- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) and the Shepherd University art department have embarked on an ambitious multiyear effort to build a new Center for the Contemporary Arts. The finished complex could rival the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center in size and sophistication. There’s just one problem: The choice of a politically polarizing play for this summer’s festival lineup could unwittingly imperil funding and set back this ambitious project.

From its humble beginnings 17 seasons ago in Shepherdstown, W.Va., the CATF, dedicated to the production of new or nearly new American plays, has come a long way. Under artistic director Ed Herendeen, the festival attracts national attention, well-known playwrights and — on occasion — a healthy dose of political controversy.

Opening each July on the campus of Shepherd University, a state college with about 4,000 students, the event has helped transform the economy of the state’s eastern panhandle by boosting summer tourism and helping attract first-class restaurants, boutiques and working artists to the area.

The new arts center will be located on the university’s west campus, not far from the bridge over the Potomac River that links Shepherdstown to Maryland. It will be built in three phases, according to Catherine Irwin, the theater festival’s former managing director, who has taken charge of outreach and funding activities as CATF’s director of “casting for the future.”

Under roof with mechanicals largely in place, the center’s first phase is nearing completion. With its ultimate price tag likely to exceed $50 million, the center is being developed in an unusual manner.

“While the first building is being funded through a state bond issue,” Ms. Irwin says, the remaining buildings are to be underwritten “with public and philanthropic money” as a joint project of the university, the Alumni Board, the Shepherd University Foundation and CATF.

The center’s buildings are designed by Holtzman Moss Architecture LLP with a unique look and feel. Rounded rooftops “are meant to echo the area’s rolling hills,” Ms. Irwin says. The base of each building will be made with precast concrete, but its sides will be clad spectacularly in copper shingles.

The initial building will house CATF facilities, faculty offices and an extensive communications hub along with space to accommodate studios for dance, photography, painting and drawing. Spacious windows promise to give passers-by a view of artists and performers in rehearsal. Additional structures will house more programs as well as two new state-of-the-art theater spaces. The final complex is planned to total more than 100,000 gross square feet.

Outreach and fundraising efforts had proceeded smoothly — until CATF’s decision to mount the highly controversial “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” this season. When the play was chosen, a major CATF supporter, identified in the Baltimore Sun as H. Alan Young, announced that he and his wife were withdrawing their pledge of $100,000 to support the new center. Many other supporters remain upset with the choice.

The drama, a reworking of a young woman’s diaries by a pair of British playwrights, revolves around the 23-year-old American protagonist’s fatal encounter with an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip while reportedly attempting to stop the Israeli army from razing a Palestinian house. Supporters claim her as a martyr for the Palestinian cause. Opponents claim Miss Corrie was part of an anti-Israeli, Marxist front group acting as human shields for Palestinian terrorists.

After its initial London run, the play’s big New York premiere was scrubbed because of political pressure. It eventually had to settle for an off-Broadway run. It has encountered similar difficulties elsewhere, including the current CATF controversy.

According to Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley, CATF estimates that this “programming decision will cost an additional $20,000 to $50,000 in lost box-office revenues.” Still, tickets to the play were selling briskly for the festival’s first weekend, perhaps because of the ongoing flap — charges of “censorship” and “anti-Semitism” have been flying about the blogosphere with abandon.

Whether “Rachel Corrie” will have a long-term impact on Shepherd University’s ambitious arts center is still an open question. For now, construction is proceeding. The first building had been scheduled to open for the fall semester, according to Ms. Irwin. However, the project began late because of issues with the site’s terrain. “We now hope to start moving furniture and people into the building perhaps in November,” she says. Classes are scheduled to commence in the facility in January.

In addition to “Rachel Corrie,” three other plays will open at the festival this weekend: Jason Grote’s “1001” is a contemporary retelling of the story of Scheherazade; “The Pursuit of Happiness” continues Richard Dresser’s satirical trilogy on the American dream; and Lee Blessing’s “Lonesome Hollow” will chart the course of a bleak, repressive future world.

Ticket prices for the festival range from $26 to $36, with packages available. For information, call 800/999-2283 or visit www.catf.org.

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