Fertile Ground: get set, go

On your mark: Portland's festival of new work, with more than 100 offerings, is ready to roar. Grab your tickets: It's a jumble out there.

It was 5:30 on a blustery Thursday evening – still rush hour in The City That Sometimes Works – and Nicole Lane was busy herding cats. Some of the media people were stuck in traffic and still on their way but they’d be there soon, she announced loudly to the litter of playwrights, producers, actors, and assorted theater people caroming about the byways and bar of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Morrison Street lobby.

Then Lane, director of the ninth annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Work (this year’s begins Thursday and runs eleven days through January 28, in venues scattered across the city) ticked off the rules for this latest version of the festival’s speed-date-the-media night. Scope out the tables. See who you want to talk to. Get in line. When your turn comes be ready to make your pitch, and be quick about it. When the bell rings, your time’s done: Get up, move on to another table, start all over again. Ding!

Milagro’s “Bi–” has its world premiere at Fertile Ground. Photo: Russell J Young

I don’t know what it was like for the theater people as they hustled through their paces, but for me – one of those media types, with a little oblong table to call my own – it was a little like sitting in front of a wind machine taking wave after wave full force. I looked neither left nor right but straight ahead, only glancing down now and again at the succession of press releases and show cards to get my bearings. Who was this, now? What show? Where? When? Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh they went, a succession of mini-conversations, a jumble of scribbled notes, a scramble of unsorted information.

This year’s Fertile Ground includes more than seventy productions, and because a number of them gather together several short pieces, more than a hundred “acts of creation.” They are mostly theater pieces but also include dance, sketch comedy, improv, circus arts, even an animation showcase – just about anything you can show or do from a stage. The festival includes a dozen full-scale world premieres, from Milagro Theatre’s national-touring Bi– to Artists Rep’s six-hour Magellicana to Dance Naked Productions’ Sex We Can: An Erotic Uprising. A few full productions have already opened, including Parnassus on Wheels at Lakewood, Patrick Walsh’s new adaptation of Chekov’s Three Sisters at Northwest Classical, and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s new version of Uncle Vanya.

PETE’s “Uncle Vanya,” one of two fresh adaptations of Chekhov plays in Fertile Ground. Photo: Owen Carey

The festival also includes workshop productions, readings, and staged readings, so audiences can get a peek inside projects in a range of development from beginning to end. Wayne Harrel’s musical Just This One, for instance, with music and lyrics by the late, great Portland blues man Paul deLay, is back as a world premiere after being presented in concert form at last year’s festival and then performing several of its songs at last summer’s Waterfront Blues Festival. And sometimes those cats Lane was herding proved only partially herdable. “I can’t stay any longer,” Philip Cuomo, artistic director of CoHo Productions, said during a brief break, “but I wanted you to at least see this.” He handed my a flyer for his own show, Philip’s Glass Menagerie, a whimsical take on the Tennessee Williams classic that features, among other things, Isaac Lamb in drag as the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield, and which is bound to be pretty interesting one way or another.

“Just This One,” with blues singers Saeeda Wright, Lisa Mann and LaRhonda Steele. Photo: Josh Wilson

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Novelist and playwright Gary Corbin was first in line at my table – in fact, we jumped the gun by a couple of minutes while the crowd was waiting for the last few media people to work their way through the traffic. He slapped down Gus, a little toy figure in the shape of a snowball, representing his play Voodoo Snowball. “Pay attention to Gus,” Corbin said. “He has magical powers. And my characters really need them! … It’s a poignant comedy. I hate the word ‘dramady,’ so I say ‘poignant comedy.’” It crossed my mind that one plausible reason to dislike the word “dramady” is that it’s not clear whether it should be spelled “dramady” or “dramedy,” and who wants to spend time sorting that out?

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Voodoo Snowball, which will get a staged reading, was from Northwest Theatre Workshop and PDX Playwrights, a loose group of writers that has its fingerprints all over Fertile Ground – “twenty-two acts of creation,” PDX’s Lauren Emery noted a little later. “We meet every other Tuesday at Portland Center Stage.” Among PDX Playwrights’ festival-inside-the-festival will be Daisy Dukes Shorts Night, during which short plays by eight writers will explore the theme “Now is the time”; and the Crazy Dukes Instant Play Fest, which Corbin is producing and which Fertile Ground categorizes as “time based theatre” – the playwrights are given three or four prompts, a few randomly-assigned actors, and 48 hours to make something out of them.

And it includes Spellbinders, a staged reading at Hipbone Studio of Brad Bolchunos’s new play about the scientist Leon Theremin, who, in post-revolutionary Russia, suffers a fear of intimacy and delves into the world of hypnosis in an attempt to heal himself. Yes, this is the Theremin who invented the fascinating electronic musical instrument of the same name, which the player controls without having to touch it.

Cory Huff stopped by, too, to talk about a show he’s acting in, Karen Polinsky’s Contraband, which is part of PDX Playwrights’ 4X4: A Collection of One-Acts. It’s about an ex-Marine who storms security at an airport to get his runaway son back. “Police seem not to be trained to de-escalate things,” he commented. “If you are belligerent with the police, you are likely to be hurt.” Christopher Serra’s “reconciliation monologue” The Sea is also part of 4X4, and it’s a new experience in more than one way, Serra said: “I’m a filmmaker first and foremost. This is my first work for the stage.”

