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. 

Fertile Ground is a bubbling stew of creativity at a variety of temperatures and degrees of doneness. It covers just about every stage of production that a show goes through after the initial idea’s popped into someone’s brain, from first reading to staged reading to workshop to world premiere, with plenty of dance, some circus  arts, and a little film & animation tossed in to spice up the flavors. For some writers and producers, just being in the festival is satisfaction in itself. For others, this is a beginning, a tryout with an actual audience to see what’s working and what still needs work. For a few, it’s a full-fledged world premiere, and something that might well have a life beyond.

There are, if my count is accurate, more than 75 events during the 11-day festival, which opens officially on Thursday, Jan. 24 (some longer-run shows jump the gun) and continues through Sunday, Feb. 3, in venues across the metropolitan area. But that’s a misleadingly low number, because several of the events include several short works – the Crazy Dukes Instant Play Festival, for instance, on Jan. 27 at Hipbone Studio, in which six writers, assigned casts at random, will create, rehearse, and perform new 10-minute pieces in the space of 48 hours. There are sub-festivals, including the nine performances of Groovin’ Greenhouse, coordinated by Polaris Dance Theatre, that concentrate Fertile Ground’s many dance offerings. So, too, with the multiple productions under the wing of PDX Playwrights, which sprawls so thoroughly over Fertile Ground that it actually calls itself a “festival within the festival,” and refers to the Crazy Dukes instant plays fest, which is one of its babies, as “this festival-within-the-festival-within-the festival,” as if Fertile Ground were one big babushka doll.

Festival director Nicole Lane keeps her mouth on the harmonica and her eye on the clock: Four minutes, and the mouth harp sounds. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

I’ve attended these pre-festival media evenings for the past few years and found them valuable and even, often, congenial, if sometimes jarring and confusing. I sit down to an onslaught of elevator speeches, a term that, when I first heard it a few years ago under different circumstances, filled me with a kind of existential dread. I do not wish to speak to Strangers in Elevators (not a bad title, actually), let alone by hustled for investment purposes: I would like my ride to go swiftly and anonymously, surrounded by other people if necessary but wrapped safely inside my own head until the bell dings and I can walk out and away. Nor does the idea of speed-dating, with its cold-eyed transactional implications and instant evaluations, appeal. I’m not in the dating pool, anyway, but if I were, I’d shy away from online dating, too: I’m a more organic, let-it-happen-if-it’s-going-to-happen sort. Still, with 75-plus-plus-plus shows to sort through, whaddya gonna do? Speed-dating it is.

Here, then, as near as my notes and I can recollect, is my evening of dating in the journalistic trenches. Thank you, one and all, for your kind attention:

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DISPLACED/DETAINED/DISCOVERED. Bruce Hostetler slid into the visitors’ seat first, to talk about a new solo play from his company CompassWorks. It’s written and performed by Eliza Jane Schneider, a veteran of Joe’s Pub, P.S. 122 and the NYC International Fringe Festival in New York, and a voice actor who spent a few years doing most of the female voices for the TV show South Park. Hostetler directs this new multimedia musical, which is about the global crisis of displacement and the sense of helplessness that seems to accompany it. Schneider plays “an idealistic busker with her guitar, who sets out to save the world”: From streets around the globe to an ICE detention center close to home, she at least listens to the stories that homeless people have to tell. “We don’t know how to live with them,” Hostetler commented. “We don’t know what to do.”

Warren McPherson, who’s supposed to be this great thing. Photo: Kimmie Fadem

YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BE THIS GREAT THING. Warren McPherson is a young veteran of Portland Story Theater, and an audience favorite there. The deal at PST is, you don’t script a story, you tell it, so it’s going to be a little different in its particulars every time out. His Fertile Ground outing, he said, will consist of “seven or eight stories” strung together, on subjects as varied as “growing up Catholic, being a champion athlete, and living the life of ‘Mr. Mom’.” Surprises, apparently, abound. As his wife, who was making the rounds with him, noted, “I had literally no idea about the stories he’s told.”

