Speed-dating in a Fertile Ground

Before FG14 begins, participants and press check each other out. The result: controlled pandemonium

UPDATE: A.L. Adams tells all about her own speed-dating experience, adding another dozen or so stories to the Fertile Ground mix, from Polaris Dance’s “Groovin’ Greenhouse” series to a bluegrass/folkie/evangelistic musical. Her stories form Act II below. Yes, we cover the waterfront!

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ACT I

By Bob Hicks

Whoa, Nellie.

Last week A.L. Adams and I went speed-dating. We sat next to each other at a big table, and the lines were so long we didn’t say a word to each other or even make eye contact until the whole sweaty ordeal was over. So many potential relationships. So little time.

"4x4=Musicals": a festival favorite returns.

“4×4=Musicals”: a festival favorite returns.

The setup sprawled across the upper lobby and bar of Artists Repertory Theatre, and my ArtsWatch pal A.L. and I weren’t the only objects of fleeting affection. The Oregonian’s David Stabler and the new kid on the Oregonian block, Jamie Hale, were holding down the next table. Holly Johnson of Oregon Music News was around the corner. Writers from the weekly papers, so I heard (I never actually got in there) were stationed in the bar: perfect for a serial blind date. I even caught a glimpse off in the distance of a radio reporter, taping goodness knows what evidence of what sort of attempted tryst. And I’m sure somebody somewhere was tweeting away, thumbs flying in little bursts of snarkiness and enthusiasm.

It was controlled pandemonium.

And that was just about right, because this whole speed-dating thing was about controlled pandemonium: producers and performers and directors in the sixth annual Fertile Ground festival of new works, pitching their stories to members of the media. Five minutes for an elevator speech (“I like cozy fireplaces and long walks on the beach”), then hit the next prospect. In and out. The scene was so chaotic I have no idea how many people actually showed up, but think busy lunchtime intersection in Midtown Manhattan, with pedestrians rushing in every direction, jostling to break in front of the pack and get to the hot dog cart.

In the midst of it all, like a traffic cop with nothing but a piercing whistle to keep everyone in line, was festival director Nicole Lane, making sure everything went tick-tock. Tweet. Switch partners. Tweet. Switch partners. Tweet. Switch partners.

This year’s festival, scattered in about 30 venues all over town, has more than a hundred acts, including theater, dance, comedy, musical theater, solo shows, and other variations on the performance theme. (For the straight scoop on who’s doing what, where, and when, check the Fertile Ground homepage.) It runs officially from Thursday, January 23, through Sunday, February 2, but a few shows have jumped the gun and opened already: the popular 4×4=Musicals, for instance, and Theatre Vertigo’s world premiere of Craig Jessen’s The End of Sex.

Don Wilson Glenn's new play at Ethos/IFCC

Don Wilson Glenn’s new play at Ethos/IFCC.

Further complicating matters is the festival’s all-comers embrace. Shows at almost every stage of development are here, from workshops and simple readings to staged readings and full productions. Some are by prominent practitioners. Others are by people you might never have heard of, hoping to get noticed by a producer or a critic, or maybe just get a little honest feedback. Unlike the summer JAW new-plays festival at Portland Center Stage, which has a small number of slots and fills them through national competition, Fertile Ground pretty much throws the doors wide open. In that sense it’s a little closer to the energizing chaos of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, though it’s more strictly local in scope. At the top of the heap are full-fledged productions such as Artists Rep’s world premiere of The Monster-Builder, by Amy Freed (The Beard of Avon, Freedomland, The Ghoul of Amherst, Restoration Comedy), with Oregon Shakespeare Festival vets Michael Elich and Robin Nordli leading the cast. But who knows what gems might be lurking at the lower levels?

And so they came, elevator-ready, and pitched and pitched and pitched.

– Kevin Yell, from New Century Players (“We’ve done everything from Agatha Christie to The Laramie Project”) talked up his own new play, Entanglement, which is set 40 years in the future and, he says, mingles science, sex, and storytelling. Love and quantum physics: entanglement all over the place.

– Bruce Livingston, a onetime anthropologist who lived and taught in Shiraz, Iran, until the revolution and later spent 15-odd years on the Paris culinary scene, is now executive director of PlayWrite. He dropped by to talk about Word. Voice., a show built during two-week workshops with “kids on the edge.” What’s it like? “Like nothing else you’re going to see,” he said. The short pieces are created by the young people, from their own stories, with the aid of professional actors and directors. “It’s hard work, and challenging. If you’re doing your job right, the young person across from you is debating whether to punch you in the nose or run out of the room.”

