by Jenny Hansell
Berkshire On Stage Pioneer Valley Correspondent Jenny Hansell spoke to Sabrina Hamilton, founder and artistic director of the Ko Festival running through August 5 on the Amherst College campus. This resulting interview throws the spotlight on an enduring, adventurous, and essential component of the summer theatre scene in Western Massachusetts.
BOS: Each year you program around a theme, and this year it is “Radical Acts.” How did you select it?
Sabrina Hamilton: I don’t program two years out the way a lot of presenters do. I’m still programming into February. I read local newspapers, which I firmly believe in, I read a lot of national news, I sit in coffee shops and listen to what people are concerned about. Artist let me know what they are working on and send me videotapes.
Ko is an “Ensemble theater” where the artists are in control of the whole process. Instead of artists employed by artistic and managing directors, it’s artist-centric. In most theaters, there’s a hierarchy at the top. Ensemble theaters have a flatter structure, where the artists are in control of what they do and how they do it. A lot of them do what’s called “devised work” and at Ko we do this exclusively.
At Ko it’s like a little think tank. I don’t pick scripts and hire people to work on them. Artists who come to Ko have created the works themselves, often as a group. There may or may not be a single playwright, but there is never a playwright in absentia. Pieces often take several years to create and are devised over a long period of time. Sometimes they are true first-person material, other times they emerge out of research or a question. The work is created in the rehearsal room, on the hoof. This approach sets us apart from most other summer theater.
I pick a theme after talking to folks and look for two anchor shows and things that bridge them. I’m looking for a different lens to look at the theme. Our post-show discussions are not the usual ‘what’s your next show’… they’re about the theme. The audience often talks to each other, the artists just listen.
I try to pick chewy topics. Recent ones were immigration, and illness and healing. This year’s “Radical Acts” is a bit of a leap from last year’s them [Tactics for Trying Times]. This year the topics are more individual and may or may not be political at all, maybe spiritual or another realm, but taking a personal leap.
We have a lot of smart people in the Five College area audience. Artists always say, ‘we love your audience, they are amazing.’ The post-show discussions can last longer than the show.
BOS: What shows did you choose this year?
Sabrina Hamilton: The first show was The Radicalization Process, from an ensemble theater in Detroit — 30-somethings looking back at the radicals of the 1960s. The piece asks: How far are you willing to go. Is it far enough? They are trying to get different generations of activists to talk to each other, to understand what went wrong, what went right, are you in it for the long haul.
The next show is The Oven by [Amherst professor] Ilan Stavens. He is a comp-lit kind of guy. His cultural identity and perspective is Mexican Jew, and he is a regional and national intellectual, author of many books, often heard on NEPR. He has created what he thinks of as an anti-lecture, about being on a State Department-sponsored lecture tour. A shaman came to the lecture in Colombia and invited him to join an ancient family ritual, which turns out to be an ayahuasca trip.
Next week we have a story slam, as a way of getting more local people involved in telling their stories of radical acts. Each story is 5 minutes, without notes, in the first person. Many of the stories have been developed in our personal narrative workshops. The slams are really fun, with 15 slots. We always save one wild-card slot which we give away on the night. If we have too many people who want to do it, the audience votes based on the first line of the story.
The following week is Like a Mother Bear, a one-woman show. The creator, Helen Stoltzfus, started working on it several decades ago and now has come back to it. It springs from a time when she was low-grade ill for quite a while. Traditional medicine was not working for her, and at the same time she was trying to get pregnant. In a workshop, an image of a mother bear comes to her. She goes to Alaska, has an encounter with an endangered grizzly bear. Ultimately she realized that her illness was endometriosis causes by environmental degradation, chemicals also killing bears. The play is a moving call to action, about women’s bodies. It’s not so much about herself, or herself and the bear, and more about the larger world and what do we need to do. She’s also teaching a workshop later this summer, Theater As If Your Life Depends On It.
Closing the festival is a piece I’m directing, Industrious Angels. It’s by Lori McCants, a founding member of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. A number of years ago she was teaching a workshop at Ko, then stayed to take one. They were asked to look at where they live for inspiration, and she chose to build a piece around the Emily Dickinson Museum. She was reading a Dickinson poem to her mother as she was dying. The piece takes place in an attic workroom and uses shadow puppets and handwork. It’s a memory play, about the relationship between Laurie and her mother, about Dickinson and women’s work.
