Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

With a rumble and a roar, producers and performers woo the press before the kickoff of the new-works festival. A peek at the dance card.

On an early January Thursday night in the upper lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, the hubbub began like the foreboding rumble of water about to burst through a high earthen dam. It grew quickly to a roar – a shout, a din, a tsunami, an anarchy of sound in an overcrowded intellectual bazaar, each voice pitching fast and furious, eager to seal the deal. The place was packed with producers, writers, directors, and actors in a fast-paced mating dance, lined up at tables and waiting to pounce on an empty chair opposite one of the chosen customer-targets. Prospective suitors leaned forward across the tables, straining to hear above the cacophony, eager to make an impression on the handful of arts journalists who were the objects of their temporary affections.

Matt Haynes of The Pulp Stage and storyteller Anne Rutherford make their pitches. Photo: Fertile Ground

Matt Haynes of The Pulp Stage and storyteller Anne Rutherford. Photo: Fertile Ground

Welcome to speed-dating night at Fertile Ground.

Portland’s annual free-for-all festival of new theater, dance, comedy, music, and stuff that falls into the cracks between recognized genres runs for eleven jam-packed days this year, opening January 22 and continuing through February 1 on stages scattered across the metropolitan area. The rules are simple. Everything presented must be new (that doesn’t mean it might not have been workshopped or had readings beforehand). And the festival, which is sponsored by the Portland Area Theatre Alliance, isn’t juried or curated: if you can get your act together, you’re in. It’s a bit like a baby version of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, without the international audience and 24/7 street theatrics.

Alan Alexander III of "Alan's Confectionery (the musical)," with Megan Bradley of "Me Here Now." Photo: Fertile Ground

Alan Alexander III of “Alan’s Confectionery (the musical),” with Megan Bradley of “Me Here Now.” Photo: Fertile Ground

The controlled pandemonium of speed-dating night was a nice predictor of the Fertile Ground Festival itself, which seems to sprawl like a hundred cats across a dozen armchairs, but in fact is a marvel of preparation and meticulous timing. Festival director Nicole Lane presided like a combination kindergarten teacher and school crossing guard herding the kids on a field trip to the beach. Five minutes, she commanded. Line up in front of the reporter you want to talk to, grab a seat when your turn arrives, and start talking. Give ’em your two-minute elevator speech, then let ’em ask questions. At each five-minute mark she rang a bell, and everyone switched partners.

Predictably, energy ran high, fueled by stress and hopefulness. ArtsWatch was well-represented, with Jamuna Chiarini, Marty Hughley, Rebecca Waits, Brett Campbell and me. Our A.L. Adams was there, too, this time representing her other main outlet, Artslandia magazine. I sat at a table with David Stabler and Jamie Hale of The Oregonian. Journalists from the Portland Tribune, Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Mercury, and other outlets were on hand, too.

Pitching and catching: speed-dating night felt a little like open open tryouts for baseball spring training slots. Photo: Fertile Ground

Pitching and catching: speed-dating night felt a little like open tryouts for baseball spring training slots. Photo: Fertile Ground

What I encountered was a blur of small pigs, snow queens, flooded cities, pirates of the Caribbean (who popped up in two pitches), Liberace glitter, Mafioso Shakespeare, Pirandello riffs, solo shows, and sci-fi serials. What I emerged with was a litter of press releases, photographs, web links, and, yes, telephone numbers, for professional purposes only.

Somehow, as hubbubs tend to do, this one took on an air of improvisational normalcy. When I got home afterwards, my wife reported a dinnertime conversation. “Where’s Dad tonight?” our 17-year-old son asked, belatedly noticing the empty slot at the table. “He’s out speed-dating,” she replied. “Oh,” he said, and took another bite. Well, of course.

David Saffert and Sammuel Hawkins showed up in character for "David Saffert's 40th Birthday: The Liberace Edition." Photo: Fertile Ground

David Saffert and Sammuel Hawkins showed up in character for “David Saffert’s 40th Birthday: The Liberace Edition.” Photo: Fertile Ground

As usual, this year’s festival is a gumbo of readings, staged readings, workshop productions, and full-blown premieres: writers and producers sometimes use the festival as a first chance to see how things are working for an audience, and sometimes as the launching pad for a completed show.

And of course, I spotted a few people in the crowd who I didn’t get a chance to talk to: we were like shipwreck survivors clinging to different bits of debris and floating off on separate waves. Among them was the veteran playwright Steve Patterson, whose If the Fates Allow, set in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, is one of several scripts from the writers’ group Playwrights West.

Here are quick hits on just a few of the projects. For a complete schedule and ticket information (festival passes are a very good bet if you’re planning to hit several shows), see the Fertile Ground website.

