By George Basler
Audiences coming to the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton next week (July 5-8) will get in on the ground floor of seeing the next potentially great American playwrights.
For the first time ever, the Binghamton-based theater company is cooperating with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to present four regional prize-winning plays from this year’s Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival program. The four plays — two one-act and two 10-minute productions — include the national winner for outstanding short play, White or The Muskox Play by Jonathan K. Fitts, a student at New York University.
To be realistic, the odds are long that any of these young playwrights will go on to be household names. Theater is a harsh, competitive business. But the Binghamton productions are “a wonderful opportunity” for the young playwrights to see their work performed in a professional setting by professional actors before audiences who are unfamiliar with their work, as opposed to friends and family members, said Bruce Reiter, a regional playwriting chairman for the Kennedy Center festival.
The Binghamton productions also are a chance for  Southern Tier residents to see new works from fresh young voices, said Tim Gleason, artistic director of the KNOW Theatre, now in its 19th year.
“These words have never been spoken before in a professional production, and the audiences will be taking the journey with us,” Gleason said.
The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, now in its 44th year, was created to encourage and celebrate the finest, most diverse work produced in university and college theater programs. More than 18,000 students from more than 600 colleges and universities first compete in eight regional festivals in a number of different categories including playwrighting, directing, acting, design and theater criticism. The regional finalists advanced to the national festival  which was held in April in Washington, D.C.
KNOW Theatre is presenting the four finalists in playwrighting from Region I, which covers Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and part of New York. The productions are being directed locally with local actors in the roles, Gleason said.
One reason the plays are coming to the KNOW Theatre is Gleason’s connection to the Kennedy Center festival. For seven years, he’s worked with the Region I competition as a director and evaluator. About four years ago, he started thinking about connecting KNOW to the festival by bringing some of the plays here. He approached Reiter with his idea, and Reiter wrote a letter to Gregg Henry, artistic director of the Kennedy Center festival.
Henry gave the go-ahead.
“It’s a slam dunk logically,” Henry explained by telephone from Washington. A major plus is that the Binghamton performances will give the young playwrights a chance to see their work mounted in a professional atmosphere that is, at the same time, supportive and low-pressure, he said.
“Tim is not a Pollyanna. He’s not going to coddle the playwrights. But this is  not American Idol. There’s  nothing cutthroat  about it,” he added.
The four plays cover a variety of subject matter. Fragment by Angel Nunez deals humorously with a young man’s internal debate about whether to keep acting or take “a real job.” The Search by Alexandra T. Marshall focuses on two parents looking for a lost child. Another August by Charlene A. Donaghy deals with three “lost souls” after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
The national prize-winning play, White or The Muskox Play, tells the story of a father and daughter’s relationship in flashbacks.
The plays will be performed at 8 p.m. July 5, 6 and 7 and at 3 p.m. July 8. All performances will be in the 76-seat KNOW Theatre at 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. All seats are $10 and are general admission, meaning they will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The event has an added attraction. On Saturday, all four playwrights will be in Binghamton for a panel discussion following the evening performance. They will be joined by Reiter, and perhaps Henry, from the Kennedy Center festival.
While plays from the festival have received college productions in the past, this is the first time a professional theater has presented plays in “a concentrated format,” Henry said. For this reason, “it’s a nice experiment that may lead the way,” he added.
The production fits with one of the KNOW Theatre’s missions to introduce audiences to new works and new playwrights. Gleason hopes it will become an annual event.
“I’m proud they (Kennedy Center officials) would allow us to do this,” he said.