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CATF in Context features insight from festival stage directors

By Staff | Jul 12, 2019

CATF stage director Shelley Butler, left, talks about her play with Michael Fruehstorfer, of Los Angeles, Calif. and CATF trustee Ann M. Harkins, of Berkeley Springs, in Shepherd University's Center for Contemporary Arts on Saturday morning. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — With funding from the West Virginia Humanities Council, the Contemporary American Theater Festival hosted its first CATF in Context event of the 2019 season in Shepherd University’s Center for Contemporary Arts on Saturday.

Held every Saturday at 10 a.m. through the end of the month, the event features different members of CATF’s company speaking about their backgrounds and experiences with CATF. Four of the six festival stage directors spoke on Saturday morning about how they collaborated with the playwrights to develop accurate, original interpretations of their scripts.

“We made changes up until opening night last night,” said “Wrecked” director Shelley Butler, who said she learned about CATF from returning CATF director Courtney Sale. “As the director, you are the one determining the tone through all of the departments. The playwright creates the world, but then you manifest it.”

While Butler said plays often develop best when their playwrights and directors are on the same page, sometimes that isn’t possible, according to “Antonio’s Song” director Mark Clements.

“Our job is to look at the feeling the playwright is erecting. We try to interpret that and that’s why we sometimes move things around and put them in a different place than the playwright suggested,” Clements said. “You’re trying to make this thing live and breathe with this group of actors. I do a lot of table work, and I always think, ‘Are we going to ever get on our feet?’

The CATF in Context audience listens to the festival stage directors discussing their creative process in Shepherd University's Center for Contemporary Arts on Saturday morning. From left, Mark Clements, Courtney Sale, Shelley Butler and Ron Lagomarsino answer questions from event moderator and CATF Associate Producing Director Peggy McKowen. Tabitha Johnston

“Sometimes something invigorates the play and helps us look at it in a different way,” Clements said, mentioning playwrights don’t always respond to changes to their stage directors. “A good playwright will say, ‘I never looked at it that way,’ rather than hold it so close to themselves they don’t want to leave it behind.”

Ron Lagomarsino had already directed the world premiere of “Chester Bailey” at the American Conservatory Theatre-SF, and after winning several Theatre Bay Area Awards for the production, Lagomarsino knew he wanted to direct the play again. So when the the playwright told him CATF was looking for a director for its production of “Chester Bailey,” Lagomarsino jumped at the chance to work with the play again.

“Joe Dougherty told me this festival wanted to do this play, and I said I wanted to direct it, and he said, ‘I want you to direct it,'” Lagomarsino said of Dougherty, the playwright.

And after Lagomarsino talked with CATF Founder and Artistic Director Ed Herendeen and Associate Producing Director Peggy McKowen, he said he knew had made the right call.

“Anywhere in the country, the tone for a production is set from the top,” Lagomarsino said. “At our first meeting, I thought, ‘I really want to be at that theater.'”

For Sale, who returned this summer to direct “Support Group for Men,” being part of CATF is an opportunity to interpret plays in ways that can impact audience members’ lives.

“I want to, as a director, make the lives of those engaged with the play better, by asking ‘What are the ways we develop that emotional capital and make it deep and rich and moving?'” Sale said.

To learn more about CATF, visit catf.org.