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It’s beginning to feel a lot like … Musical-theater vet Kurt Misar dropped by with a business card, a press release, and a quick pitch. Contrarily (or smartly, if you consider the virtues of refining a product and planning ahead) he was thinking about Christmas. Under the blanket title Upon a Winter Road, he’s doing a reading – or singing – of two one-act musicals: Christmas at the King’s Head, set in a 1790 English rural inn and featuring his own music, lyrics, and book; and Christmas at the Beggar’s Bum, set in a London coffee house in 1661, with Misar’s music, lyrics by Brad Beaver, and book by Russ Cowan. Some good people are involved in the dual project, including musical director Darcy White and performers including Ron Harmon, Emily Sahler, and Dale Johannes. The press release warns: “Due to the sometimes dark, threatening, bawdy and ribald nature of the work, this show is not recommended for children.” There could be worse enticements. Jan. 24, 2 p.m., Lakewood Theater.

Kaleidoscope“I’m making the jump from the Missoula theater scene to the Portland theater scene,” writer and director Naga Nataka said, slipping into the hot seat to talk about the staged reading of his play about a couple of Portland couples who blur the line between coupledom and test the temptations of the menage à quatre. “It’s kind of a dramedy,” he said. “It starts out funny, and once the reveal happens, it turns very serious.” Jan. 30-31, Feb. 1, 2 p.m. Performance Works NW.

Bruté. Writer/director Edward Lyons Jr. has a mashup on his mind. “I wanted to combine the play Julius Caesar and the movie The Godfather,” he said. So he rearranged Shakespeare’s dialogue drastically and turned the thing into a mobster play set in 1950s Little Italy, complete with gunplay, violence, and machismo. In this telling, Caesar is the Godfather, and Brutus and Cassius are underlings. You can trust me on this: I got it straight from the horse’s head. This is a full-production premiere. Jan. 22-Feb. 1 at The Hostess.

I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Son of a Bitch. The latest from the always intriguing Boom Arts isn’t quite a premiere, but the translation by Portland playwright William S. Gregory is. Goya rethinks Spanish-Argentine playwright Rodrigo García’s solo-performer provocation about “the value of art in a consumerist society” through the lens of British director Jude Christian. The excellent Ebbe Roe Smith stars, along with – yes, it’s true – two live piglets. Lest that prompts visions of Charlotte’s Web, Boom Arts’ Devan Wardrop-Saxton warns it’s not for kids: “It’s very profane. It’s very provocative.” Jan. 28-Feb. 7, Disjecta.

The Snow Queen: A Folk Opera. Laura Dunn arrived at Speed Dating Night armed not with live piglets, but with a handsome stag’s head, which was startling and striking and not at all Disney-in-the-woods-cartoonish. Dunn wrote and composed this adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, setting the action in contemporary Detroit, where it touches on issues including economic devastation, drug addiction, and environmental catastrophe. Also, in other words, not Charlotte’s Web: this is an adult play. Music will include theremin, banjo, and ukelele. “There’s some dialogue,” Dunn said, “but the songs tell the story.” Jan. 24-Feb. 1, The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven.

Play. That’s the title of D.C. Copeland’s newest play, and you can look at it as a generic description or as an ur-statement. Six Characters in Search of an Author-like, it’s about the very process of creation: a narrator (John San Nicolas) creates a character (Chantal DeGroat), who decides she’s writing a play. The narrator creates a second character (Lauren Modica), and on and on, until the stage is full. “It’s sort of D.C.’s philosophy of the creative process, but also her philosophy of life,” said San Nicolas, the Godlike narrator. “We make it up as we go along. Even though (the play is) fully scripted, it should feel improvised.” And accessible: “It’s not random, it’s not esoteric, it’s not ‘intellectual’ at all.” Jan. 28, noon, Artists Rep.

Cottonwood in the Flood. This might be one of the festival’s most anticipated offerings. Rich Rubin’s play about the rapid rise and fall of the city of Vanport, which housed thousands of African American families and others drawn by work at the Kaiser shipyards during World War II, and which was destroyed by flood after the war, exudes Oregon history, culture, and politics. Anthony Armstrong, Wrick Jones, and S. Renee Mitchell are among the cast. “What’s beautiful about this play is that it follows one family, and also the black migration, and you get the family drama,” said director Damaris Webb. Jan. 22-24, Performance Works NW. (Rubin has a second play in the festival – One Weekend in October, about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. “I have a bit of advantage in writing this because there’s the transcript, and Anita Hill’s written a book, and Clarence Thomas has written a book,” Rubin said. Jan. 26-28, Post5 Theatre.)

In Search of the Red Skull. Ah, about those lady pirates: Katie Bennett’s swashbuckler is a full-length comedy-romance and sword-slashing adventure, set in the Caribbean of the 1700s, with a cast of 11 and a nefarious kidnapping to set the plot in motion. The possibilities are avast. Jan. 25, 1 p.m. Hipbone Studio.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. … and more lady pirates of the Caribbean, although in this new musical from 4×4=Musicals creator Mark LaPierre (book and lyrics) and Dan David (music) they share billing with talking walruses, man-eating plants, a fantastical storyteller, and a disbelieving fop named Nigel. The musical’s based on the original stories by Rudolf Erich Raspe, not on Terry Gilliam’s 1988 movie, but the baron and his amazing tales of his own adventures are front and center. “I looked at history to provide a villain, and fortunately, it did,” LaPierre said, adding: “The most influential people in this story are the people who grow limes, because all sailors need limes to prevent scurvy.” Jan. 25, 2 p.m., Lakewood Theatre.

