A last hurrah: The Ko Festival of Performance, a Valley summer theater staple since 1992, will end this summer

  • Eric Bass and Linda Paris-Bailey — as well as a group of puppets they manipulate — appear in “Flushing (Make Room for Someone Else)” at the Ko Festival of Performance at Hamsphire College. PHOTO BY KIRK MURPHY/COURTESY KO FESTIVAL

  • Eric Bass and Linda Paris-Bailey — as well as a group of puppets they manipulate — appear in “Flushing (Make Room for Someone Else)” at the Ko Festival of Performance. KO FESTIVAL/KIRK MURPHY

  • Sabrina Hamilton, the longtime artistic director of the Ko Festival, intends to keep her hand in theater in a variety of ways now that the festival is ending its 31-year run. CONTRIBUTED/KO FESTIVAL

  • Bob Martin, the central character of “Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man,” appears in this outdoor drama at the Ko Festival at Hampshire College this month. KO FESTIVAL/ERICA FLADELAND

  • Bob Martin tries to get internet access in a scene from “Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man,” which will be staged outside at Hampshire College at this year’s Ko Festival. KO FESTIVAL/MELISA CARDONA

  • The Story Slam, a popular feature at the Ko Festival, this year is built around the theme “Stepping Up/Stepping Back.” PHOTO COURTESY KO FESTIVAL

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2022 5:23:48 PM
Modified: 7/15/2022 5:21:04 PM

Along with the Green River Festival, one of the mainstays of the Valley’s summer arts scene for years has been the Ko Festival of Performance, the alternative theater program that features playwrights and dramatists performing their own work, rather than actors staging someone else’s play.

As part of that artist-devised work, the Ko Festival has also long offered post-play discussions as a way of fully engaging its audiences — and they’re popular enough, says longtime artistic director Sabrina Hamilton, that “some of the talks can go on longer than the plays.”

“We’ve always been a festival of ideas,” she said.

But after 31 years, the Ko Festival, which this year takes place at Hampshire College July 22-31, is finally coming to an end. There are two regular productions, each with three performances, as well as a Story Slam on July 24.

In a recent phone call, Hamilton said the last two summers, during which the pandemic limited the festival to a stripped-down online program, got her thinking it might be time to wind things down. It had always been a bit of a shoestring financial operation, she said, and things weren’t getting easier.

More importantly, Hamilton said, she was struck by conversations she had with others in theater following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the resulting anti-racism protests. She points to a document titled “We See You, White American Theater” that was issued during that time by a broad coalition of BIPOC theater artists, calling for dramatic changes in the industry for such artists, from increasing creative opportunities to improving workplace conditions.

“Those were really important conversations,” Hamilton said, “and I think it inspired this general idea of stepping up by stepping down, making space for a new generation of leaders and artists” in theater.

Moreover, Hamilton said, in working and talking online with any number of people in the field during the pandemic, she realized how much she enjoyed helping others with their administrative and logistical challenges, based on the experience she’d gained after years of running the Ko Festival.

“That’s what I want to do now,” she said. “I find it really fulfilling to help other artists and groups develop their work and skills — everything from how to do lighting, to understanding how you write a press release as opposed to writing a grant proposal.”

Looking back on three decades of the Ko Festival, first staged in 1992, Hamilton said she’s proud to have worked with dozens and dozens of artists, many of whom have gone on to bigger careers and different successes. The festival 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.

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, the director of the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“We’ve always had our interns work on everything so that they get an overall picture of how an arts organization works,” Hamilton said.

A new location

The Ko Festival has been staged for years at Amherst College, but Hamilton and her small staff were not allowed on campus in 2020 and 2021 during the worst of COVID-19. Hamilton said she’d hoped the program could return this summer, but learned “pretty late” from the college that this year was a no-go as well.

Fortunately, Hampshire College gave the program some space, Hamilton said — “We’re really grateful to them” — but the late change in venue has shortened the season, which typically has run about five weeks and included five to six productions as well as a range of workshops for theater artists.

Still, the 2022 festival is opening with a production that dovetails nicely with Hamilton’s decision to move on.

“Flushing (Make Room for Someone Else),” which takes place July 22-24, is the story of two theater directors readying to step down from their ensembles and pass leadership to the next generation — sparking a reflection, as program notes put it, “on 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 appeared at previous Ko festivals, and for “Flushing” they’ll represent additional characters through the use of puppets constructed by Ines Zeller Bass. Eric and Ines Zeller Bass are from Sandglass Theater in Vermont, and Parris-Bailey is a veteran theater professional from Tennessee.

Among those puppet “characters” are the parents of the two main actors, Hamilton said: “This piece looks at what we’ve gotten from the generations before us and what we take with us as we hand things off to the next generation.”

For July 29-31, the festival will move outdoors to the Hampshire College Farm Center for “Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man,” which centers on the choice Ezell, the main character, must make when he’s offered money by a natural gas company for the mineral rights on his Appalachian land.

The mostly one-man play, which includes live backing music and considers issues such as fracking, climate change, and the loss of land by Indigenous communities, has a production team whose members hail from Kentucky and other states. Hamilton notes that director Nick Slie is from New Orleans, a city already impacted by rising waters from climate change.

“That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about what we do, the way we can bring in artists from so many different places,” Hamilton said. “It’s really rewarding that so many of them are willing to come here to be part of what we do.”

In fact, for the Story Slam on July 24, Sara Felder, a longtime favorite performer at the festival, is flying in from California to be part of the event, which takes place at 8 p.m. The theme for these short presentations (five minutes maximum) is “Stepping Up/Stepping Back,” and a few slots will be held in reserve for last-minute signups.

Hamilton has worn plenty of other hats over the years, including teaching at various colleges — she joked in a previous Gazette interview that she’s a “recovering academic” — and she’s worked with other theater companies, including Sandglass Theater, doing lighting, production, stage management and more.

As such, she says she wants to keep her hand in theater in a variety of ways, particularly as a collaborator, especially if it can mirror some of the things Ko Festival has done: supporting theater artists through developing their work and giving them a place to try out new ideas.

“We haven’t been able to pay artists what they might get at a major venue like the (UMass) Fine Arts Center, but we can give them technical assistance, lighting direction, production help and other kinds of support,” she said.

And if in the future someone in the Valley wants to create a new theater festival that’s modeled on some of those principles, Hamilton added, “I’ll be the first in line to help.”

For more information on the 2022 Ko festival, including COVID-19 protocols and ticket prices, visit kofest.com.

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


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