– Gary Corbin talked up KleptoFamilia, about an “edible art show” and a middle-aged divorced mom who can’t stop lifting stuff. “It’s my fourth Fertile Ground play,” he said. “I’ve been pretty active.”

– A contingent stopped by from Scenes from the Future, a program of short theater and dance works, among them a one-woman Alice in Wonderland by Anne Rutherford and the “earthy yet ethereal dance of Sumi Wu.”

– Gregory Niel Forbes chatted about The Haunting of Childhood, which plops a Portland parapsychology prof onto the eastern Oregon ranch where a woman has drowned and her daughter keeps having visions.

– I heard about Wayne Harrel’s Remme’s Run, a play with high-tech screen projection about a cattleman’s race in 1855 to rescue his life savings before word reaches Portland that the bank that issued a certificate of deposit has failed, and the paper is worthless.

– Playwright Miriam Feder, recently back from a few months in Southeast Asia, talked up her own new play Objects May Shift During Flight, one of a half-dozen new short plays by five writers under the umbrella P-Town Playwrights, and another near-dozen from PDX Playwrights, mostly at Hipbone Studio.

– Claire Willett, a member of another playwrights group, Playwrights West, talked enthusiastically about her newest, Carter Hall, a supernatural mystery based on the old Scottish folk tale Tam Lin and including songs by Steeleye Span. “I went on a real Neil Gaiman binge,” she said, The story, she added, is still rough. She wants to get what she has on stage, gather an audience, and see where things stand.

– I heard about Veronica Esagui and Linda Kuhlman’s Aged to Perfection, a comedy about Woodstock and free love and a daughter of uncertain parentage and Oregon wine country.

– Mark LaPierre stopped by to talk about his third season of 4×4=Musicals, a program of short musical-theater pieces (this year, with dance) that’s proved a festival highlight in the past. He’s modeled it after Mike Barber’s innovative 10 Tiny Dances programs, and the ground rules are similar: short works by 11 writers, performed on a 4×4-foot stage, which provides both an extreme limitation and an opportunity for innovative thinking: “People get to come up with premises that I think otherwise they never would have.”

– Composer Scott David Bradner stopped by to talk about the next step in The Temporary Man, his musical with writer A.R. MacGregor that’s set during a hostage situation at a high-society restaurant. They’ve spent a couple of years writing and another editing, and parts of Temporary were showcased last summer at the Village Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals, a musical-theater hotspot in Issaquah, near Seattle. They’ve also picked up a cast that includes musical star Susannah Mars. The music, Bradner said, is sort of Sondheim/William Finn, with “definitely a lot of inspiration from the Gershwins, too.”

– Voice talent extraordinaire Mary Mac, who also honchos Readers Theatre Rep and its monthly programs at Blackfish Gallery (“We’re 13 seasons old now, if you can believe that. Two hundred seventy shows.”) pushed hard for David Berkson’s new play Theodore & Di, about a woman who meets “a young man, so sweet, who has no filters whatsoever. This is a melanchomedy. It was so named by moi.” Berkson, she added, “dives headlong into these chewy issues of the monster. He’s much more open to the possibility of each of us being a monster.”

– D.C. Copeland talked about her linked short plays, The Truth According to Rose and Merrily Down the Stream, which, she said, are about “how we fail to communicate with each other. How language fails us.” She moved to town only about four months ago from New York, and yet she’s gathered some good talent for her reading: Vana O’Brien, Scott Parker, Andy Lee-Hilstrom, Danielle Purdy, Marc Hakim, and director Alana Byington. I took note.

Elizabeth Huffman's "Bon Ton Roulet at the Shakespeare Café," @ Post5.

Elizabeth Huffman’s “Bon Ton Roulet at the Shakespeare Café,” @ Post5.

On and on they came, eager and smiling and filled with enthusiasm. Stories, and stories, and stories, bursting out like gushers from a rock. Hope sprang, if not eternal, in consecutive five-minute bursts. Choose me. Choose me.

Part of me would choose them all. A greater part understands that, alas, life doesn’t work like that.

At last we crossed the finish line and the crowds trickled off. For the first time, A.L. and I actually talked to each other. “Well, that was something,” she said. “Seems like all the younger people lined up to talk to me, and all the older ones lined up to talk to you.”

I didn’t notice that. I didn’t notice that at all.

 

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ACT II

By A. L. Adams

Now, Bob. I didn’t EXACTLY say that. There were plenty of overlaps and switch-ups during the evening, and I talked to several distinguished and experienced Fertile Ground producers, too. But it’s probably fair to observe generally that I took more pitches from the fest’s young punks: first-time playwrights and dance company members. That casually observed, I welcomed all of my speed-dating suitors with equal zeal, looking forward to catching as many of their shows as I can possibly cram into my calendar. So without further ado…”ding!”

