When you are in your 20s, you don’t imagine anything lasting 20-plus years.
In 1991, the stars aligned perfectly over Shepherdstown, W.Va. Those of us in theater know that the stars almost never align, let alone perfectly. There is always something that’s off; something you wish you’d done better; something that went wildly off-track. But in 1991, everything shifted into place, and the Contemporary American Theater Festival produced its first season. That was only 21 years ago. And let me tell you: place matters.
Twenty-one years ago my theater friends were in disbelief when I announced that I was going to West Virginia to start a professional theater dedicated to producing and developing new work. They said, “Seriously?” In fact, our geography – Shepherdstown in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle and on the campus of Shepherd University – plays an essential role in the success of the Contemporary American Theater Festival. For the past 21 years we have created an artistic haven for professional theater artists to operate outside the glare of the urban spotlight.
This historic hamlet nestled along the banks of the Potomac River provides the ideal environment for innovation and creative risk-taking. Shepherdstown offers artists an intense interaction with a vibrant and eclectic community that engages – from business to private citizen – in the creative flow of making theater.
Shepherdstown is simply the perfect community for what we do.
Some people possess the commonly held belief that Broadway is the center of the American theater. Yet every summer, playwrights and theater artists from around America converge here to nurture, develop and produce five new American plays in rotating repertory. Shepherdstown virtually becomes the summer home for the future of the American theater. Since 1991, Shepherdstown has been an incubator for 90 new American plays.
Richard Florida writes in his bestseller “Who’s In Your City,” “It is true that where we live and work does matter. Where we live affects every aspect of our lives It can determine the income we earn, the people we meet, the friends we make, the partners we choose, and the options available to our children and families.”
The power of place has everything to do with our happiness.
Aristotle observed that human beings seek happiness above all else. Most who study happiness say that true well-being comes from social relationships-close and loving connections with family and friends and from doing work that has purpose and about which you are passionate. Place is essential to fulfilling these basic needs.
In his captivating bestseller “Stumbling On Happiness,” Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes that “most of us make at least three important decisions in our lives: where to live, what to do, and with whom to do it.” Note that he lists the “where” question first. It is clear that “place” plays a fundamental role in our endeavors to be happy. Choosing the right place to live can make all the difference in our quest for happiness.
Twenty-one years ago, when Dow Benedict was recruiting me to move to Shepherdstown to start a professional theater, he and my wife Sue were sitting on a bench at the Frank Center overlooking the Shepherd campus. Sue remarked, “Wouldn’t it be nice to grow old in Shepherdstown?” Decades later we feel so very fortunate that we chose to live, raise three children and create art here in a community that values open-mindedness, tolerance and self expression.
For me, the work never gets old. Every summer is a new beginning. This week we put into motion the 21st season of the Contemporary American Theater Festival. And I share with you a profound belief that this repertory of new American writing is important and necessary. It demonstrates what I care about most in my professional life: new work, particularly new American writing that is socially engaged and represents the diversity of America. Our 2011 Repertory plays a vital role in America’s understanding of herself, her times and her destiny. You will witness a collision of stories, styles and voices that lead all of us to a better understanding of ourselves as we navigate the future.
Twenty-one years ago we chose to live and make theater in Shepherdstown: the oldest town in West Virginia doing the newest plays in America. We made the right choice. Thank you for being our home.
– Ed Herendeen is the producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, www.catf.org, which he founded in 1991.