, they also focus on subjects of current interest like Artificial Intelligence, competing space travel corporations led by aggressive billionaire entrepreneurs and hate crime and its ramifications.

The plays are staged in four different venues. They include the 186-seat Marinoff Theater, the 416-seat Frank Center for the Arts and a black box space in Room 112 of Center for Contemporary Arts. One off-campus site, the historic 1909 Shepherdstown Opera House, located on bustling German Street, is a CATF venue for the first time this year.

The 1909 Opera House

Over the course of its history, the festival has produced 133 new plays, 56 of them world premieres, written by 96 playwrights. The festival has also commissioned and produced 11 new American plays, including Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher in 1999, which was later adapted as the film Stage Beauty, starring Clare Danes, Billy Crudop, and Tom Wilkinson in 2004.

In 2017, the New York Times’ Stephen McElroy picked CATF as “one of the top festivals in theater … that we think you should see this spring and summer around the country”.

Each year, festival staff considers between 100 and 150 new play submissions for possible production. Initially, McKowen reads through most of the submissions herself, then narrows down the options with assistance from others on staff.

Playwright agents submit new scripts to the festival, but McKowen, who worked at the theater for 16 years before becoming artistic director last year, also goes to as many new play readings across the nation as possible.

CATF Artistic Director Peggy McKowen  Credit: Courtesy Photo

“Administration used to pick the festival plays each year by January, but, since becoming artistic director, my goal is to select the plays for production a year ahead of the season, but we’re not quite there yet,” McKowen said. “However, we do already have two plays picked for our 2024 season.”

Assembling the actors, directors and tech crew for each season does have its challenges. For one, many theater people don’t want to leave home for weeks at a time for rehearsal and the run of the play. Then too, they often book their work schedule well in advance.

“We try to maintain a balance of new artists and those who come back because the latter are already familiar with how the festival operates,” McKowen said.

The artistic director said it’s an exciting time for the festival, but also difficult just coming out of covid trying to build back its audience base.

Recently, the festival was gifted the Christ Reformed Church in Shepherdstown. One of the administration’s goals in to utilize it for off-season programming and eventually use it year round.

“We’re trying to reimagine aspects of the festival, expand our partnerships across the country and educate a younger generation of theater goers,” she said. “Last year, we started a fall play reading series, and, long term, would like to do readings in the fall, workshop the plays in the spring, then go to production in July.”

The following is a brief synopsis of the 2023 season’s plays:

The Overview Effect, written by Lynn Rosen, is a showdown between competing space companies, each on a quest for Mars, ends in disaster with the explosion of RedSky’s unmanned rocket.As air disaster expert Dylan Marks searches for signs of sabotage, her investigation becomes deeply personal and ultimately life changing. This epic tale explores the costs of risk-taking – scientific, emotional, and spiritual – and asks, “Do we know all the ways there are to be alive?”

Redeemed by Chisa Hutchinson, spins a story over the course of two fictional prison visitations between Claire Yiang, a woman whose brother was murdered nine years ago, and Trevor Barlow, the murderer. Having sent Claire a letter begging for a visit, Trevor tries to prove he’s now a changed man thanks to the help of her brother’s ghost. Claire must decide if Trevor is capable of redemption, or just attempting to impress the parole board.

In Your Name Means Desire, Aislin is getting older. She suffers the inevitable indignities of being human and hates technology. Stacy, her caregiver is perfectly toned, doesn’t age, and is utterly in control – because she’s an AI entity. And there’s a new algorithm out there called AOS or Approximation of Soul. Does Stacy have it? Oscar nominee and Obie-winning José Rivera examines how we live, die, and form our sense of self in a world that’s increasingly saturated with technology.

In Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance, Spiritus means “breathing”. This solo play about how we live and pass, about time and direction – both celebrates and appreciates life and death, and just how much we take for granted.

Obie Award winning and Pulitzer Prize Finalist Dael Orlandersmith both writes and performs in her new play, Spiritus/ Virgil’s Dance. Dael Orlandersmith returns to CATF after her production of Antonio’s song/ I was dreaming of a son, co-written with Antonio Edwards Suarez.

Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) by Jeffrey Lieber, focuses on Adele and Zachary, who have rendezvoused in a remote cabin in the woods to celebrate their passion and be together for decades. This year though, something is…different. The place is falling apart, a sense of loss pervades the air, they’re both keeping secrets, and Adele has brought a gun…one that belongs to her longtime husband.

Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) is an unfolding mystery about the cost of lies, the price of truth, and the consequences of long-overdue revelations.

For more information and to reserve tickets, go to or phone 681-240 -CATF (2283).

For a Place to Stay, the Quality Inn at 25 Union St. in historic Harpers Ferry, is a short drive from Shepherdstown. The hotel is just minutes away from the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Appalachian Trail, C&O Canal, Harpers Ferry Brewing, and nearby River & Trail, River Riders, and Harpers Ferry Adventure Park.

The guest rooms offer a comfortable bed with premium bedding, a flat-screen TV, microwave and a refrigerator. The hotel also features a fitness center, a complimentary hot breakfast and free parking. Phone 304-521-4710.

Lazing Outside Lilah’s Restaurant

For a Place to Dine, Lilah, 115 E. German St. in Shepherdstown, is named after one of owner, Connie Heyer’s, beautiful furry family members, a blood hound and rottweiler mix, lost to the world in October 2019 due to bone cancer. You can find Lilah’s photo on the wall at the end of the bar as well as other dog photos and dog-themed items throughout the hip, classy and dog-friendly restaurant, housed in an old 1700s building.

Trio of Deviled Eggs Done in Three Different Styles

Menu items I can vouch for are the trio of deviled egg appetizer, each done in a different style, the house specialty, a 12-oz. charred pork chop glazed with in-house made bacon-jam topping and the broiled yellowfin tuna, over jasmine rice with diced zucchini, mushrooms, red peppers and fried won tons.

Glazed Pork Chop with Red Cabbage and Red Skin Mashed Potatoes

Phone 304-870-4038 or

Broiled Yellowfin Tuna



Contemporary American Theater Festival

Sheperdstown, WVA

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