– M’Liss Stephenson of Polaris Dance Company pitched me on behalf of Polaris’s Groovin’ Greenhouse, a series of showcases that each feature three companies (two guests and Polaris). For its part in the program(s), the company is premiering two brand-new pieces and a film. In the film, spoken word by Mary Lambert explores how women’s self-esteem is expressed through the female body. The company’s two dance works are set respectively to spoken word from a young boy questioning the validity of his education, and an instrumental piano piece composed by Polaris’s artistic director, Robert Guitron.

– Kate Rafter of Automal Dance, part of Polaris’s Greenhouse series, eagerly shared her vision for Amends, a reconciliation-themed dance work that invites “gentle participation” from the audience. Coyly, she revealed that there will be “light sources” to handle and share.

– Corinn Dewaard brought me the most unique handbill: a handwritten page full of doodles and absurd phrases like “Celestial people stomp on the bug.” This page, she explained, resulted from an exercise TripTheDark Dance Co. devised to brainstorm Picture Sentence Picture, a piece they’ll perform at Greenhouse. Hedge fund management, cloning, a love triangle, and an attempted murder are just some of the topics Picture will explore, with notable bands like Witch Mountain providing the score.

– Ann Singer of Well Arts explained with great empathy how cathartic Stories: from teenage girls in transition will be for its poets, vulnerable teenagers recovering from abuse, addiction and trafficking. Three professional actors will assist the girls in their multimedia performance of dance and verse. Based on her description, Stories fits an emerging genre in the Fertile Ground catalogue: humanitarian performance.

– Dennis Nyback enthused about his new musical The Past Is Calling, which revives the allure of the 1920’s and “hot jazz.” Inspired by the music of Red McKenzie, songwriter Buck Evans will play a slew of original (but old-timey) jazz tunes throughout the show. The storyline? “Boy meets girl, girl meets gangster, and it all goes down in a hail of machine gun fire!”

– Josh Gulotta, a budding playwright and a guitarist/singer/songwriter in Skidmore Bluffs—a band, not the place (hmmm…where else have I written that phrase lately?)—evangelized his new musical Revival as a “concert with a play around it.” The bluegrass/folk bandmates “witness” between songs, putting a Baptist upbringing under scrutiny.

Young playwright Megan Sweigart and new director Avital Shira explained Sweigart’s unique inspiration for her play Dear Momma: A Love Letter. Looking for answers after her mother’s untimely death, Sweigart revisited the cult in which her mom raised her and interviewed current members. The play is narrated by “a chorus of Megans,” and cohered by references to the children’s book I’ll Love You Forever. This workshop performance splits a bill with Revival.

Playwright Corey O’Hara and director Nate Cohen came on strong, having drawn fresh confidence from Middle Names‘ recent consideration for the Kennedy Center’s John Cauble Short Play Award. The dialogue drama, austerely confined to three friends, one hotel room, and one evening, culminates in “a deadly game of rock, paper, scissors” and other “messy” shenanigans. But boffo antics notwithstanding, the story tackles serious universals like teen pregnancy, infidelity, and drug addiction.

– Veronica Esagui and Linda Kuhlmann, published authors, explained how they met each other at a mutual book signing. They first hatched Aged to Perfection as a sitcom series, then pared it down into a play. Now they’re eager to gauge audience reactions to their first staged reading. The story’s about a winery heiress who also inherits “three old ladies” as part of the package. (These two were also truest to the “speed dating” form, complimenting my hair. Flattery might get you somewhere; who can say?)

– Gregory Neil Forbes candidly recounted growing up in a haunted house, which inspired his cathartic Haunting of Childhood. “The presence in the house wasn’t exactly threatening, but very…watchful,” he said. Despite a background in academia that advocates confronting fears and explaining supernatural phenomena away, he confessed that the notion of ghosts leaves him “as scared as ever.” Haunting, a staged reading, pits parapsychology against the paranormal.

I recognized Mark and Helena Greathouse immediately from seeing them perform pre-show and intermission sets last summer at Opera Theater Oregon’s Cunning Little Vixen. There, the accordionist and vocalist favored folk tunes in Helena’s native Czech, but in their new cabaret-style show You Do Speak English, Don’t You? the married pair plans to get more personal, sharing original songs and anecdotes about the challenges of being an inter-national couple.

Well (ding!), that’s my list. I enjoyed it. Let’s continue seeing each other.

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