A Season of Farewells in Western MA: KO Festival of Performance and the Royal Frog Ballet

“The Surrealist Cabaret” by The Royal Frog Ballet. Image from Frog Ballet/Facebook

The KO Festival of Performance
FLUSHING: Make Room for Someone Else
Presented by Sandglass Theater and Parris-Bailey Arts
Written and Performed by Linda Parris-Bailey and Eric Bass
Directed by Kathie deNobriga
Puppets by Ines Zeller Bass
Hampshire College
July 22 – 24, 2022

EZELL: Ballad of a Land Man
Presented by Clear Creek Creative
Written and Performed by Bob Martin
Directed by Nick Silie
Hampshire College, Amherst MA
July 29 – 31, 2022

The Royal Frog Ballet
Surrealist Cabaret
Park Hill Orchard, Easthampton, MA
October 7 – 8, 2022

Review by Maegan Bergeron-Clearwood

Western Mass — Theatre artists should be experts in grief: we build sets with the knowledge that we will strike them in a few brief months; we play trust games and cultivate micro-communities, only to part ways once our contracts end; we witness our art fade from memory as quickly as it’s brought to life. We are peddlers in ephemera. And yet, when it comes time to bid farewell to a process or project, it is sometimes nigh-impossible to release our white-knuckled hold on what-was.

This year, two long-standing Western Massachusetts theatre companies – both dedicated to producing work that is fresh, surprising, and even strange – reckoned with their own relationships to endings, grief, and release.

The KO Festival of Performance staged its 31st and final season this summer around the theme of “Stepping Up / Stepping Back.” KO has a storied history of producing original work, supporting local and visiting artists, and cultivating a sense of community through post-show discussions and workshops.

Ezell with Tarp Spirit; Photo by Erica Fladeland.

This year, the festival was housed at Hampshire College in Amherst and offered a Story Slam and two productions: FLUSHING: Make Room for Someone Else, created and performed by Linda Parris-Bailey and Eric Bass and featuring puppetry by Sandglass Theater of Vermont; and EZELL: Ballad of a Man, an immersive, contemplative outdoor piece, written and performed by Bob Martin of Clear Creek Creative, with artists from New Orleans, Kentucky, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, just this past weekend, the Royal Frog Ballet presented its 15th and final Surrealist Cabaret under the full moon at Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton. Self-described as “an amoeba of collaborators, a producing body, a shouting household of households, and an aspiring dance team in search of parade,” The Royal Frog Ballet has gathered annually since 2008, with puppeteers, dancers, mimes, and spectators roving through site-specific outdoor installations. This year’s Cabaret was stationary, as a precautionary COVID move, but it remained immersive: artists are not mentioned by names in either the program or on the company’s website, establishing the audience as an equal player in the collective endeavor of artmaking.

I had never seen a KO or Royal Frog production prior to this year, and it was strange, as I sat in their audiences, knowing that I never would again. I regretted this sense of finality, because both of these companies are clearly good at what they do. The performances that I was lucky enough to witness were earnest and compassionate. They were products of years of ironing out collaborative kinks and learning how to synthesize disparate aesthetics and working styles.

KO and Royal Frog Ballet have built up loyal, loving communities: sitting among longtime festival goers, I felt awash in their nostalgia, joy, and grief. These theatre companies know who they are, how to do good work, and, most impressively, they are also wise enough to know when to end.

Eric Bass and Linda Parris-Bailey; photo by Kirk Murphy.

One strategy for closure, as put forth by the KO Festival, is to look backward and process how we got to this ending point. I was unfortunately unable to watch the entirety of this summer’s KO Festival, but I did have the opportunity to see FLUSHING: Make Room for Someone Else, which spoke directly to this year’s theme of stepping up and stepping back.

Longtime KO collaborators Parris-Bailey and Bass played themselves in this piece: two artistic leaders facing the “gaping maw” of stepping down and making space for the next generation. In the face of this existential dread, they turned backwards, reflecting on their meandering artistic and personal journeys, accompanied by intricate puppet-versions of the ancestors from which all of their artistic work emerged. They mused and sang about achievements and missteps and offered strands of hard-earned wisdom to incoming theatre leaders in the audience. FLUSHING was a message from the elders: to know where you’re going, you need to know where you come from.

Where FLUSHING looked backwards, the Royal Frog Ballet’s final Surrealist Cabaret focused its attention firmly on the present, even as the final evening of their final season came to a firm and final end. A seemingly neverending parade of dancers, musicians, clowns, beasts – even a unicorn! – circled out from behind a screen that was strung between two glowing trees, given the show a sense of momentum, even as the audience stayed seated – all while Granny Death watched from the edge of the stage, bundled up in a starry blanket, guiding performers offstage with a ring of a bell.

Some of the acts lived in the world of utter absurdity: fish coyly dancing across the stage; two egg yolks banging out a duet on pots and pans; synchronized swimmers performing their dainty choreography on dry land. But many of the pieces experimented with the task of saying goodbye, grasping for ways to bid satisfactory farewells.

Do we strive to hold on? One performer asked the audience to make the moment into a memory, to lodge elements of the night – laughter, shimmery costumes, the full moon – into our brains, knowing as well as the rest of us that it would all soon fade.

Do we interrogate the moment, try to articulate our place in time? One performer crafted makeshift verses out of words on cardboard, refrigerator poetry-style. Another accompanied his questions with an accordion, singing about the impossibility of telling a story in a straight line.

Do we grieve? Do we eulogize? A throng of women in mourning garb, veils and all, drifted across the stage, as if untethered from time. Later, the audience was graced with not one but two dirges: one for a dear dead dog; the other was for us, in a collective, dire, existential sense.

Do we go out with a bang? With a literal cabaret number, bedecked in a feather boa and sequins? With three grannies giving a rousing rendition of “I Will Always Love You?”

Combined, these two farewell seasons are reminder that closure is no finite, simple thing. We are tasked with looking simultaneously toward the here-and-now as well as the then-and-there, but always with Granny Death over our shoulder, reminding us that every moment is at once alive and dead.

Absent from the KO Festival and Surrealist Cabaret was one critical character: the next generation, the artists and leaders who will form theatre companies and collectives that are themselves may be destined for 15 to 30-year lives. I commend this active silence, the impetus for leaders to step back and make space, but not dictate how that void should be filled. There is ample room, now, for Western Massachusetts theatre artists to form amoebas, write new work, play with puppets, imagine dreamscapes, and build an ever-stronger community. I wish them all a fresh, surprising, and strange success.

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