Merging Artistic And Management With The Contemporary American Theatre Festival

At some theatre companies, there’s the administrative side, and there’s the artistic side. At the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in West Virginia, the two are often merged, with the producing director directing two or three of the five shows produced in repertory each summer, and the associate producing director designing sets or costumes. It isn’t that administrative types are filling in where needed; it is that artistic types have take on administrative roles without letting go of the opportunity to create.

In 2006, founder and producing director Ed Herendeen called designer Peggy McKowen who, as a native West Virginian, he’d known for a good while. She’d designed costumes for two of the plays the Festival had mounted in that year’s season, Noah Haidle’s disturbing play, Mr. Marmelade, which is called a drama in some circles and a comedy in others, and the world premiere of Keith Glover’s blend of spoken and instrumental jazz, Jazzland. He wanted to know if she’d consider joining the Festival’s administrative team.

It took a while for McKowen to clear the decks of her ongoing design work. Based in New York for more than a decade, her sketch book was full. She’d been the resident designer for Jean Cocteau Repertory in New York’s Greenwich Village and her freelance design work had included productions in regional theaters from Alabama to Texas and internationally from Berlin to Brazil and from Bamberg to Beijing.

Still, the opportunity to return to her home state—she’d not only grown up in West Virginia, but she received her bachelor’s degree in theatre from West Virginia University before going to the University of Texas in Austin for her MFA—seemed perfectly timed to let her stretch her reach beyond the costume and scenic design field. Such stretching came naturally to McKowen. She’d spent five years as the chair of West Virginia University’s Division of Theatre and Dance after teaching at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

Joining Herendeen at CATF in January 2007, McKowen assumed responsibilities on the administrative side of the ledger including budget, finance, marketing, and board relations, but she kept a hand on the artistic side, as well. For the 2007 season, she designed costumes for Jason Grote’s then new attempt to blend The Arabian Nights with more contemporary concerns in 1001. Her design captured and even enhanced the whimsy inherent in some of the material.

For one of the tales told by Scheherazade, McKowen provided costumes decorated with appliqués of compact discs. Those compact discs were attached in the shops the Festival shares with Shepherd University, where it produces its season each summer. The campus is immediately adjacent to the main street of the historic town of Shepherdstown on the banks of the Potomac River upstream of its junction with the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry. The Festival even shares responsibility for some facilities with its production manager/technical director Patrick H. Wallace, also holding the position of technical director for Theatre and Music at the University.

As McKowen settled into her new role, she turned it toward the creative side as well. Today she spends more of her effort along with Herendeen putting together the season’s plays and artists, and matching the artistic vision to the fiscal and physical resources available.

In 2008, the Festival took advantage of the expanded facilities provided by the University’s new Center for Contemporary Art to add a fifth play to each season’s offerings: a solo-performance piece staged in what would be called a flexible black box if it weren’t for the fact that the room is a stark white. McKowen designed an environment for Neil LaBute’s one-act, one-performer piece, Wrecks. The play consists of a monologue by a funeral director sharing with mourners his memories of life with the deceased, his wife. McKowen turned the room into a well-appointed funeral parlor, and, to add to the feeling of authenticity, there was somber pre-show music, and tickets were taken by an usher dressed in the black garb of a funeral director.

McKowen designed both set and costumes for the next season’s solo-show in the Center, Victor Lodato’s disturbing Dear Sara Jane, a piece that is definitely not a one-character show. One actress (Joey Parsons, in this case) plays two sisters, one attempting rather unsuccessfully to cope with the fate of her husband in the war in Iraq, while the other, from whom she was separated surgically in infancy, clearly has had even less success coping with the world at large. McKowen covered the room with white, pleated side curtains, a white canopy, white flooring, and a few pieces of white-painted furniture. Indeed, the only touches of color seemed to be the pattern on Parson’s dress and the shockingly red sealing-wax on the neck of the bottle of Maker’s Mark Bourbon from which the actress swigs throughout the play.

This year, McKowen was back at the designing desk for two of the Festival’s five plays, the full-stage production of the world premiere of The Insurgents by Lucy Thurber and the small, one-act play in the Center which was, for once, not a one-actor play. It was Kyle Bradstreet’s From Prague, a trio of interlocking monologues set in a church in the Czech Republic dominated by H. Hillger’s famous 17th century crucifix of Jesus from Prague’s Charles Bridge. McKowen used pews rather than theatre chairs to create a nave for the performance with a huge reproduction of the crucifix which was crafted in the scene shop.

Administrative duties continue to demand McKowen’s time and attention, but she refuses to let them keep her from the creative side which drew her into theatre in the first place.

Brad Hathaway is a freelance writer covering theatre who is now based in California. He can be reached at [email protected].

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