SHACKLETON’S ANTARCTIC NIGHTMARE. Lawrence Howard, co-founder of Portland Story Theater, is back at the festival with another of his popular and captivating Armchair Adventures, most of which take place either in the Arctic or the Antarctic. Rather, he’s back with an old one – the true story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 failed Trans-Antarctic Expedition and the hardships and ultimate rescue of its 27-man crew – but rethought and expanded into a more complete theater piece. “We have 130 old photos, and multimedia artist Michael Hill is going to be projecting them on a screen behind me,” Howard said. “And we’ll have a soundscape by cellist Laurent Nickel, who’ll provide music and sound effects.”

DEEP END’S PRESENCE. Robyn Vazquez and Elena Afanasiev dropped by to talk up this “immersive improvised drama” at Deep End Theater, which specializes in improvisation. It’ll have eight performances, and each night when the audience walks in it’ll be met with photographs of each cast member. Then, based on the photos, the audience will vote on one cast member to take the central role in the show. “So every night’s going to be a different choice,” Vazquez commented. Domeka Parker, Deep End’s artistic director and guiding light, will direct.

PDX PLAYWRIGHTS PRESENTS. Gary Corbin showed up with a portfolio a mile deep and two miles wide. Remember that talk about a “festival within the festival” and a “festival within the festival within the festival”? Here they are. PDX Playwrights is producing “27 original plays by 26 playwrights in 10 days” at Hipbone Studios – including, Corbin took pains to point out, a staged reading of Karen Polinsky’s The Bad Hour, a fictionalized version of the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in eastern Oregon by Ammon Bundy and a gaggle of Sagebrush Rebels. Corbin has his own play, Steaming Jesus, on the Daisy Dukes Shorts Night program. And although Corbin didn’t mention it, I happen to know that a couple of ArtsWatch stalwarts – music editor Brett Campbell and contributing writer Maria Choban – have a play of their own, Posing as Sodomite (it features Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw) on the 5 x 4 program of staged readings of five plays by four writers. PDX Playwrights, Corbin explained, is a busy year-round enterprise, with at least two readings a month, a few workshops a year, a mailing list of 400 writers, a “highly active” list of about 100, and probably 20 or 25 writers showing up for any particular meeting. That makes Fertile Ground an obvious, almost inevitable landing spot for the members’ scripts.

“Vortex 1: A Musical”: Tom McCall could gather a crowd pretty much wherever he went. So why not throw a rock festival? Oregon Historical Society photo

VORTEX 1: A MUSICAL. Bill Wadhams, the Portland singer/guitarist not long removed from a lengthy revival tour with his hit ’80s synthpop band Animotion, stopped to talk a bit about this new musical-in-the-works, one of the festival’s most eagerly anticipated shows. It’s based on Vortex 1, the 1970 rock festival in rural Clackamas County that Gov. Tom McCall agreed to have the state sponsor to draw hippies and potential protestors out of Portland during an American Legion national convention and planned visit (which didn’t happen) by President Richard Nixon. “We took a couple of years” working on it, said Wadhams, who’s the composer and also plays in the band, which is led by pianist Tom Grant. It’s a stellar-looking cast and creative team: Playwright Sue Mach wrote the book and lyrics, Reese Marshburn is the arranger, Allen Nause directs, “and we’ve got Leif Norby singing Tom McCall.”

FRIENDS WITH GUNS. Jason Glick of Milwaukie’s Chapel Theatre Collective talked about the world premiere of another of this year’s most anticipated shows, Los Angeles playwright Stephanie Alison Walker’s role-reversing take on the issue of guns and gun control: It was a finalist for the 2018 Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. What do you do when you’re a good liberal couple and discover that your good-liberal-couple friends have a garage full of guns? Glick joins Danielle Weathers, Claire Rigsby, and Joseph Gibson in the cast. “What I like about it,” he said, “is that it turns the gun debate on its head.”

