Performance isn’t the kind of art you can put in a frame or on a pedestal, although paintings and sculptures and the like also require a kind of activation by viewers to become more than static objects. A performance piece is art in action, and it requires audience participation to be complete.
Opening night of the Ko Festival of Performance at Amherst College was a perfect reminder that with this kind of theater, everyone is involved. This isn’t something creative people do for the enjoyment of passive spectators; the piece literally isn’t complete without community involvement. The audience is integral to the process, with an active, responsive role to play.
Among a smorgasbord of festival highlights on Friday night, Ralph Hurwitz, a longtime Ko supporter, spoke enthusiastically about his experience as an audience member, intern, and workshop participant. When it comes to this kind of performance art, he said, you don’t have to like what’s happening or even understand it. The value is in collaborating with lively, creative people – and inevitably learning something about yourself in the process.
The theme this season, the festival’s 20th, is secrets, and the opening night performance by Laurie McCants was, as one audience member pointed out during the post-show discussion, “quintessential Ko,” and not short on secrets.
Each Ko performance is followed by a discussion among the audience and the artists – including directors, lighting designers, set designers, and others – facilitated by Kermit Dunkelberg, a theater academic and professional. Following McCants’s world premiere of “Industrious Angels,” Dunkelberg asked for audience response to the constant tug between revealing and concealing that runs through the piece.
The discussion went elsewhere, but it struck this viewer that it’s a matter of trust to follow the artist on her emotional journey. Although it’s frustrating at times when she shows or tells us things and we don’t know what they are or what they mean, ultimately we don’t need to know what it all means, just that it means something to her. It’s her choice what to reveal and what to conceal, and it’s our job to go along for the ride. And as with any ride through someone else’s mind, the connections between stops remain unknown.
The Ko Festival is all about creative expression in a safe, nurturing space, in collaboration with others of similar sensibility. Some people write novels, others play cello at Tanglewood or carve Carrara marble. Theater people use their whole selves to turn deep personal truths into shared public performance.
Ko Festival performances and workshops continue through early August.