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D.C. has a long tradition of being generally pretty gross in the summer. As a result, it also has a tradition of being pretty empty. Non-intern residents tend to escape to the beach on the weekends. Or at least the well-connected do.

The wild and wonderful option for the rest of us is West Virginia. Closer than the beach and with a route less likely to ensnarl you in traffic, the eastern part of WV is calm, sparsely populated, and – at least for the month of July – exceptionally cultured.

Since 1991, the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) has been bringing a unique brand of independent theater to Shepherdstown, WV. Described by founder Ed Herendeen as “the oldest town in West Virginia doing the newest plays in America,” the festival draws thousands of attendees from all over the country every summer, selling over 15,000 tickets in 2016 to over 4,000 visitors. The 2017 festival, which runs July 7-30, is growing from five productions to six.

Produced at Shepherd University, CATF offers plays in rotating repertory, so you could easily catch all six shows over a weekend. There’s something for everyone in all six of these shows, but in case you’re also trying to fit in some tubing, here are the three I’d take a particularly close look at:

  • The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess: A dialogue between Zoe and Janine, who have intelligence and liberalism in common, but who are separated by a generational and racial gap. Herendeen teases this one by calling it, “maybe the most violent play of the season, and there’s no physical violence in the play.” He also hints at a twist in this exploration of the differences between liberals of the 1960s and of the millennial generation.
  • Everything is Wonderful by Chelsea Marcantel: A world premiere play about forgiveness and reconciliation, Everything is Wonderful starts with a man coming to apologize for his role in a car accident that killed two sons in an Amish community. Per Herendeen, Marcantel did research on groups, tribes, and the Amish community in Lancaster, PA as preparation for writing the play.
  • We Will Not Be Silent by David Meyers: Another world premiere, We Will Not Be Silent tells the true story of the only major act of civil disobedience in Germany during World War II. Sophie Scholl and a group of her fellow college students – ordinary citizens – formed a group called the White Rose and peacefully stood up against Hitler despite the hopelessness of their cause. We Will Not Be Silent, a “timely and provocative play,” examines why.

If you’re thinking that’s some pretty heavy stuff, you’re not wrong. As Herendeen said at the D.C. preview event for the 2017 season, “The season is provocative and meant to put us in a position to have conversations with each other.” The festival wants to fully engage you, and the team behind it is most definitely dedicated to the larger cultural discussion. To that end, there are additional tickets for lectures, scholarly discussions, film events and more.

You can go as deep as you like into the CATF experience. Or not. There are ticket packages available, but there are single show tickets too, as well as discounts for students, military personnel, and attendees under 30. The CATF website offers lodging options, dining options, spa options – frankly, it couldn’t be easier to build a theater weekend that fits your needs and budget. So go online, pick a show or a few shows, find an Airbnb, and treat yourself to what could be some of the greater D.C. area’s most progressive and interesting theater.

All that, and you even get to avoid I-95 and the Bay Bridge.

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