The Cantilever Project. It’s a one-day reading of four new works by a quartet of writers who know the craft: George Taylor’s Renaissance at 11 a.m., Wayne Harrel’s Miserere at 2 p.m., Ciji Guerin’s The Noisemaker at 5 p.m., and Vivien Lyon’s Nobody’s Business at 7:30 p.m. This is a chance to see the sausage in the making: the scripts are writers’ drafts, and there’ll be audience feedbacks after each performance with dramaturg Karin Magaldi, plus continued workshopping after the festival. Guerin on The Noisemaker: It’s “about a traumatized musician whose house is coming alive.” And not, apparently, with the sound of music. Jan. 25, Blackfish Gallery.

Box: A Live Science Fiction Trilogy. Matt Haynes, the genial impresario of The Pulp Stage, dropped by with a drawing and a few crayons to talk about his new three-episode project, which he’s written with fantasy novelist Tina Connolly. It’s about “a young woman who’s been convicted of a capital crime sometime in the future,” he said, and who is then wired into a virtual reality program that pretty much trips her from stem to stern through flashbacks and fantasy games. And what’s the script like? Haynes explained, mysteriously yet intriguingly: “The perfect movie has no dialogue, and the perfect play has no stage directions.” Jan. 26-Feb. 9, Hipbone Studio.

Genuis. No, playwright Sean Bowie said firmly, that’s not a typo. It’s gen-u-is, not gen-i-us. It’s also a solo show, the first offering of the new Yocto Theatre, and a pay-what-you’re-able presentation: “I like the idea of a gift economy.” Plus, it’s the only play in the festival that asks, “Ever look at a random guy and wonder – how does this guy feel about midwives?” Bowie explained his philosophical positioning: “As I get older I find life to be hilarious. Absurd.” Jan. 22-24, 29-31, The Headwaters.

Threshhold.  Playright Redmond Reams, a child psychologist, stopped by with the young actor Dylan Beckett, who plays a 5-year-old boy who “has been abused but is now in a family. He’s secure there, but petrified about going to kindergarten.” A hero, a witch, and a robber – all action figures, but played by adult actors – help him work out his fears. It’s “the story inside his head: how can I find safety”” Reams said. The staged reading is presented in tandem with Sharon Sassone’s The Conditions of Unconditional Love. Jan. 30, Hipbone Studio.

Time, a Fair Hustler. Maisie Speer talked about the latest project from the innovative and experimental Hand2Mouth, a company that builds its plays slowly and collaboratively. This one, created by the ensemble with writer Andrea Stolowitz and dramaturg Jessie Drake, will give a single free workshop performance at Fertile Ground, then premiere in July at Artists Rep. It’s inspired by Gus Van Sant’s 1990 movie My Own Private Idaho, with its gritty view of “a decomposing Portland full of wanderers, hustlers and thieves,” and wonders whether Van Sant’s characters have been “destroyed or absorbed by the new, utopian Portland.” Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m., Artists Rep.

ID[ea]. “It’s a hodgepodge, if you will, a mixed play,” Eric A. Lynes said of this evening of “short plays, big questions, and human interactions” from the members of Third Rail’s innovative Mentorship Company program. “At the end of August we were 14 strangers. And we were locked in a room for 36 hours, and basically told, ‘You have to come up with a play’.” Lynes, a University of Portland grad who’s done tech work around town, joined the Third Rail program to get into directing. “All of us are changing,” he said. “And how we present this change to the world is fascinating to see.” Jan. 24-25 and 30-31, Echo Theatre.

David Saffert’s 40th Birthday: The Liberace Edition! The slick-haired ivory tinkler swept into the room and insinuated smoothly into his seat, carrying a playbill for Artists Rep’s recent production of Blithe Spirit. “I met Cole Porter once, you know,” he said in an effusive rush. “Have you ever had the chance to meet him?” Well, no. And of course it wasn’t Liberace, it was Saffert, who stayed in character for his speed-dating gig quite as rigorously as the honor guard at Buckingham Palace, if a lot more loosely. This act promises to be one of the festival’s most popular, and as a bonus, Saffert has Bo Ayars, Liberace’s musical director from 1973 to 1986, on board to help him nail down the details. Let the impersonation and the hijinks begin. As Liberace himself said: “I don’t give concerts, I put on a show.” Jan. 23-31, Curious Comedy Theater.

What Is Erotic? Eleanor O’Brien of Dance Naked Productions, who’s brought the idea of overtly erotic theater and storytelling into the spotlight in Portland, is back with a new round of sex-positive stories, a “curated cabaret of intimate performance art.” Jan. 27-28, Feb. 12-14, The Headwaters.

The Essex. Lawrence Howard, one of Portland’s best storytellers, premieres his latest historical adventure tale, this one about the Nantucket whaling ship that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, and the struggle of its crew to survive. It’s the true story that inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick. Twenty men went down; after 93 days, eight survived. Jan. 23-24, Alberta Abbey.

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