By George Basler
The idea for KNOW Theatre’s Playwrights & Artists Festival originated two decades ago during a conversation in a downtown Binghamton coffee shop.
Jan Quackenbush, who taught playwriting at Broome Community College (now SUNY Broome), and Jim Gormley, who taught English, wanted a festival to honor Leonard Melfi and H.M. (Harry) Koutoukas, two playwrights from Broome County who were part of the experimental theater movement of the early 1960s. Over coffee, they brought their idea to Tim Gleason, KNOW’s artistic director, who signed on to the plan.
Flash forward 20 years: The festival will mark its 20th anniversary the weekends of Nov. 17-19 and Nov. 24-26 by presenting six original one-act plays at the theater’s location, 34 Carroll St., Binghamton.
“It’s amazing,” said Gleason reflecting on the anniversary. “There are certain people who come to this who don’t come to our main stage shows, because they like seeing new works.”
The festival’s format is a unique one. In its first years, artists read the plays and created artworks based on what they read. Organizers later flipped the order to have playwrights write plays based on three pieces of art picked by Gleason. “It’s the only (festival) in the country to do this format. That’s kind of cool,” he said.
The 57 submissions this year came from playwrights as far away at Tempe, Arizona. Judges — including Gleason’s friends at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. — do two rounds of blind readings before the plays reach Gleason for the final selection of six plays to be seen at the festival. Two plays are presented each night, each one based on one of the three artworks.
Audiences are an important part of the process, Gleason said. KNOW staffers hang the artworks in the theater lobby for attendees to view before seeing the plays. Then, after each performance, a talk back session, either in person or on Zoom, takes place with the playwrights whose works were performed that evening.
Gleason explained it this way: “We buy the cookies and brew the coffee, and see what happens.”
For this year’s festival, Gleason recycled the three artworks that were featured in the first festival two decades ago. One was based on Melfi’s play Birdbath. The second was based on Melfi’s play Halloween. The third was based on Koutoukas’ play Awful People.
“I thought let’s make it full circle and write plays that were based on artworks that were based on plays,” Gleason said. The format for this year’s festival also features three music compositions by Tom Rasely, Adam Schultz and Scott Fisher.
The festival offers prizes for the following three categories: $300 for Best of Festival, $200 for Artistic Merit and $100 for Audience Favorite.
“Part of the thrill of the festival is seeing something I’ve never seen before,” Gleason said, adding KNOW also uses the festival as “a farm system” for actors who may appear later in the theater’s main productions.
Credit goes to Quackenbush and Gormley for dreaming up the idea for the festival two decades ago, Gleason said: They “lit the flame. I just keep throwing fuel on it.”
Plays being performed this year are: Moving Day by Judd Lear Silverman, If You Say So by F.J. Hartland, Just Desserts by Tiffany Langley, Yes, And ... by Shirley Goodman, And We Danced by Brian Leahy Doyle and Joyce by David J. Valdez
IF YOU GO: KNOW Theatre’s Playwrights and Artists Festival runs two consecutive weekends, Nov. 17-19 and Nov. 24-26. All performances are at 8 p.m. at the theater, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Tickets are $15 per show or $40 for a full weekend pass. No reserved seating; all tickets at the door. Information at knowtheatre.org.