CULTURE

DramaWatch: Planning for a bountiful harvest from Fertile Ground

Portland's wide-ranging new works festival offers more than you can manage alone. Plus, new shows from Portland Center Stage, Portland Playhouse and others.

“Conceived and organized by the Portland Area Theater Alliance, Fertile Ground is a new, 10-day, city-wide festival dedicated to the creation and promotion of original works for the theater. Home-grown and wide-ranging, it both reflects and nurtures the creativity, aesthetic diversity and collaborative spirit of Portland’s performing community with three dozen projects in all. Even in these cold, hard times (in terms of the weather and the economy) it looks like something fun and invigorating enough to take root on the highlight calendar of Northwest arts events.”

Doesn’t seem so long ago, really, that I wrote that — in my former life as theater critic for The Oregonian — about the first Fertile Ground festival in January of 2009. Surely enough, the festival did take root and very quickly grew into one of the city’s mid-winter cultural staples. Not only did that first iteration provide proof of concept (a.k.a., “It works!”), but it delivered memorable works such as Christine McKinley’s science-themed coming-of-age musical Gracie and the Atom, Ezra Weiss’s Mad-Hatter-hip jazz version of Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Keystone’s rocketry epic Apollo.

Right off the bat, attendance was in the 10,000 range. Soon, the number of plays/projects/performances on offer doubled, and Fertile Ground became a reliable hot house for buzz-worthy work: The North Plan, Famished, Dear Galileo, Willow Jade The Huntsmen, The Tripping Point, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Hillsboro Story, My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow, The Snowstorm…

Maureen Porter joins the CoHo Clown Cohort for “Witch Hunt,” a seriously comic take on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” as part of Fertile Ground 2019. Photo: Urban Body Project.

So here we are at the 10th anniversary of that inaugural edition, with the 11th annual festival set to kick off on January 24. Chances are good that a critical and/or popular consensus will lift a few of the 70-some presentations to memorable status and/or further development and/or subsequent productions. But the whole idea here is that these shows are new; so while we may have hunches about what’s promising based on the artists involved or the idea they’re pursuing, no one really knows what you really ought to see. Of course there’s the matter of subjectivity. Topics range from Shakespeare to BDSM (er…if you have to ask…), and while my personal “Don’t care!” sign starts flashing red at the thought of, say, vampire stories or circus arts, you might think me a hopeless dolt to be intrigued by a Chekhov adaptation or a drama about gun control.

And schedules only complicate the matter further! For starters, not everyone can do a full Kay Olsen on the thing (Portland theater insiders know what I mean). With so many shows, at venues spread across Portland and (a bit) beyond, at conflicting or overlapping times, even a full-time commitment to the festival wouldn’t allow you to see even half.

So.

Decisions, decisions.

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A judge’s journey from El Salvador to Oregon

A new play at Milagro Theatre explores the astonishing life of Multnomah County's Judge Xiomara Torres.

The life story of Judge Xiomara Torres—who journeyed from El Salvador to California as a nine-year-old undocumented immigrant in 1980 and was appointed to the Multnomah County Circuit Court by Gov. Kate Brown in 2017—seems too vast and inspiring to be contained by a single stage. Yet Judge Torres, a new play by Milta Ortiz that is making its world premiere at Milagro Theatre, dares to retrace Torres’ footsteps.

A less inventive playwright might have chronicled Torres’ experiences with dull, dutiful faithfulness. Yet Ortiz—whose visionary spirit is expressively channelled by director Mandana Khoshnevisan and a terrifically versatile cast—takes a stranger and more engaging approach. She has created a play that, while not strictly true to Torres’ life, uses symbolism and spirituality to get to the truth of it.

Dreamlike wonderment enlivens the inspiring story of “Judge Torres” at Milagro Theatre. Photo: Russell J. Young.

Judge Torres begins by showing us Torres’ childhood in El Salvador, which the play sums up in the idyllic image of Xiomara (Marissa Sanchez) dressed in a jaunty pair of overalls and raving about her love of books. Her bliss, however, is soon overshadowed as civil war ravages El Salvador, forcing her and her siblings (Cindy Angel and Eduardo Vasquez Juarez) to flee across the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana, Mexico.

When the Torres family arrives in America, they are giddy—to them, even the sight of vending machines packed with Coca-Cola is a revelation. But glee gives way to terror for Xiomara when, at 13 years old, she reveals that she has been sexually abused by a family member (per Torres’ request, the play doesn’t reveal the identity of the culprit). Split from her siblings and placed in foster care, Xiomara is left to endure more or less alone as she struggles to embrace her destiny: standing up for the rights of abused children the way that her court-appointed special advocate, Jan Brice, stood up for her.

