SHEPHERDSTOWN – Peggy McKowen knew she wanted to run a theater. After being involved for so long with the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, she concluded that if she was ever to pursue this goal, she would have to leave town to do so.
That changed, however, when, earlier this year, Ed Herendeen, CATF founder and production manager, retired after three decades at the helm. As a result, McKowen stepped in as interim production manager to fill the vacant position until the festival board chose Herendeen’s successor.
Imagine her surprise when she found out that her successor – at least to some extent – would be her.
âI was a little stunned, just because Ed hadn’t retired until September, and I feel like a lot of things are happening quickly,â McKowen said in a recent interview. âIt put a bit of surprise in everything. “
McKowen will not replace Herendeen entirely. Since November 6, she has assumed the role of artistic director of production, which is a new position and a new role for the festival. Rather than hiring a new production manager, policymakers chose to divide CATF’s leadership model into three parts.
The first will be McKowen and the role of artistic director producer. The second will be a general manager position, while the third plans to be an artistic leadership role. The remaining two positions will be filled through a nationwide search, and change has been in the cards for a little while, McKowen explained.
âOne person can’t do everything we need them to do – plus the festival,â she said. âI really believe in shared leadership. It’s great to be able to work together. The hope is that we will all be on an equal footing and that we will all report to the board. “
As she takes on the role of CATF leader, McKowen said she has a few ideas that she would like to pursue while maintaining the fabric of what has made CATF successful – provocative and uplifting American theater. On top of that, however, McKowen said she wanted to spend more time developing productions with the playwrights and also give more time to the artists involved in the process.
Two of McKowen’s biggest priorities for the future include his desire to share the work and the ability to be more present in the community beyond the month of July, when the CATF emanates.
As for his plans on how to reach the latter, McKowen noted the possibility of hanging a coin to possibly throw it in the fall. This way professors and staff could see a production and perhaps create programming around it with the lessons.
âI just think it’s important to share this work with more people,â McKowen said. âI’m really attached to the idea of ââhow art serves the community and the state. How we can do things with our art to support efforts in the community is very important to me.
âOne of the things we started to do,â she added, âis take themes from plays and break them down into a series of talking points. Then we break people into small groups and really have an engaged conversation about specific themes that emerge from the pieces. I’m trying to do more work like this – I’m trying to find a way to involve young people in the work and ways in which the themes of the plays can support community groups. The opportunities are enormous. “
Further developments will be planned for the 2023 season, she hopes, as the upcoming 2022 season will feature pieces that have not been performed on stage in the past two summers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once she can kick off the 2022 season, she said she would be able to focus more on how to implement her ideas, focusing on a larger footprint and throughout the year. on the community, among others.
For now, however, McKowen has pointed out that she is more excited than nervous about taking on the new role. As the search for two new colleagues begins, she noted that CATF’s mission will continue to be what it always has been: to produce “provocative and current” work. Being able to do that – as well as run a theater – while still being a member of the CATF family is just the icing on the cake.
âThere was a while after being at CATF for a while, I realized I wanted to run a theater,â she said thoughtfully. âI didn’t necessarily know it would be here, because I didn’t know if I would be here until Ed retired. It’s part of the surprise to me – I’ve been here long enough to get to the point where Ed has retired. I always thought I wanted to help make theater a bigger part of our communities and help make theater a big part of popular culture.
âI still think art is the most important way to bring about change and to educate,â she continued. âHaving the path forward to achieve these kinds of goals is very exciting for me. The theater changes with the world.
“Whether it’s me or if they were going with someone else,” she concluded, “I think there is a demand and a need for theater.”