by Allison Considine
Ready for your next summer adventure or weekend getaway? Each July, the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, presents new plays in the state’s oldest town. The picturesque cultural enclave is home to many historic sites, outdoor activities, and, of course, the annual repertory theater festival (July 6-29) set on the Shepherd University campus.
Just a one-hour train ride from Washington, DC, the festival is a quick escape from the glare of the city. Harpers Ferry train station, just 12 miles from the festival, looks like a painting with a backdrop of the Potomac River. The charm extends throughout the town, with its pastel-colored colonial homes and pre-Revolutionary War buildings. And who doesn’t want to exit a theater performance into a field lit by stars and fireflies?
A rotating repertory of six shows can be seen in just one weekend, making it the perfect one-stop-shop for a cultural fix. This summer’s slate will include six plays presented in three performance spaces. Since 1991, the festival has been dedicated to producing topical new works to challenge and provoke conversation. This year’s lineup spans from a political thriller to a romance, from a family drama to a play set in a dystopian future.
The offerings will include Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake” and the world premieres of Angelica Chéri’s “Berta, Berta,” D.W. Gregory’s “Memoirs of a Forgotten Man,” C.A. Johnson’s “Thirst,” and Sam Weisman’s “A Late Morning [In America] With Ronald Reagan.”
To further engage audiences, the festival hosts talkback sessions and conversations with the playwrights and creative teams. The festival’s motto is to “think theater,” and festival attendees are fully immersed in the productions as the entire town buzzes with talk of the shows.
So plan a trip to this magic place that offers both a reprieve from the busy world and a glimpse at the newest important voices in the American theater.
Where to Stay
Steps away from the campus of Shepherd University is the Bavarian Inn, with Alpine-style chalets that sit atop the Potomac River. The lodge boasts unparalleled views of the scenic river from its infinity pool (yes, infinity pool!) and offers a weekend brunch buffet. Need we say more?
The Thomas Shepherd Inn, just a 10-minute walk from the festival’s action, is an 1868 parsonage-turned-inn that offers all the charms of a classic bed and breakfast.
History buff? Sleep among the Antietam National Battlefield and National Cemetery at the Inn at Antietam in nearby Sharpsburg, Maryland. The innkeepers, a married couple, boast on their website that 4,896 pillows have been fluffed in their comfy quarters. Sign us up.
If outdoor adventure is what you’re after, the nearby Sleepy Creek Campground offers plots to pitch a tent. Camping grounds are also scattered along the Appalachian Trail and across the river in Maryland at the Antietam Creek Campsite.
Bites & Bars
The town’s main thoroughfare, German Street, is lined with a variety of restaurants and watering holes that swell after performances.
Head to the Lost Dog Coffee, which features the work of local artists on the walls, for your coffee, tea, juice, or smoothie fix.
The cash-only Betty’s Restaurant is a classic American diner offering the best of Southern fare, including homemade sausage and gravy.
The Mecklenburg Inn, or “The Meck” as locals call it, is a tavern with live music and a backyard patio complete with a swing.
LellyBelle Café is a new addition to town, and offers acai bowls and homemade breakfast sandwiches if you’re looking for lighter options.
Press Room, which offers American fare, is perhaps the hardest restaurant in town to secure a pre- and post-show reservation. Plan ahead!
Blue Moon Café is a casual eatery that offers outdoor seating in its garden, next to a flowing canal.
Go to Maria’s Taqueria for tacos and chimichangas, which locals rave about.
Things to Do
In addition to the theatrical fare, there are plenty of historic and outdoor activities in and around Shepherdstown.
Pay a visit to the picturesque Shepherdstown Public Library, with its flowering tree out front. The building once housed the town council offices, the fire department, a butcher shop, a school, and the local jail. On the weekends, check out the farmer’s market stationed behind the library.
Pick up some summer reading at Four Seasons Books, a family-owned and operated bookshop that sells new and used books.
Check out the Historic Shepherdstown Museum filled with historic documents, artifacts, and furniture on display. The museum also organizes walking tours through the town.
Journey back in time and wander through the nearby town of Harpers Ferry. Watch live events and historic reenactments, or take a trade class to learn blacksmith and tin-making skills to impress your friends.
Visit the museum and cemetery site at the Antietam National Battlefield, where the bloodiest single-day battle took place, forever changing America’s history.
Pack your boots and hike along the Appalachian Trail, which spans four miles in West Virginia — most of which is in the town of Harpers Ferry near historic Civil War sites.
Rent a bicycle and ride the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath along the Potomac River, and see where goods were once transported between Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Or venture into the water for a guided whitewater rafting tour, or tube, canoe, or kayak where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac River.
Take a gander at the waterway from above with a zipline tour through the treetops in Harpers Ferry.
Read all of DC Theater Arts’ reporter Andrew Walker White’s reviews from the Contemporary American Theater Festival: