One day, when Charles Fuller was in high school, he and a friend came across a poem by T.S. Eliot. “And it had this line,” Fuller recalls. “‘Do I dare disturb the Universe?’” He glances at the ceiling, as if considering the line again. “And we said, ‘Well, of course. What else is there to do?’”
Eliot’s spirit was one of several called to the Old Opera House in Shepherdstown, WV Saturday night. Others included James Joyce, Vaclav Havel, Amiri Baraka, the four playwrights whose work, along with Fuller’s, will comprise the 24th season of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, and Fuller’s father, who was also named Charles Fuller. Eliot’s spirit was the last to be invoked by name, but his question, and Fuller’s answer to his question, governed the evening from the start.
The evening was an opportunity for donors, benefactors, and other universe disturbers to think about what brings us to “the dark room of live story-telling,” again and again, and to start anticipating the disturbance another slate of new American plays will initiate in Shepherdstown this summer.
Ed Herendeen, Founder and Producing Director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival, says the dark room of live story-telling, as he calls theatre, is a place where people come to make belief, “which is different from making believe, or pretending,” he says. “It requires collective energy or effort, a communion between performer and audience. People are hungry for that.”
A lot of people: last summer, in the festival’s 23rd year, 13,732 people traveled to the dark room in little Shepherdstown, and most of them saw four or all five of the season’s plays. The festival has become a cultural destination — last year’s audience came from 35 different states — in part because Herendeen has a talent for choosing plays that complement each other in repertory format: five plays performed by maybe 17 actors on a rotating schedule of three shows per day in three dramatically different spaces. “So you see the same people in the audience from one show to the next,” Herendeen says, “and you remember when that person laughed, or when you gasped at the same time, or when something moved you both almost to tears, together. And it’s red meat for the actors,” many of whom play major roles in two plays at a time, with as little as 90 minutes between performances.
All of which simultaneously feeds and sharpens our hunger for the collective experience of making belief.
“People pay for the privilege of going into a dark room and sitting there for two hours or so, while a group of people at the other end of the dark room impersonates human behavior under the lights,” Herendeen said. “If the actors believe what they are doing and the audience begins to believe, then we have the rare experience of live theater, live storytelling. Theater artists are makers of belief. They create belief on stage. When the actors believe and the audience believes, we have a tremendous concentration of energy. Live theater creates the opportunity for a rapture of belief. When that happens, it is spellbinding.”
There’s risk involved, especially with new theater. That made belief has a fragility that we protect and embrace because it is our own fragility — we’ve made it. “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you,” said Jon Jory, who directed the acclaimed play H2O at last year’s festival. But it’s a risk you can’t take anywhere else, and you can’t disturb the universe if you don’t take a risk.
Charles Fuller is probably better-known than the other playwrights whose work was chosen for the new season: he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for A Soldier’s Play, and his version of that work for the screen was nominated for an Academy Award. Commingling the work of established writers with the work of emerging writers is one of CATF’s hallmarks; last year’s line up ran a new play by Sam Shepard alongside a play by Jon Kern, whose work had never been produced before. This year Fuller and experienced playwrights Thomas Gibbons and Bruce Graham are joined by two relative newcomers to American theatre: Christina Anderson and Chisa Hutchinson, both of whom are currently New Dramatists Fellows.
“I went to a New Dramatists reading in September,” Herendeen told me, “and as soon as I heard the first scene of Christina’s play, I knew that we’d produce it.”
“Why?” I asked him. “How did you know?”
“It gave me goosebumps. In the first scene!”
Fuller’s new play One Night is also a story about soldiers, just as A Soldier’s Play was, but these soldiers have recently returned from battle, whereas those were waiting to go. “The military changed my life,” Fuller said on Saturday night. “I was at Villanova University, not learning anything, and I realized that I was wasting my dad’s money, and I didn’t want to do that, so I left and joined the Army. I was proud to be a soldier, and I would have given my life for my country.”
“War tries us in the most constructive and the most destructive ways,” he continued. “Family men and women go someplace and kill people on our behalf — it’s part of what we do as members of this nation. We don’t start out with guns, but some of us wind up having to kill folks in the name of this country, and I’m not sure we understand what that does.”
One thing it seems to do nowadays is provoke sexual assault. Last year, Fuller noted, 26,000 soldiers were raped by fellow soldiers, according to estimates by the Department of Defense. “That’s not the Army I knew,” Fuller said. “I fought with decent human beings who respected one another. How can you fight beside someone one day and rape her the next?” Or him, he added, since some of the victims are men.
“I didn’t want to write this play at first,” said Fuller, “but if we are to be who we think we are and who we say we are in America, we must believe that democracy makes us better. Democracy works because people agree on these rules, and if we don’t have that, then we have nothing. If we’re not going to practice that, then let’s call ourselves something else.”
“My father loved America,” Fuller said, “even though it treated him badly. He wanted it to be what it was supposed to be. And before he died, I promised him I’d do all I could to make that happen.”
The 24th season of
The Contemporary American Theater Festival:
July 11 – August 3, 2014
by Charles Fuller
The Ashes Under Gait City
by Christina Anderson
by Thomas Gibbons
North of the Boulevard
by Bruce Graham
Dead and Breathing
by Chisa Hutchinson
For more information, go to www.catf.org.
Fuller has been trying to make America the place it’s supposed to be for African Americans for almost 50 years. He says that he decided to become a writer after noticing that his high school’s library had no books by African Americans, and his first critical success, The Village: A Party, was a play about racial tensions among several mixed-race couples. In 1967 he co-founded the Afro-American Arts Theater in Philadelphia, and during the 1970s he wrote plays for the Henry Street Settlement Theater and the Negro Ensemble Company in New York.
“African Americans have fought in every one of this country’s wars,” he said on Saturday night. “We deserve citizenship. And I want to tell that story over and over.”
At the end of the evening, Herendeen recalled a comment Fuller made in 1982: “My argument is on the stage,” Fuller said. “There’s no reason to carry it down from the stage and into the seats. And that does not mean that I’m not enraged at injustice or prejudice or bigotry. It simply means that I cannot be enraged all the time. To spend one’s life being angry, and in the process doing nothing to change it, is to me ridiculous. I could be mad all day long, but if I’m not doing a damn thing, what difference does it make?”
Fuller and Herendeen and Anderson and a host of other artists will be in Shepherdstown, WV this summer doing all they can to disturb the universe. They’ll need us to join them in that quest, because making belief is a collective endeavor.
We can make believe anywhere, but to make belief we have to come together in that room.
Tickets are on sale now for the 2014 Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV. Purchase online or call 800/999-CATF.