Radical acts: Ko Festival brings artist-devised theater to Amherst

  • Ilan Stavans performs in “The Oven.” Image courtesy of Ko Festival

  • Ilan Stavans performs in “The Oven.” Image courtesy of Ko Festival

  • The Ko Festival’s Story Slam has become one of the program’s most popular events, says director Sabrina Hamilton. Image courtesy of Ko Festival

  • Helen Stoltzfus performs in “Like a Mother Bear.” Image courtesy of Ko Festival

  • Laurie McCants performs in “Industrious Angels,” a play inspired in part by the poetry and life of Emily Dickinson. Image courtesy of Ko Festival

  • Laurie McCants performs in “Industrious Angels,” a play inspired in part by the poetry and life of Emily Dickinson. Image courtesy of Ko Festival.

Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2018

A chance encounter with an Amazonian shaman that leads to a religious ceremony involving hallucinogens. A women’s exploration of her infertility that includes a visit to the Alaskan wilderness. A story about the bonds between a mother, a daughter and a famous poet.

If you’re looking for unconventional theater, with the pieces performed by the playwrights themselves, the Ko Festival at Amherst College is where you’ll find it.

The festival, now in its 27th season, offers five weekends of intimate performances from July through early August (the festival’s first production, “The Radicalization Process,” took place July 6-8). Also on tap are week-long theater workshops for actors, directors, writers and others involved in the field, or who want to join it.

And, as in the past, the performances, staged at the college’s Holden Theater (which seats about 130 people), are built around a theme. This year, it’s “Radical Acts,” which longtime festival director Sabrina Hamilton says is less political and “more about how individuals can make radical and dramatic decisions in their lives.”

This weekend, for instance, Ilan Stavans, the writer and Latin American and Latino culture professor at Amherst College, offers “The Oven,” his take on how he reluctantly got involved in a religious ceremony in the Amazon jungle in Colombia, ingesting the hallucinogen ayahuasca, an experience that caused him to question many of his basic understandings and his career as a teacher and thinker. He presents the one-act play as he might one of his college lectures — but one that soon goes in an unexpected direction. 

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. Hamilton, one of the festival’s founders, says the event was initially seen as a vehicle for alternative, avant-garde theater, something with an edge.

Over time, she has refined that goal, creating a theme for each festival and finding productions to match it. The themes, she notes, are developed in part by listening to what people are talking about around the Valley and getting a feel for what’s on people’s minds, whether politics, social issues, popular culture or other topics.

“Each year has its own challenge, whether it’s coming up with a theme, doing fundraising, figuring out what worked well in the past and how we can build on that,” said Hamilton, who runs the festival with a small staff that this year includes nine college-age interns; she also does lighting design for some performances and this summer is directing one as well.

In addition to holding workshops on topics such as crafting a personal story for a theatrical performance, the Ko Festival features a popular “Story Slam” in which 15 selected participants get to deliver a personal tale; doing it with panache and good stagecraft, says Hamilton, is the key to doing well in this friendly competition, with winners determined by audience feedback. 

In addition, each of the artist-devised theatrical performances features a talk-back session afterwards in which audience members can ask the performer or performers questions about the show, “or simply talk with each other about what they’ve just seen,” said Hamilton. “We sometimes have some of the best discussions happen just like that.”

The performances

“The Oven,” July 13 and 14 at 8 p.m., July 15 at 1:30 p.m. — Hamilton says she saw Ilan Stavans do an early version of “The Oven” last year at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst and was intrigued — but she wasn’t sure it was right for the Ko Festival. “I hemmed and hawed about it,” she said.

But after Stavans did some further development of it — the performance is directed by Matthew Glassman, a co-artistic director of Ashfield’s Double Edge Theatre — Hamilton was sold. She describes “The Oven” as a sort of “anti-lecture,” in which Stavans begins the performance as himself — a professor leading a classroom discussion — but then takes on a very different persona as he relives the visions he experienced during his sudden, hallucinatory immersion in a different culture.

“The whole thing just takes him over,” said Hamilton. “He starts off in a dry, crisp shirt, and at the end it’s anything but that. This show is so in his wheelhouse.

“It’s more of a structure than a straight performance,” she added. “There’s some variation on how it plays out each time, so it’s a bit different each time he performs it.”

Story Slam, July 21, 8 p.m. — The Story Slam, originally held off-site, has now become one of the festival’s most popular events, Hamilton says, with a cash bar and prizes. Each participant has five minutes (a strictly enforced limit, she notes) to tell a story that must be true and personal, delivered without notes and related to the festival’s theme.

For the 2018 Ko Festival, Hamilton said, “It could be about a radical act that someone committed 100 years ago, but the story has to be how that relates to you, how it might have changed your life.”

Some participants are selected beforehand by festival staff, but other slots are reserved for audience sign-ups. If there are too many sign-ups, there’s an “audition” in which storytellers deliver their first few lines, and audience members then vote on which stories get to be told in their entirety. 

“Like a Mother Bear,” July 27 and 28 at 8 p.m., July 29 at 4 p.m. — Based on the personal story of playwright and performer Helen Stoltzfus, “Like a Mother Bear” explores issues of women’s infertility and illness, spiritual renewal and the fate of the wilderness. Stolzfus, who leads a theater and media company in San Francisco, traces her effort to come to grips with her health and the links she sees to threats to the environment, notably the grizzly bear.

In her one-woman presentation, Hamilton says, Stoltzfus includes humor — the storyteller visits the office of an “Elvis-impersonating acupuncturist” at one point — and she describes her visit to the Alaska wilderness in a quest to understand what performance notes describe as “the connection between her own endangered health and that of the threatened grizzly bear … personal healing and the welfare of future generations are inextricably entwined with the survival of the natural world.”

“Industrious Angels,” August 3 and 4 at 8 p.m., August 5 at 4 p.m. — A little closer to home, Laurie McCants invokes the ghost of Emily Dickinson and her poetry in her one-woman play (directed by Hamilton) about her relationship with her late mother, who was also a writer. More broadly, the play is about “women claiming their place in the arts, and what they show to the world,” said Hamilton.

McCants, co-founder of a Pennsylvania theater ensemble, is a longtime performer at Ko and has based “Industrious Angels” in part on a visit to Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst. The play includes puppetry, paper-cutting, music and movement, Hamilton says, and it was also inspired by the bond McCants found with her mother through Dickinson’s work: “Her mother taught Laurie to love Emily Dickinson, and she was reading an Emily Dickinson poem to her mom when she died.”

The annual meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society, hosted by the Emily Dickinson Museum, has also been scheduled to take place this same weekend to coincide with “Industrious Angels,” Hamilton notes.

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

For more information about the events at this year’s Ko Festival, visit kofest.com.