WELCOME TO ZION. Brian Schnipper talked about yet another new musical, with music, lyrics, and book by Holly Yurth Harmon, that he’s directing in a free lunchtime reading. “It’s about a Mormon family whose son comes out to them,” he said. His revelation throws the family into deep conflict. The Fertile Ground program listing notes: “The teen suicide rate in Utah has been rising exponentially in the last decade, especially among LGBTQ+ youth.”

YOU RUINED MY PLAY!, OR, SVETLANA! SVETLANA!  Another free lunchtime reading, this one by Dan Kitrosser, who also wrote last year’s movie We the Animals, based on Justin Torres’ novel. Matthew Miller, representing LineStorm Playwrights, another active writers’ group represented liberally in the festival, called Kitrosser’s play “an absurdist comedy” about Joseph Stalin’s daughter: “It’s Dan’s play about Svetlana Stalin, but it’s also a play about a play about Svetlana Stalin.”

Tobin Gollihar (left) and Ian Paul Sierren: men in comfortable pants. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

MEN IN COMFORTABLE PANTS AT THE HI-FALUTIN’ POMEGRANATE HOTEL. The writing/performing team of Tobin Gollihar and Ian Paul Sierren is back for a fifth straight Fertile Ground appearance, this one “a little bit of a high farce,” in Sierren’s words, about “meat, bubbles, alligators, travel writers, kazoos, sibling dynamics, chaos, grand schemes, and self-care.” It’s about a pair of brothers – one responsible, one prodigal – who run an inherited family hotel (because, well, they inherited it) and discover an important travel writer has booked a stay. “Our main character’s probably the hotel,” Sierren said. “Things come to you, and you get stuck with them. Things that you keep because you think you should.”

TETHER: ADHD + BDSM / THE TAROT SHOW. Fuse Theatre Ensemble is presenting four festival shows in rep at the Headwaters (the other two are Rusty Tennant’s unde+ec+able and the world premiere of Jane Comer’s I Am an Actress, which was workshopped at a previous Fertile Ground) and Sara Fay Goldman dropped by to talk about her show Tether, which has had two workshops and will now have “a formal premiere.” It’s a multidisciplinary solo show, “a collage of intimate personal anecdotes,” built on her relatively late diagnosis of ADHD: “It’s about a relationship with yourself.” And Fuse’s Megan Murphy talked about Kate Mura’s The Tarot Show, in which Mura expands her reading from the individual to the whole room: “What happens when you do a tarot show for an entire audience? Every audience is different, so every show is different.”

Sara Fay Goldman in “Tether.” Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

AN EVENING WITH THE LIGHTKEEPERS: SIREN SONGS & THE BOYS OF TERRIBLE TILLY. Autumn Buck and Lindsay Partain were doing a show together and one mentioned to the other that she was working on a play about a lighthouse. Get outta here, the other one said: I’m working on a play about a lighthouse. So they decided to produce them together, at Cerimon House, with Bag&Baggage’s Cassie Grier directing. Partain’s Siren Songs is based on the true story of a couple of enemies trapped through the winter of 1800-01 in a lighthouse on the Irish Sea off the coast of Wales. Tragedy ensued. Nobody knows exactly what happened: Partain imagines possibilities. Buck’s The Boys of Terrible Tillie tells the tale of the 1934 storm that hit the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse off the Oregon Coast with winds up to 109 m.p.h., and of the four-man lighthouse crew (all played here by women) who saved the light and themselves.

HAZARDOUS BEAUTY. PassinArt’s Connie Carley stopped by to say hello and talk about another highly anticipated Fertile Ground production, the premiere of Portland playwright Bonnie Ratner’s two-person show that drew raves in a 2016 FG workshop production. Josie Seid directs Quigley Provost-Landrum and Trish Egan as women – one black, one white – who meet in a Portland memoir-writing class and bring very different backgrounds to the encounter.

