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CATF ‘10 season kicks off

By Staff | Jul 9, 2010

Aly Geisler, a carpenter from Toledo, Ohio, mops a floor on the set of “Inana” before a technical rehearsal last week. Chronicle photo by Michael Theis

Peggy McKowen looks tired – her eyelids seem to hang with a heavy weight. But as the full-time associate producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, she has every right to be. For the last week, in technical rehearsal and in the pay-what-you-can previews, the cast and crew of the CATF have been working 12 hour days, often into the early morning, to fine tune the five plays which make up this years CATF, which opens tonight with the staging of the “Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show”on the Frank Center Stage and “Lidless” in the Studio Theater at Sarah Cree Hall.

“We’ve been working from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. for several days in a row,” said McKowen in an interview last week at her office in the Center for Contemporary Art on West Campus Drive.McKowen says that the lack of sleep doesn’t really bother her, but the number of items to juggle at once can be stressful.

This is McKowen’s fourth season with CATF, she previously worked as a freelance costume and set designer and was also the chair of West Virginia University’s Division of Theater and Dance. Her job is simple: coordinate the ground operations of a nationally renown summer theater festival producing five plays simultaneously.

Every play has five main focuses: scenery, costumes, lighting, sound and music. That by itself would be a lot to deal with, but there are also programs to be designed and printed, publicity and marketing to coordinate, a lecture series to organize, and making sure the cast and crew are served two catered meals per day.”It’s just a lot of stuff compressed into a very short timespan,” said McKowen.

McKowen says the hardest part of her job is dealing a wide variety of constituents, from “providing creative freedom for the artists”, to dealing with patrons of the festival, to dealing with administration officials. “You have to keep all those people feeling important and valued, which they are.”

The easiest part of McKowen’s job? The actual plays themselves. “Theater is easy, I mean, it’s what I’ve done, it’s what I do,” she said.

Caryn Michael, a 22 year-old Shepherd University student majoring in Art Education, works for the CATF as an administrative assistant. During the school year she works for CATF part-time, during the summer she is bumped up to full time, working between eight to nine hours per day. This is her second year working for the CATF. She helps with the process of hiring over 80 temporary theater employees.

Michael is one of a small number of Shepherd University student employees. Many of them are also interested in exploring careers in theater production, and the festival offers them the chance to work side by side with card-carrying members of professional theater and entertainment unions. For Michael, a sculptor studying art education, the festival has provided her with insight into the craft of theater which she hopes to incorporate into her future teaching.

“It’s different than what my major is and has allowed to me see theater as this great art form which I can bring into the classroom one day,” said Michael, who said there is no better training for dealing with kids than directing actors, an opportunity she had this past spring when she took a directing class at Shepherd.

“It’s interesting to see how they build from a skeleton crew of four or five, to this 89 person staff we have working the festival,” said Michael in an interview last week.

One of those seasonal workers is Robert Klingelhoefer from Morgantown. He teaches scene design at WVU, and has designed the sets for all of this years CATF plays with the exception of “White People”.

Sitting in the Frank Center Theater last week as crew members were preparing the stage for a technical rehearsal of”Inana”, Klingelhoefer muses on the central scenic obstacle presented by the play, saying, “the thing to solve, I guess, is that most of the reality takes place in a hotel in London, but many of the scenes also take place in the characters memory, back in Iraq.” How can you pull that off quickly and artfully?

For “Inana” he created a stage, which, while centered around a drab hotel room, allows the actors to walk into areas of the stage painted with Islamic motif’s. Klingelhoefer hopes that this spatial solution, coupled with subtle changes in lighting, will allow the audience to seamlessly understand that certain scenes are flashbacks.

While “Inana” plays on the large Frank Center stage and allows for a lot of movement and more complex sets, “Lidless” is showing in the much smaller Studio Theater at Sarah Cree Hall. Klingelhoeffer says that design challenges change somewhat in such an intimate setting. “The floor becomes very important, and the walls disappear, or else they’d be obstacles to the people sitting around the stage,” he said.

Most of the “Lidless”, which takes on the topic of torture at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, takes place in Minnesota, yet the stage features a large chain link and pipe cage hanging over the actors. It hovers over the characters like a memory, says Kingelhoeffer. “Even though the play takes place in the real world, their life is still being influenced, or haunted, by what went on in Gitmo, it becomes a recurring image within which the entire play plays out inside of.” he said.

Klingelhoefer says that many modern plays are written like a film, but theater does not allow you to “cut” to the next scene or location. Thus, he strips the play to it’s bare essentials. “The less you do, the faster you can change perspectives in the audience’s mind, and lighting becomes very important,” he said. “I create physical spaces, where the lighting designer then helps shift focus and helps the audience understand the reality.”

Much of Klingelhoefer’s job seems to be to give clues to the audience about how they should feel during certain parts of the narrative. “The visual clues, the color, all the elements of design give the audience some information about what they are seeing,” he said. “The magic of theater is that you have to do it very simply.”