SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA. — — Whether approached from the south, through gently rolling fields of farmland, or from the north, past the sacred ground of Antietam and then across a graceful bridge over the Potomac, the drive here can be remarkably tranquil and restorative.
But upon arrival in this quaint historic town, things can turn gritty, grim, violent, vulgar and downright scary in no time — if your destination is the 23rd annual Contemporary American Theater Festival.
The 2013 festival, which opened last weekend, is ripe with edgy themes, including Islamic terrorism and tortured human relationships. Even bursts of humor on stage are apt to come with a sharp bite. It's all in keeping with the nature of this festival, which was never intended for faint-hearted, tender-eared theater-goers.
"Our audiences expect red meat," said Ed Herendeen, the festival's founder and producing director. "I would probably get complaints if I put a fluffy production up. Theater creates a forum for conversation. My passion is to confront and start that conversation."
The festival, held on the campus of Shepherd University, is certainly giving people plenty to talk about this summer.
There are five productions spread out among three modest-sized venues. The largest, seating about 400, is home to the world premiere of Liz Duffy Adams' "A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World," which picks up where the Salem witch trials left off; and a staging of Sam Shepard's 2012 play "Heartless," a study of rootlessness and family scars.
In the most up-close-and-personal space, with only 90 seats, is "H2O," by the pseudonymous Jane Martin. This taut two-character study pits an aspiring actress and fervent evangelical Christian against an egotistical, self-destructive movie star who has a chance to do Shakespeare. Blood, violence and laughs mix with religious and philosophical discourses.
The festival has a new venue this year, the 180-seat Marinoff Theater inside the copper-covered Center for Contemporary Arts. It is being inaugurated with two works, one of them Jon Kern's exceedingly dark comedy from 2012, "Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them."
The play, about Muslim zealots who plot to blow up the Empire State Building, comes complete with underwear bombs (they can pull in the most awkward places), zippy one-liners, sociopolitical analysis and a brain-splattered wall.
Just par for the course at the festival.
"I'm a little disappointed there aren't more walk-outs," Herendeen said with a laugh.
Also in the new theater, receiving its world premiere, is "Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah," Mark St. Germain's colorfully imagined encounter between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
The festival routinely showcases accomplished and up-and-coming playwrights alike and gives their works fully professional productions with Equity casts featuring actors from around the country. Seasoned teams of directors and designers complete the classy picture.
Since its launch in 1991, the festival has presented 100 plays (the 100 mark was reached this summer), representing the efforts of more than 70 writers. Many of those plays premiered here; several were commissioned by the festival.
One of those commissions was Jeffrey Hatcher's "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," a 1999 work about a great 17th-century male actor famed for portraying female characters; it was made into the 2004 film "Stage Beauty" with Billy Crudup and Claire Danes.
"That gave us street cred with the literary agents," Herendeen said.
Shepherdtsown is also a place where works premiered elsewhere get a fresh look or further tuning. A case in point is Lydia Diamond's "Stick Fly," a study of upper-class African-Americans, which underwent development at the 2008 festival, a couple of years after its first production. It made it to Baltimore's Everyman Theatre as well as Broadway a couple of years later.
Speaking of 2008, that's the year an economic impact survey revealed how festival patrons pumped $132 into the local economy for every ticket purchased. The total impact that year was calculated at $3.2 million.
More than 60 percent of attendees come from outside West Virginia. In 2012, those visitors came from 36 states. "There was some international traffic, too," Herendeen said.
Since plays run in repertory, several each day, throughout the four-week festival, theater fans can easily catch all five productions in the space of 48 hours.
"Our attendance over the last two seasons has been right around 12,500," said the festival's managing director, James McNeel. "We are just shy of that number already for this year, so we should easily exceed it this season. About 50 percent of our audience purchases a four- or five-show subscription."
The festival, which has run surpluses for the past two fiscal years, has an annual budget of $1.1 million.
"It would be $3.5 million if we had to pay rent, hire janitors and everything else," Herendeen said. "The university is our largest benefactor, providing the facilities, housing, electricity and other in-kind services. We are not located near any major corporations, so raising money is always an issue. But we have very generous individuals and support from the state legislature."
Like many performing arts organizations, the Contemporary American Theater Festival attracts a mostly older demographic. To counterbalance that, there is a "Hostel Youth" program that offers young people, ages 14 to 18, a kind of mini-theater camp, with workshops, performances, housing and meals.
Finding other ways to entice a younger crowd is one of Herendeen's goals.
"I'm looking forward to the day when it will look like a Grateful Dead concert here, with people out on the lawn in tents and sleeping bags or filling up the dorms, all waiting for theater," he said.
Such a vivid scene may not be in the festival's future, but its dynamic current is bound to keep the sparks flying in Shepherdstown.
"There is an atmosphere of risk here," Herendeen said. "Outside the glare of the urban spotlight, you can take chances."
If you go
The Contemporary American Theater Festival runs through July 28 at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va. (about 80 miles from downtown Baltimore). Single tickets are $30 to $57; packages $165 to $235. Call 800-999-2283, or go to catf.org.
$235. Call 800-999-2283, or go to catf.org.