After a 31-year run, the Ko Festival of Performance in Amherst announced that this season of productions would be its last. 

But before the curtain closed for the last time, the festival presented two performances and a story slam that all fit the appropriately titled theme of “Stepping Up/Stepping Back.”  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with co-creators of the productions, as well as the artistic director at the Ko Festival of Performance, to hear more about this farewell season and how the organization is re-imagining its future. 

Read the full transcription:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: After a 31-year run, the Ko Festival of Performance in Amherst announced that this season of productions would be its final one.

But before the curtain closed for the last time, the festival presented two performances and a story slam that all fit the appropriately titled theme, which was “Stepping Up/Stepping Back.”

I spoke with co-creators of the productions, as well as the Artistic Director at the Ko Festival of Performance, to hear more about this farewell season and how the organization is re-imagining its future.

Sabrina Hamilton, Ko Festival of Performance: The real catalyst, I think, was attending the TCG Conference online last year, which is the Theater Communications Group Conference, and I have been doing a lot of online anti-racism trainings, particularly in theater circles.

And one of the things that I heard loud and clear was I need to make space. Which is exactly the theme of the show that Linda Parris-Bailey, who is joining us today, is working on with Eric Bass, as well. There’s something about stepping up by stepping back — that is our season theme this year.

And so, what I’ve been doing during the pandemic is moving more into a helping mode. It doesn’t need to be about me anymore. I’ve had a good long run! And we have started so many artists and given a home to so many artists and increased capacity for so many artists.

And when we couldn’t do live rehearsal residencies, which Linda first came to the festival as a rehearsal residency artist, we started to do virtual residencies that were much more about administration, about capacity-building, about grant writing language. What’s the difference between that and press language? You want to go on tour, do you know how to do a tour budget? All those kinds of helping things.

And so it’s time to step back, de-center, make room for someone else. Be careful of — as we have done this whole season — about habitat. I’m thinking so much about footprint and how much oxygen I consume.

So, even to the point of not applying for the smaller, lower, hanging fruit in terms of grants, that other people can get who need that money desperately, when I can try to go to a little bit more difficult circumstance and try to get money.

So, those are some of the reasons.

Zydalis Bauer: And so speaking of the theme, Stepping Up/Stepping Back, the final productions that are featured in the season really fit well into that theme.

And so, Linda, I’ll move on to you. You are the opening act of the final season of Ko Festival with your production entitled “Flushing: Make Room for Someone Else. And it’s a story told by puppets, that really touches on the fact that with time comes change.

So, share with me about the message that you really want audiences to take away from this production.

Linda Parris-Bailey, Festival Performer: Well, I think when you’ve led an organization for as long as any of us on this panel have, there comes a time when you know that there needs to be a transition. There needs to be a change in leadership, maybe a change in direction.

So, as we are considering or, as I have done, stepping down from these organizations, you have many, many questions about what’s next. I mean, we are not going to stop being artists. And so, where is our future? Where where are we going?

And I think the piece “Flushing” really delves into that. It delves into that question with puppets and song and live actors. So, it’s kind of a composite piece of different genres and different stories.

So, we’re looking at all of the questions that surround that. I have heard from many, many, many of my friends, artists who are in that same transition moment, and are looking forward to what we have to say about it.

Zydalis Bauer: Linda, you and I were talking before the interview started about transition and how everybody — it doesn’t matter what age you are, you go through a transition.

So, talk about how important transformation is in the creative arts, really in life in general. What comes from these types of moments?

Linda Parris-Bailey: Well, I think if you look at drama in general, our most dramatic moments are when we are in transition. It’s where I think you find your greatest creativity. It becomes very personal, and it becomes also very universal.

So, delving into those moments.

Zydalis Bauer: And along with the theme, we move on to the closing production, which Bob, you’re leading. It’s titled “Ezell: Ballad of Land Man.” So, this explores the complexity of climate change, indigenous erasure, environmental extraction.

What led to the creation of this production for you?

Robert Martin, Festival Performer: Well, many roads led to the creation of this. One of the stories that comes up immediately is when the Land Man is another word for a land rights speculator, someone who would purchase the land rights to land that you are living on, that you may own the deed for, and then do something with those land rights.

And where we live in the foothills of eastern Kentucky, we’ve been coal country for the last 150, almost 200 years. And and extractive resource industry has really buoyed the economy all throughout our region. And so, in that vein, there’s been this transition as coal has declined towards natural gas and oil through fracking.

