By Katherine Karlson
Take a couple of jiggers of original artwork, mix in an equal amount of new playwriting and a splash of the unexpected, and you have yourself one exciting visual arts festival for the 19th year in a row, served up by KNOW Theatre in Binghamton.
The annual Playwrights/Artists Festival will begin Friday (Nov. 18) and continue into the following weekend with an innovative concept and always thought-provoking results, said Tim Gleason, KNOW’s Artistic Director and Festival founder.
“The beautiful thing is we have no idea what’s coming at us,” he said. “It’s all brand new, and that’s exciting.”
The festival began 19 years ago when Gleason and three other playwrights with local roots (Leonard Melfi and Jan Quackenbush from Binghamton, H.M. Koutoukas of Endicott) approached local artists with one-act scripts and asked them to create a painting that symbolized or evoked the play. In 2006, when KNOW Theatre moved to its current home on Carroll Street in Binghamton, the process was reversed, and playwrights were shown original artwork and told to take it from there.
“It was a slow response at first, but then it really picked up,” Gleason said. “We’ve had up to 100 submissions — there were 93 in 2021 and 50 this year.”
Each submissions runs about 25 pages and produces 15-20 minutes of stage time. The selection process involves two rounds of blind readings, some by Gleason’s friends at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., before they reach him and final selection. Playwrights attend the performances of their respective plays either in person or by ZOOM. Two different plays are presented each night; each one is based on one of the three pieces of art.
Gleason prowls local galleries and art shows for paintings that will inspire creative drama. “I ask myself if I see more than one possible story in the painting,” he explained.
The festival never repeats artists and makes it a point to pick a work from Binghamton High School’s juried show in order to involve young artists in this project.
Each play itself is fresh and untouched, in that it is presented “as is,” with no tweaks from the director as it goes into production.
“It’s presented as written. It’s not ours — we are handed it and must respect it,” Gleason said.
Each evening comprises the play performances, followed by a talk-back session with the playwright and the artist whose work inspired it. The artwork that inspired each night’s play is hung prominently in the lobby.
“The artist is usually astonished that these plays came out of staring at (their) painting,” he added.
This year’s artworks are Ken Weir’s Jonestown, Bill Gorman’s Boats and Sunrise and Alexandra Zalesski’s Reflections.
Here are the competition winners and their respective plays:
Reflections of a Daydream by John Mabey
Today, Tomorrow, the Rest of My Life … by Lee Franklin
Pray It A-Weight by Shirley Goodman
Shangri-La by Nancy Temple
Beyond Harbor’s Peace by Allston James
Lost Oceans by Evan Spreen
The festival offers prizes for the following three categories: $300 for Best of Festival, $200 for Artistic Merit and $100 for Audience Favorite.
For next year’s 20th anniversary festival, the inspiration process comes full circle. The three original art works that inspired the plays in the first year will be brought back to inspire a new generation of playwrights.
“We give every encouragement to new writers,” Gleason said.
IF YOU GO: KNOW Theatre’s Playwright/Artist Festival runs two consecutive weekends, Friday through Sunday, Nov. 18-20 and Nov. 25-27. All performances are at 8 p.m. at the theater, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Tickets are $15 for a single night or $40 for a weekend’s trio of performances. Purchase tickets online at knowtheatre.org (go to “Events”). The weekend package is listed below the single evening performance.