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Theater you can chew on: Ko Festival launches 22nd season of artist-designed performances at Amherst College

  • Sabrina Hamilton, the artistic director of Ko Festival, talks about the festival in Holden Theater at Amherst College June 27.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Sabrina Hamilton, the artistic director of Ko Festival, talks about the festival in Holden Theater at Amherst College June 27.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Sabrina Hamilton, the artistic director of Ko Festival, talks about the festival in Holden Theater at Amherst College June 27.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Sabrina Hamilton, the artistic director of Ko Festival, talks about the festival in Holden Theater at Amherst College June 27.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Sabrina Hamilton, the artistic director of Ko Festival, talks about the festival in Holden Theater at Amherst College June 27.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KO FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE<br/>"Meditations From A Garden Seat"
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KO FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE<br/>"Conversations With My Molester: A Journey of Faith"
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KO FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE<br/>"Spaceman" will be presented at the Ko Festival of Performance.
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KO FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE<br/>"Spaceman"
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KO FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE<br/>"Taliesin"
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KO FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE<br/>"Conversations With My Molester: A Journey of Faith"
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KO FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE<br/>"Meditations From A Garden Seat"
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KO FESTIVAL OF PERFORMANCE<br/>"Meditations From A Garden Seat"

At its best, says Sabrina Hamilton, theater should be an immersive experience that binds performers and audience members in some fundamental way, and offers something new. But too often, she says, it can be less than that: a well-known play, done many times before, is performed and “you stand up at the end and applaud, and then you go home.”

As the longtime artistic director of the Ko Festival of Performance, Hamilton has always looked to offer something different. The summer theater fete, now in its 22nd year, has long focused on an all-around experience that includes a wide range of plays, related workshops and post-play discussions among performers and audience members.

This year’s program, which opens Friday at Holden Theatre at Amherst College and runs through early August, is no exception. From one-person shows that explore subjects like abusive Catholic priests and a voyage to Mars, to ensemble pieces built around dance and giant puppets, the festival is dedicated to what Hamilton calls “artist-devised work” that’s designed to appeal to varied audiences.

“We always say, ‘If you didn’t like the play you just saw, come back next week, because you’ll see something completely different,’ ” Hamilton said. “And you can always sit in on a [post-play] discussion, talk with artists about their process, hear what someone else in the audience thought about the performance. ... We like to give people something with grist, something they can really chew on.”

In all, the festival offers six performance pieces, all but one of which runs Friday through Sunday each weekend, through Aug. 4. In addition, four theater workshops, covering subjects from Chinese shadow puppetry to a how-to on web-streaming live perfomances, are offered at Amherst College for either one day or five days.

The Ko Festival, which debuted in 1992, is named after the I Ching (the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes”) hexagram for revolution and renewal, which roughly translates as the shedding of an old skin. Along those lines, Hamilton, one of the festival’s founders, says the event was initially seen as a vehicle for alternative, avant-garde theater, something that would be a bit more daring and risky.

Over the last 10 years, that mission has become more refined. For each festival, Hamilton develops a theme and looks for productions that fit those parameters; she develops the themes, she says with a laugh, by simply “getting a feel for what the zeitgeist is, listening in to what people are saying here in the Valley, what I’m hearing in coffee shops and other places.”

This year’s theme is “courage,” which she decided on after hearing accounts of federal whistleblowers, politicians making decisions to endorse controversial policies like gay marriage, and other people “having the courage to change things.”

The Ko Festival also regularly features plays by playwrights and dramatists who perform their own work, rather than actors who stage someone else’s drama.

“We like to present things that have really been steeped in development, sort of slow-cooked, and are presented by the artists who created them,” she said. “It makes for very personal performances that an audience can identify with.”

And as money becomes ever tighter in the theatrical world, Hamilton believes her approach is paying dividends: Attendance has blossomed at the festival in the last two years in particular, she said, and sponsorship from local businesses and organizations like Applewood, the Amherst retirement community, remains strong.

