FOR the intrepid Washington area theatergoer, the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., offers the chance to enjoy adventurous, professional-grade theater in a small-town setting. But audiences aren't the only ones who gain something from the unique setting. "We're offering playwrights an atmosphere -- out of the urban spotlight -- where they can take risks with their work," says festival founder and artistic director Ed Herendeen. "I'd like to think that Shepherdstown is one of those places that you could even 'fail' -- if you understand what I mean by 'failure.' What we're able to do for the writer is to really give them an opportunity to write the play they want to write, take the chances they want to take."

Herendeen's special affinity for writers and their process is reflected in the lineup of this year's festival: Three of the four offerings come from playwrights making return appearances. "Once we work together, when that kind of chemistry really works out, it's always very exciting to say, 'What are you working on now?' " Herendeen says.

"My plays tend to be trickier than they seem on first reading," says Richard Dresser, whose "Rounding Third," a comedy set in the cutthroat world of Little League, marks his fourth festival production. "A lot of this stuff is instinctive -- he just sort of gravitated to what I'm doing. But we have a good kind of shorthand now in terms of working together." Herendeen concurs: "Rick Dresser is one of those writers I 'get.' I really do, in a personal way, connect with his work."

Playwright Lee Blessing is another festival vet. His "Flag Day," a world premiere, is his third entry in as many years. "There's a tremendous amount of trust between Ed and me," he says. "There are a lot of playwrights I run into in New York, when I tell them I've got a show at CATF, they're envious because they know it's a theater that's committed to doing new plays -- and doing them the way playwrights want to see them done. Ed's really committed himself to that."

Blessing also extols Herendeen's willingness to make bold programming choices. Both "Flag Day," a seriocomic take on American race relations and last year's festival world premiere, "Whores," were commissioned by other theaters, which passed on them. "They're two of the more adventurous plays that I've written, and thematically, they're challenging plays," Blessing says. "Right now we're in an atmosphere of caution -- if I may say, timorousness -- on the part of producers. It's hard to find somebody who's willing to take the kinds of chances that Ed's willing to take."

If it all sounds like a bit of a mutual admiration society, well, it is. Herendeen, for one, couldn't be more pleased: "One of the things that's been exciting for me this season, with both Lee and Rick Dresser, is that in addition to the artistic collaboration that we've developed over the years, we've also become friends," he says. "That's been a real high point in my career."

Lee Sellars, left, as Hewitt and Albert Jones as Denby in "Flag Day," a seriocomic look at race relations by Lee Blessing.