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Art in Oregon turns its bridge-building to Lincoln County

The nonprofit is dedicated to helping artists connect with their communities by setting up a statewide database and awarding funds for the purchase of art

A healthy community needs a healthy cultural side, and that includes the arts, says Tammy Jo Wilson, cofounder of Art in Oregon (AiO). After a first year that included setting up a database of Oregon artists and offering micro-grants to Clackamas County businesses to purchase art, the nonprofit is turning its attention to Lincoln County.

Wilson and her husband, Owen Premore, got the idea for the nonprofit after the only gallery in Oregon City closed soon after the couple, both artists, bought a house in town. “We really started to think, how is art going to be part of our community?” Wilson said. “That led us to think not only about our community, but Oregon in general. That’s what led us to start this. Not just think about our community, but the state as a whole.” Wilson, a painter, and Premore, a sculptor and installation artist, started Art in Oregon in late 2017 with the goal of building bridges between artists and their communities.

“Road to Timberline,” by Elo Wobig (right), is the first painting purchased by the Museum of the Oregon Territory, says museum manager Jenna Barganski (center). Tammy Jo Wilson (left) says Art in Oregon hopes to continue working with the museum to expand its collection to include more Oregon artists. Photo courtesy: Art in Oregon

Through a program called the Art Shine Project, they have set up a curated database of artists they hope will serve as a digital gallery leading to the purchase and placement of artwork in public. The 2018 Art Shine Project focused on Clackamas County, providing funds to help three local businesses and nonprofits purchase art of their choice from work submitted by 33 local artists.

“We are trying to connect with the artists of Oregon, both emerging and established and everything in between, and then help them find their community,” Wilson said. “So the goal of the Art Shine Project was to find as many artists in Clackamas County as we could, and from that we started the Art Shine database.” There is no charge to be included in the database, which includes close to 100 artists throughout the state.

Wilson sees project benefits as three-fold. The artist makes money from the sale of art and gets to see it publicly displayed. The businesses get to own an original piece of art, and the community is exposed to work by a local artist.

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Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

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The power to move people

Miles Davis, Linfield College’s new president, champions the arts as both a means to living well and to forging relationships, but warns of a dark side

A recent change in leadership at Linfield College is significant not only for the 160-year-old liberal arts institution, but also for the community at large. It is not hyperbole to say that the private college plays a major — even an essential — role in local cultural life beyond the resources it offers its 1,980 students.

McMinnville residents may check materials out of the Nicholson Library. Authors from around the region give readings that are free and open to the public. There’s an art gallery, and both the theater and music departments mount classy productions (plays are often accompanied by panel discussions) and concerts. Linfield music professor Anton Belov launched, on his own, an ambitious, opera-centric event last summer that drew musicians from all over the world. Meanwhile, Linfield faculty members publish work that reaches far beyond the campus, one recent example of which I wrote about here.

In July, Miles Davis became Linfield’s 20th president and the first African-American to fill the role. Davis, 59, comes from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., where he headed the university’s Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business. Don’t let that “business” part throw you. In fact, you may want to tread lightly inquiring about that aspect of his life, if you’re implying an unbridgeable chasm gapes between professional (or vocational) education and liberal arts education. Davis says that’s a false dichotomy, and when I sat down with him recently to discuss arts and culture, he explained why. He also elaborated on the issue on LinkedIn, where he occasionally posts short essays.

Linfield College President Miles Davis says the best art “pulls you in. It transports you. It takes you to a different place.” Photo courtesy: Linfield College

Davis welcomed me into his spacious office and even before I was seated, he was firing off questions about my education, work history, and artistic interests. I mentioned that I’d done many shows at Gallery Players of Oregon, which he was familiar with because a couple of Linfield administrators also are long-time Gallery actors.

We launched into a lively conversation that went a full hour. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about yourself. What’s your favorite art form?

Davis: My favorite — and some people will debate whether this is fine art or not — but I like photography. I love imagery, I love the visual display of things, I love taking something that is ordinary and capturing it. Even now, I love looking out this window, looking at the framing of that tree, and the moss on that tree. That is a perfectly framed photo for me. And the ability to play with light. I started in the prehistoric age where you had development paper. Now, what you can do with digital imagery is incredible, but I like unfiltered stuff.

Where did that interest come from?

