Reviewed by George Basler
Wendy Biller thinks artists and playwrights have similar qualities. In both cases, they work from starting points and then “as they move forward, imagination can take them anywhere.”
So, when the Los Angeles-based playwright and screenwriter learned about this year’s Playwrights and Artists Festival at Know Theatre, she was intrigued enough to submit one of her works, Fragile. She traveled to Binghamton this past weekend (Nov. 16-18) to see it performed for the first time.
Biller was one of six playwrights presenting works in the festival, which is now in its 15th year and has become one of the KNOW’s signature events. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” said Tim Gleason, the company’s artistic director.
The premise is unique: Playwrights look at three paintings and write short plays inspired by the artworks. Gleason and a team of readers from the local theatrical community then read the submissions — 60 came in this year — and whittle them down to six plays, two for each piece of art. The plays are performed over two weekends, two each night.
The festival is always an intriguing effort, although I was only able to get to opening night this year. One thing that makes it special is that the audience becomes part of the creative process. This happens at the end of each performance when audience members can stick around for a talk-back session with the actors, directors and playwrights.
“I love the audience participation part and that they get to ask questions at the end,” Biller said on opening night. Her play, Fragile, focused on an elderly woman’s confrontation with a drug company salesman who is interviewing her for a clinical study.
The second play of the evening was Stalking by Marj O’Neill-Butler, a member of the International Centre for Women Playwrights. The comedy-drama was about a woman being stalked by a co-worker who calls a friend for help. O’Neill-Butler participated in the evening by Skype.
Both playwrights had been inspired by the painting Rumor by Megan Proutey, a student artist who has won a National Gold Medal Scholastic Art Award while at Chenango Valley High School.
Both plays had intriguing moments, but what stood out for me opening night was a gripping performance by Bahri Della Penna, who played the elderly woman in Fragile.
Gleason said he’s always working to tweak the festival to make it better each year. A new wrinkle this year is the awarding of cash prizes: Best of Festival ($300), Artistic Merit ($200) and Audience Favorite ($100). Playwright Edward Allan Baker, whose plays were performed at KNOW in 2017, picked the Best of Festival and Artistic Merit winners.
The other plays in this year’s festival are:
Rocks on the Playa by Tom Cavanaugh, a playwright and producer based in Los Angeles. His inspiration was the painting Flatlined by artist Jessica Fridrich.
Earth like a Crown Upon Your Head by Drew Michele Billman, an actress and writer based in Chicago. She also took Flatlined as her inspiration.
Out of the Rubble by John Shea, a Massachusetts-based playwright. His inspiration was Karl Schadlich’s work Rockport, Mass.
A’Driftin by Jim Haswell, a local playwright who also used Rockport, Mass. as the basis for his play.
Shea’s play won Best of Festival while Haswell’s work won Artistic Merit.
Another aspect of the festival, which began a couple of years ago, is the inclusion of musical pieces that are played at the start of each night’s performances. Strange Fangs Song Factory coordinated the music that also is inspired by the three paintings. This year’s composers are Santino DeAngelo, James Glasgow and Devinne Meyers.
The festival is all about inspiration and interpretation, Gleason said. “We challenge playwrights to look at three chosen pieces of art and see where inspiration takes them, and each of the journeys is unique.”
Biller said her journey to Binghamton was well worth it. “I love the space here, and it’s wonderful people in the community come.”
IF YOU GO: The Playwrights and Artists Festival will continue this weekend at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Nov. 23-25). General admission tickets at $15 per night, or $25 for the entire weekend, can be purchased at the door. Details: www.knowtheatre.org.