Alongside the Green River Festival, a mainstay of the valley’s summer arts scene for years has been the Ko Festival of Performance, the alternative theater program where playwrights and playwrights perform their own works rather than actors directing someone else’s play.
As part of this artist-developed work, the Ko Festival has long offered post-game discussions to fully engage its audience — and they’re popular enough, says longtime artistic director Sabrina Hamilton, that “some of the conversations can last longer than that.” plays.”
“We’ve always been a festival of ideas,” she said.
But after 31 years, the Ko Festival, which takes place at Hampshire College this year from 22nd to 31st July, is finally coming to an end. There are two regular productions, each with three performances, plus a story slam on July 24th.
In a recent phone call, Hamilton said the past two summers, with the pandemic confining the festival to a slimmed-down online program, have led her to think it might be time to end things. It’s always been a small financial operation, she said, and things aren’t getting any easier.
More importantly, Hamilton said she was struck by conversations she had with others in the theater following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd and the resulting anti-racism protests. She points to a document entitled “We See You, White American Theatre,” issued during this time by a broad coalition of BIPOC theater artists, calling for dramatic changes in the industry for such artists, from more creative opportunities to improved working conditions.
“Those were really important conversations,” Hamilton said, “and I think it inspired that general idea of rising through relegation and making room for a new generation of leaders and performers” in theater.
Additionally, Hamilton said, through working and speaking online with any number of people in this field during the pandemic, she realized just how much she enjoyed helping others with their administrative and logistical challenges based on the Experience gained after years of running the Ko-Festival.
“I want to do that now,” she said. “I find it very fulfilling to help other artists and groups develop their work and skills – from lighting to understanding how to write a press release rather than writing a grant proposal.”
Looking back on three decades of the Ko Festival, which first took place in 1992, Hamilton said she is proud to have worked with dozens of artists, many of whom have gone on to bigger careers and varying degrees of success. The festival is named after the hexagram I Ching (the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes”) for revolution and renewal, which means something like shedding an old skin.
The program has also nurtured many interns over the years who have built careers in the arts, she noted. One of them is Jamilla Deria, director of the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“We’ve always had our interns work on everything so they can get a big picture of how an arts organization works,” Hamilton said.
The Ko Festival has been held at Amherst College for years, but Hamilton and her small staff were not allowed on campus in 2020 and 2021 during the worst of COVID-19. Hamilton said she was hoping the program could return this summer but learned “fairly late” from college that this year was also a no-go.
Luckily, Hampshire College gave the program some space, Hamilton said – “We’re really grateful to them” – but the late change in venue shortened the season, which normally lasted around five weeks and included five to six productions, as well as a series of workshops for theater artists .
Still, the 2022 festival begins with a production that fits well with Hamilton’s decision to go ahead.
Flushing (Make Room for Someone Else), taking place July 22-24, is the story of two theater directors who are ready to step down from their companies and hand over leadership to the next generation – prompting a reflection as the program notes put it, “about what it means to retire and what it might mean to inherit.”
The theater directors are played by Linda Parris-Bailey and Eric Bass, the play’s creators; both have performed at previous knockout festivals and for Flushing they will portray additional characters through the use of puppets constructed by Ines Zeller Bass. Eric and Ines Zeller Bass are from the Sandglass Theater in Vermont, and Parris-Bailey is a veteran theater professional from Tennessee.
Among those puppet “characters” are the parents of the two leads, Hamilton said. “This play is about what we got from the generations before us and what we take with us when we pass things on to the next generation.”
From July 29th to 31st, the outdoor festival for Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man will move to Hampshire College Farm Centre, which will focus on the choice Ezell, the main character, must make when he is hired by a natural gas company Money is offered for mineral rights on his land in the Appalachian Mountains.
The mostly one-man piece, which features live background music and addresses issues such as fracking, climate change and land loss by indigenous communities, has a production team drawn from Kentucky and other states. Hamilton notes that director Nick Slie hails from New Orleans, a city already affected by rising water levels due to climate change.
“That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about our work, the way we can bring together artists from so many different places,” Hamilton said. “It’s really rewarding that so many of them are willing to come here to be a part of what we do.”
In fact, for the Story Slam on July 24, Sara Felder, a longtime favorite at the festival, is flying in from California to attend the event, which takes place at 8 p.m. The theme of these short presentations (maximum five minutes) is ‘Stepping Up/Stepping Back’ and some slots will be reserved for last minute registrations.
Hamilton has worn many other hats over the years, including teaching at various colleges — she joked in a previous Gazette interview that she’s a “convalescent academic” — and she’s worked with other theater companies, including Sandglass Theatre, for lighting , production and stage management and more.
As such, she says she wants to keep her hand in theater in many ways, particularly as a collaborator, especially if it can reflect some of the things that Ko Festival has done: support theater artists to develop their work and give them a place give new ideas to try.
“We couldn’t pay artists what they would get at a large venue like the (UMass) Fine Arts Center, but we can give them technical support, lighting direction, production help and other types of support,” she said.
And in the future, if anyone in the Valley wants to start a new theater festival based on some of those principles, Hamilton added, “I’ll be the first to help.”
Visit kofest.com for more information on Ko Festival 2022, including COVID-19 protocols and ticket prices.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]