I was a photography student, even back in middle school. I was finally able to purchase my dream camera about 15 years ago, a Nikon. I like action photography, I like travel photography. I don’t do still or portraits except for imagery. It’ll be an image that will capture me. I actually won a Kodak photography award. I hate posed things, but I happened to be at a rally where Joe Biden was speaking, and he had his granddaughter with him, and I had my camera. He had leaned over in what I believe was an unscripted moment, and put his arm his granddaughter, and just the look of love and adoration on his face for her, I captured it. Kodak was having a photo competition, and I submitted it, and I won.

It was a true Kodak moment!

It was! And that’s what they wanted. They didn’t want posed, they wanted unscripted moments. That must have been 2007.

I’ve read that you were raised in Philadelphia, and that your parents made sure that you had a lot of exposure to the arts. Tell me about that.

It’s really interesting, for a poor inner-city black kid to be taken to art museums. Philadelphia has one of the great art museums, quite frankly what I think is one of the greatest art museums in the world. To be exposed to that. They exposed me to opera. This is the time of Motown sound, so you heard that stuff, but my parents wanted to make sure I was exposed to far more. So I got a chance to see ballets and symphonies, because they wanted me to have a vision of myself that was bigger than the world in which I found myself.

All of that has come to bear later in my life. I went horseback riding, I played tennis, I was on the fencing team! They exposed me to a world that was greater and bigger. They didn’t have money.

I had a chance to spend time in Cuba. I was in Havana in January 2012 studying the transition, as Raúl Castro came in and was looking at the expansion of entrepreneurship and their equivalent of deregulation of their economy. I talked to people, and I speak Spanish, so I asked them about these changes. They said there are three things that government should always do, that the government should provide support for: One is health care, the second is education, and the third is the arts. I think about that, because I went to the Philadelphia art museum for free.

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Boom Arts: the halftime report

In the fifth chapter of his season-long look at the world-performance company, TJ Acena takes the midseason temperature and looks ahead

Boom Arts is halfway through its 2018-2019 season, and so far it’s been a season of growth. Kamla Hurst became the risk-taking Portland performance presenter’s very first executive director. The company, which calls itself “a boutique presenter and producer of contemporary theatre and performance from around the world,” brought Teatr-Pralnia, a 10-person performance group from Ukraine, to Portland. And it brought back Penny Arcade, one of America’s most respected performance artists, for an encore show.

The Ukrainian performance troupe Teatr-Pralnia raised the roof. Photo: Friderike Heuer

So far, so good. “Pralnia delighted us with a fabulous show,” says producer Ruth Wikler. “Word of mouth traveled over the week they were in town and our audiences literally quadrupled between the first and second weekends.” She was also pleased with the community-engagement programming: a workshop with students of theater and of Russian language and literature at Salem’s Willamette University; a program at Central Library; and a visit to Art & Learning Studios, where the artists made connections with adults with developmental disabilities, including native Ukrainian speakers.

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Jimmy Mak’s: Ace of clubs prepares to play a new hand

Friday's Mission Theater concert helps revive the brand of one of Portland's most influential nightspots, due to re-open in the fall.

For many years, J.D. Stubenberg and Lisa Boyle were mainstays of the great Portland music club Jimmy Mak’s, in their own ways as vital to the place as the hotspot’s founder/owner Jimmy Makarounis and the musicians who lit up the stage there. Since the club’s closing at the end of 2017, followed hard upon by the death of Makarounis from laryngeal cancer, they’ve been involved in plans to revive and sustain the Jimmy Mak’s legacy.

So now they’re getting the brand back together.

Tonight’s concert at the Mission Theater — a high-energy double serving of rock-and-soul featuring the Yachtsmen and the Paul Creighton Project, with the Soul Vax horns adding some special sauce all around — comes to you under the Jimmy Mak’s Presents banner, an imprimatur of the discerning yet populist aesthetic that Makarounis and Stubenberg championed over the past couple of decades. The show is a benefit for the Jimmy Mak Musical Inspiration Scholarship at Portland State University, a program launched in 2017.

Portland pop-rock band the Yachtsmen will play at the Mission Theater on Friday to benefit the Jimmy Mak Musical Inspiration Scholarship.

The show also serves as a reminder that the much-loved, much-missed club likely isn’t gone for good. In fact, the investor group Friends of Jimmy Mak’s plans to launch a new location this fall.

“We’ll hopefully start swinging hammers by the end of May, maybe June,” Stubenberg said last week. “So we’re hoping to open in September or October, but we won’t really know until we get into construction.”

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