“People are looking for something they can really engage in, and at the kind of very reasonable prices we charge,” she said.

Eclectic lineup

This weekend, the festival begins with “Just Kids,” a one-man show by playwright/actor/director Sean Christopher Lewis of Iowa City, who’s also a commentator for NPR’s “This American Life.” In his new work, Lewis plays a teacher who works with mentally troubled children and must confront his own difficult past, after his long-estranged and alcoholic — but also charming — father reenters his life.

Hamilton says Lewis excels at playing multiple roles, in both comic and dramatic fashion, something he did with a previous one-man show, “Kiladelphia,” in which he invoked convicted murderers, their victims, conservative talk show hosts, rappers, the mayor and others in a send-up of the City of Brotherly Love.

Later this month, the festival features two other one-person shows: “Spaceman,” a saga of a female astronaut’s solo journey to Mars and her battle with the elements and isolation, and “Conversations with My Molester: A Journey of Faith,” a true account of a boy who was molested by a Catholic priest and years later met and talked to him about the incident — after which he found his way back to Catholicism.

Hamilton said she had the chance last year to read the script for “Conversations with My Molester,” by Michael Mack of Cambridge, when she served as a panelist for the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The council awarded Mack a Dramatic Writing Fellowship for his work, one of just four such awards for 2013.

“I didn’t know who had written [the script] — we read them blind — but once I found out, I had to have Michael at the festival,” she said. “He’s really a poetic writer, so graceful, and it’s such a powerful story.” Hamilton added that the play is not about “writhing victimhood” but is instead a thoughtful examination of pain, sexuality, spirituality, and forgiveness.

Mack, who as a boy in North Carolina had wanted to become a priest himself, has been profiled in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and other publications.

The 2013 Ko Festival has its ensemble pieces as well. “Taliesin,” by the Mettawee River Theatre Company of Salem. N.Y., is a recasting of an old Welsh folk tale that’s told in part with life-size puppets and handmade masks, performed outside and with live music. “Meditations from a Garden Seat,” by the Judy Dworin Performance Project of Hartford, Conn., is a story of real-life women prison inmates told through dance and the words of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe.

As well, a Springfield-based youth ensemble, First Generation, will perform “fo n’ ale,” which in Haitian Creole means “we must go.” It’s described as a “visual poem,” in which eight young actors, originally from countries as diverse as Nepal, Haiti, Ethiopia and others, use movement, music and text to describe their journeys to their new homeland. The production replaces “The Burnin,” an ensemble piece by another group that was cancelled due to performer illness.

‘Recovering academic’

Hamilton, who formerly taught at Hampshire College in Amherst and at other colleges — she jokes that she’s a “recovering academic” — handles the organizational work for the festival, with assistance from interns and a small staff, including a technical director. She also does the lighting for many of the performances and helps facilitate the post-play discussions.

For her, those talks are one of the festival’s highlights.

“It’s amazing how many people take part in them,” she said. “The play might be just an hour, and we’ll have discussions that go on longer than that.” The talks also can give the artists helpful feedback on works that on occasion are still in development, she notes: “We’ve seen [performers] work in something they heard Friday night into Sunday’s show.”

She adds that the plays and the theater workshops also draw a varied audience — from other theater professionals, to retired Five College faculty, to a general public looking for an interesting experience.

When she reflects on what her long tenure with the Ko Festival has meant, Hamilton remembers attending a theater conference in recent years where a speaker was extolling the idea of a new kind of performance model — one that would give artists a space in which they’d have the time and independence to experiment and do something new.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years,’ ” she said. “I guess we’re doing something right.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The 2013 Ko Festival begins with performances of “Just Kids” Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. in the Holden Theater at Amherst College. Tickets are $20 for adults and $16 for students and seniors. Season passes are also available. To order tickets and for a full schedule of performances, workshops and other events, visit kofest.com or call 542-3750.

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