"Theaters that program more conservatively to deal with declining audiences are faring poorly," says Sabrina Hamilton, citing recent national attendance studies, "while the more adventurous ones are actually succeeding."
As artistic director of the annual Ko Festival of Performance on the Amherst College campus, she finds a measure of vindication in that trend. "We've been pioneers in the theater world in a way," she says, "and now that world is meeting us."
Ko (the name derives from the I Ching hexagram for revolution and renewal—literally, shedding an old skin) was once seen as "alternative" and risky. But its mission, shedding traditional performance structures in order to create new ones, has become something of a template for success in the ever-perilous world of theater. "Our model—artists doing devised and innovative work, and the company having an ongoing conversation with our audience—is succeeding, and it's kind of exciting," Hamilton says.
That model is paying off bigtime these days for KoFest, now in its third decade. The first show of the season was a sellout and houses have bulged gratifyingly for subsequent performances.
This season's theme, "An Intergenerational Look at Age and Aging," is also proving an attraction for audiences. After all, as Hamilton points out, "it's a topic that affects everyone."
So far, the thematic continuum has gone from the comic perils and pitfalls of midlife dating through confronting (with jokes and juggling) a parent's death to wry reflections on the things that change as you age (like your children) and those that don't (like anger at political crimes).
The theme extends into two art installations at the theater, one a series of photocollages depicting the same person photographed 20 years apart, another a circular fence on which audience members have pinned foil disks stating their age and ambitions.
In this weekend's performance, My Mind Is Like An Open Meadow, Erin Leddy of Oregon's Hand2Mouth ensemble becomes her own grandmother in a meditation on memory and mortality.
The season concludes with D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks, devised by Sandglass Theater of Putney from interactions with people with dementia, whose words comprise the script and who are given onstage life by artfully crafted puppets.
While most summer theaters provide one talkback opportunity for each show in their seasons, Ko has an audience discussion after every performance (a practice it shares in this region with the Chester Theatre Company and the Berkshire Fringe). That interaction between artist and audience is central to Ko's mission. It invites patrons to engage with the artist's process, builds a more knowledgeable audience base, and provides practical feedback for works that in some cases are still in development.
Ko considers itself an incubator as much as a presenter. Every performance in the month-long season caps a week of rehearsal and refinement. At the same time, other artists and companies are also in residence, conducting workshops and/or working on material in various stages of development.
Hamilton recalls a conference recently where the keynote speaker was toying with what he saw as a radical presenting model, the notion of giving artists the time, space and independence to create and experiment. "And," she remarks, "I was sitting there thinking, Well, we've been doing that for 20 years."
Ko Festival of Performance continues Fri.-Sun. through Aug. 5, Holden Theater, Amherst College, (413) 542-3750, kofest.com.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.