Quigley Provost-Landry (left) and Trish Egan in Bonnie Ratner’s “Hazardous Beauty” at PassinArt. Photo: Jerry Foster

A DANGEROUS JOY. Jeff Gorham and Garland Lyons popped in and immediately hit me with a quiz: Who said this (interesting quote that I’ve forgotten) and when? I had no idea, but it sounded religious, or spiritual, and somehow midcentury, so I guessed C.S. Lewis, 1930s or ’40s. Right time period, wrong person: It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, deeply influential writer, and anti-Nazi activist, who is the core of Terry Lomax’s intriguing-sounding new play. Bonhoeffer was convicted of taking part in the 1944 July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler, and was hanged on April 9, 1945, as the Nazi regime was collapsing. Lomax’s play takes place in the final hour of Bonhoeffer’s life.

SIDES: THE MUSICAL. My next visitor, Alec Lugo, was there to spread the news about this song cycle, in the mode of Songs for a New World, by composer and lyricist Matthew Capurro, with musical direction by Jeffrey Michael Kauffman. The show, which had a sneak preview last summer at Portland Playhouse, is back for a workshop production that will feature eight singer/actors. The songs focus on romance, family and friendships, viewed from several sides: As cast member Lugo told it, “Every single person is the hero in their own story.”

AN IRISH EXIT. Eve Johnstone, artistic director of Rutabaga Story Co. and director of FG’s staged reading of Danny Gray’s play (it’s co-produced by Rosie Rose Productions), talked about her approach to Gray’s script, which is inspired by Goethe’s Faust and centers on “a woman with a high-powered job who loses it and moves home to Sheboygan, Wisconsin.” A mental breakdown, an attempt to summon Satan, and a visitor from beyond the grave play into Gray’s “crazy and funny” story, which is performed with puppets and other visual elements: “It definitely gets more surreal.” Johnstone, who sees her company as “a platform for younger writers,” is 24, and remarked that she doesn’t see a lot of people her age going to the theater: They’re priced out. So she keeps ticket prices for Rutabaga shows low, around $10. I found that independent-minded commitment to accessibility one of the highlights of my evening.

Gretchen Peterson makes the rounds with her fairy-tale painting miniatures. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

GRETCHEN PETERSON: A NAME FROM A FAIRYTALE. Storyteller Peterson, whose one-person show of seven tales is subtitled Turning Upheaval Into Uplift, arrived at the dating table with some props: small depictions of several of her own paintings, which are bright and intricate and illustrative and seem, fittingly, to be taken from a book of fairy tales. Larger versions will be with her onstage, acting as a sort of set as she spins out one fairy tale, several personal stories, and one tale, as might befit the spinning of a fantasy, set about 40 years in the future.

JUICEBOX. Anne Zander, deviser and performer of this “cluelessly insatiable and hilariously vulnerable” workshop solo show, described it as an “imaginary memoir of adolescence.” She has about 45 minutes of material, a background in physical theater and clowning, and a fertile imagination. “This is my most important prop. My retainer from when I was 14 years old,” she said. “Also my diary from when I was 14.”

DISCONNECTED: A FRANKENSTEIN MUSICAL. Finally, Chris Rentzel (music and lyrics) and Gayle Towell (book) sat down to talk about their musical-in-the works, which is based on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel but reset in the 1990s in Oregon. They’ll have three readings and include 12 songs, doing Act I in full with a brief summary of Act II, and they’ll encourage written feedback afterwards. As Towell said, “We want to make something that’s worthy of Broadway someday.” Makes sense – after, of course, it’s all stitched together and brought to life.

“Disconnected: A Frankenstein Musical”: stitching it together. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

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So that’s it – or “it” as I saw and heard it from my little table in the speed-dating zone. Check the Fertile Ground web site for the full scoop, and watch for our ongoing reports from Marty Hughley and Bobby Bermea. If I missed anyone who dropped by for four minutes of hopeful conversation, I apologize deeply. It’s not intentional; I must’ve blanked. Sometimes my memory is, well, dated.

 

 

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