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Gigi Rosenberg, “The Inheritance.” Photo: Scott Bump/Portland Stiry Theatre

Writer and editor Gigi Rosenberg stopped by to talk about her workshop production of her solo show The Inheritance, “a story about a strange and disturbing inheritance I received.” Rosenberg’s show is an example of the process many of these plays undergo: she’s done previous workshop versions at Portland Story Theatre and the Barrow Group Theatre’s solo show workshop in New York. It concerns her own history as “a firstborn daughter of the 1960s” and “what happens when you break a rule in this family that seems very hippy-dippy.”

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Speaking of gender fluidity (or just plain sleight-of-hand), A Woman in Washington’s Army tells the true tale of Deborah Samson, who disguised herself as a man and fought with distinction in the Revolutionary War. Laurence Overmire’s play, which will have a reading with music, jumps through three time periods – the present, the war years, and Samson’s later career as a popular touring lecturer.

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“If you’re looking for something controversial and edgy,” Matthew Miller said affably, “this is not that. “It’s a light comedy about growing old.” His play, I Love You/Who Are You, is this year’s Portland Civic Theatre Guild New Play Winner, which gets it a stage reading in the festival. It’s a romantic comedy about a couple in their 20s, 50s, and 80s.

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Sara Anderson of Polaris Dance Theatre dropped by to talk about this year’s Groovin’ Greenhouse, the eighth annual edition of Polaris’s dance showcase at Fertile Ground. It’s really a mini-festival of its own, covering several nights and a variety of new dance – six shows, she said, each different but each also including work by Polaris or its junior company. This time around, she added, artistic director Robert Guitron is stepping aside and letting Polaris’s dancers create the new choreography.

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Tobin Gollihar and Ian Paul Sieren chatted up their intriguingly titled Real People. Not Actors. (actors tend to hate that phrase when they see it in TV commercials: “Like we’re not real?”), which takes place 30 years in the future, when pretty much all jobs are done by robots and theater becomes a “subversion force.” Ian: “It’s kind of like jazz theater. There’s a structure – but.” Tobin: “I would say it’s fully scripted but the dialogue will change.”

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Nick John in “Stranger Than Fiction” at Echo Theater. Photo: Isometric Studios

It’s quite possible, of course, that this will be Stranger Than Fiction, although fiction can be pretty strange: The collaboration between Echo Theatre and Tempos Contemporary Circus will showcase circus, aerial, acrobatic, dance, and physical theater acts. Tempos founder Kraig Mead talked up the elements, including their social-justice aspects.

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A pair of young Theatre Vertigo ensemble members, McKenna Twedt and Jacquelle Davis, dropped by to talk about a couple of staged readings the company will produce: Autumn Buck’s Sable and the Forest and Aubrey Jessen’s Velvet. Vertigo’s been undergoing a makeover, with lots of new members, and is taking a break this season from full productions, so I asked Twedt and Davis to fill me in on what’s up. The Fertile Ground readings of these two new plays, it turns out, will kick off a a full season of staged readings: there’ll be eight more through June, each of a play Vertigo has produced in the past.

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Rogue Pack’s “Truth and Dare.” Photo: JT Studios

Ann Singer, who’s been doing creative work with young performers for years, talked about her company Rogue Pack’s new improv show Truth and Dare, in which girls from Boys & Girls Aid, with the help of three professional actors, tell their own stories about being in foster care. “They love improv,” Singer said. “They have to think on their feet, and they have to be in the moment. … They say, some of them, ‘I’ve never played a game’.”

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Danyelle Tinker, executive managing director of North Portland’s Twilight Theater Company, took a seat to tell me about Tony Bump’s That Midsummer, a staged reading of a new backstage play about casting and rehearsing a small theater’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She also talked up Twilight’s eight-show 2018 season, which begins in late January with Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and wraps up in December with Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot.

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Masque Alfredo’s Fayra Teeters told me about the intriguingly titled Death of a Cranky Philosopher, the commedia troupe’s newest project in collaboration with HART Theatre. “It’s not that far from our regular commedia material,” she said. Don Teeters’ script is set in a high school, where a philosophy teacher is shot in the head by one of his students and finds himself in a strange, coma-induced netherworld. “The way back to sanity is not a straight line,” Fayra said. “It zigzags.”

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Dance Naked Productions’ Eleanor O’Brien was eager to talk about her company’s new show, Sex We Can! An Erotic Uprising, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement. It’ll include stories in various formats by 16 performers. “I started thinking about this show six months ago,” she said. “What was my response going to be to the new administration?” One way or another, she determined, it will involve “this experience of collective joy, which I think is very imprtant right now.”

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Quigley Provost-Landrum, Sean Doran, and Jeb Berrier in “A Bed of My Own.” Photo: Robert Hamm

Robert Hamm talked about the staged reading of his play A Bed of My Own, about a guy who simply won’t get out of bed, and the complications that arise when he doesn’t. “I’m using it as sort of an introduction to the Portland area. I’ve been here about three years,” he said. The current script is a revision of one that was produced in Alameda, Calif. “It was inspired by Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, who stayed in bed for about eight months.”

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Eric Nepom talked about 1ne Off! Improvised One-Acts – “weird, uncanny tales” at Lakewood. Julia Bray talked about her workshop of Matter Is Mother at CoHo, a show that involves dance, singing, puppetry, film, and audience participation, and touches on “the way we treat the feminine. … I’m calling it a mythical comedy.” Joe Jatcko talked about his political satire The High Captain, in which a crew of shipwrecked petroleum barge workers, high on gas fumes, try to come up with an island democracy. Good luck with that.

Joe Jatcko’s “The High Captain,” at Clinton Street Theatre.

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And while that is far from everything, that’s that: It’s as far as my datebook went. Check the schedule and go see for yourself. It’s a jumble out there.

 

 

 

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