And just a few years ago, we had a land man come to our house, unannounced, where we live, it’s like it’s at least polite to, like, honk your horn to say you’re there. But this person drove their Duly pickup truck, like right up to the porch, strode on to the porch, confidently, spoke to my partner, Kerry Bronk, who’s a co-producer and performer in this work by name, called me by name, had done a Google search of who we were. It was affronting and off putting, and it was designed to assert a type of knowing or dominance.

And so, we were thinking about this story, this is not an old story. And if this person had done enough research, they would know our perspective as folks who are cultural organizers and people who work to inform folks about the perils of climate change and about extractive resource industry, but what — what might their perspective be?

And we started thinking about how we’ve all had to practice forms of domination. We’ve been taught that, we’ve been in-culturated to practice dominance over each other, over self in our community, to try to get ahead. And what happens to the spirit when you practice that form of domination over yourself, over others, over the land, what gets released?

And this story, “Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man,” you see the journey of someone who has been in Iraq, who has, like, scrapped metal, who has done whatever they can to try to make a living, and never gotten a foothold, and that all of those modes of trying to make a living has outstripped this person’s family and their existence. And now, due to the fracking boom in their area, the land company is offering them the chance to use their privilege as a white man in the country who kind of knows these people to say, “You know what, let me buy your land rights. Nothing will probably come of it.”

But in our neck of the woods, if 50% of your people sell their land rights, then due to something called forced pooling, everyone is compelled to participate, whether or not you sign a lease.

And so, what happens to this dream of trying to find right livelihood when you’re practicing domination on self and on others, and what gets released and how are you tracking your spirit as you as you move into this this land, this — this world?

Sabrina Hamilton: And that’s one of the reasons why I was interested in bringing this show, because we have similar situations in in western Massachusetts. Not with fracking per se, but with extractive also economies, including right now, where a number of towns are trying to deal with the issue of clear-cutting to make way for industrial scale solar on very dangerously sited places ecologically, not to mention Native American sacred sites. And so, this local aspect also relates to it.

And then that’s the third part of our season, which is we always try to involve local voices by having a story slam on the season theme that comes out of a workshop done by a man who is a story master, Jerry Stratnicki, and he does a personal narrative workshop for us.

Zydalis Bauer: And I wanted to go back to talk about Ezell for a second because it’s appropriately set outdoors, this production, and the people are going to be walking through the woods that lead to the performance site.

How does the immersiveness of this play really add to the experience and the message that you want to share with the audience?

Robert Martin: So, nature is a big character in this play. And people not being able to go to see theater during COVID, coming to see productions, these might be the first two productions that people felt comfortable coming to see. And maybe people are comfortable coming to see a production outdoors, where they can be socially distanced.

You know, those are important avenues for us. How do you set your audience up for success? And part of that is how might the audience unwind from their normal day-to-day activities?

So, the play begins when you get out of your car and you’re met by a guy who situates you there in the farm at Hampshire and says, “This is where the restrooms are and this is the journey that we’re going. And here’s the accessibility vehicle, and we’re going to go on a little journey through the woods,” and let nature do what it does, right, to decompress you, to let the trees do what they do to the birds, to do what they do, to be there in the cool of the day, right?

And then to hear music, to hear, to be in a story, to be in a ritual with community outdoors is ancient, right? We’re relying on ancient technology there, ancient theater-making and story-making.

And then to unwind people back, you know, guided by others through song and through story, to have that collective experience, we find helps bookend the experience so that it’s not transactional. I go in, I pay my ticket, I see the show, I leave. But there’s a way in which you’re easing people into the world and then you’re easing them out of the world, especially when the content is powerful and evocative of a lot of deep emotional experiences and some trauma.

Zydalis Bauer: Right, right. It’s a lot of heavy stuff to process. So, yeah, I get that.

So, Sabrina, this final season has been packaged beautifully with these two productions that intersect and really deliver the message that you want about stepping up and stepping back.

With this final season, reflecting on change, resilience, transformation, Sabrina, what are you most proud of and what are you looking forward to the most as well?

Sabrina Hamilton: I think I’m most proud of valuing a metric that isn’t how big, how many, how much. But it’s how sticky can we make the experience for all the people who are involved with Ko? How long can we make that experience and that time resonate and stick with people and make people go, “huh?”