BOS: There is an ongoing theme of “resistance” here.
Sabrina Hamilton: I need a sense of community and support, to see people who are not paralyzed, who are energized, there is solace in being in a room together. The most positive, healing thing we can do is to learn to talk to each other. So often, you already know what’s going to come out of each others’ mouth. Here, what people have in common is, they’ve seen a show. Interesting surprising things get said in the talk-backs. In a show that was about grandparents, one man said, “I have a terrible fear that I have no idea how to be a grandfather, I’m going to mess up royally.” It had never occurred to me that someone might have that concern.
What we’re going for is what I call the “huh” factor. Most summer theater, you clap at the end, it’s over. When we do well, there’s this “huh” – that night, the next morning, even months later. People in talkbacks will refer to something they saw at Ko last week or several years ago, it’s still resonating. We’re dropping a pebble in the pond. Sticky is what I’m going for. Sticky theater!
BOS: Who comes to the workshops? Is it mostly students? Or theater professionals?
Sabrina Hamilton:: Mostly theater professionals and people doing it for personal growth. We don’t separate professionals to make sure that nobody’s on autopilot. It’s a really intensive experience.
The third ring of our circle is our rehearsal residencies. Performers come from all over to work in the lab. They don’t always show the works-in-progress to the public but this time we are opening up a new musical, called Quantum Janis. The premise is that Janis Joplin didn’t die, and she is now a 57 year old black woman.
BOS: How have you kept the Festival going for 27 years?
Sabrina Hamilton: It really runs on willpower and stubbornness more than anyone else. We have been in the black every year but one. We pay our bills. We started as an ensemble where we’d do our own work and invite our friends. I alone remain of the founders. People think we have a budget 3 times the size of what it really is or that we are funded by Amherst College -in fact, we pay them, though we do get access to their beautiful theatre and studios. We survive by being pioneers in ‘value-added presenting.’ We give the artists as much money as we can through grants, and box office revenue. What else do artists need? You need a video? A vacation for your family? A consultant for how to build your set to tour? We give people time in the theater to work things out. We help artists remember why they deeply love doing this. Artists want to come back to Ko. They are loyal.
BOS: where do you get your funding?
Sabrina Hamilton: We can get $3,800 from the state, $1,000 from the town of Amherst. The NEA would be interested if we’d program two years out. Part of our ethos is to be responsive to the times. We did a season on age and aging right as it was becoming an area of activism. The capacity to do an NEA grant–we don’t have that. We participate in Valley Gives, a local giving day. We’ve done well with that.
Ko fills a need in the community. A lot of people have gotten turned off by theater, theaters have lost audience. They come to Ko because it’s their issue, their people, their tribe, To come up with a name for the company, we threw the i ching. What came up is the hexagram, Ko. It means revolution or fire in the lake–the old stuff sloughing off, what’s vital and important emerges.
Our work is not weirdo abstract performance art. It’s usually formally accessible. Our tagline is “where the only certainty is surprise.” If you don’t like this week, come next week. The only thing we can promise you is, it will be different. It’s not just summer light comedy and a little ten-minute talk-back.
BOS: What do you hope for the future?
Sabrina Hamilton: That people will step up and do more of what they’ve started to do. Audience members will say, look I’ve brought a friend. They know it’s their responsibility. We need ambassadors to vouch for us. We know that people first hear about us from a friend. People realize they have to help, they have to give. Our prices are reasonable. We offer discounts to people who are on SNAP. Culture is a necessity. It’s up to the arts org to provide it — there is no funding for discounted tickets for lower income people. We just said it’s the right thing to do. Our discussions are richer for it. Some weeks the audience looks very much the same – like a Gathering. Other weeks it’s wildly diverse.
There are other companies in Western MA, like Double Edge [in Ashfield] doing serious plays. World class work is happening. It’s not amateurs – these artists are incredibly trained, working on it for several years. The work has authenticity. People like that realness – it doesn’t feel fake.