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Bobby Bermea: Many Hats hatches a brave new festival

Boosted by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, "The Hatchery" will help launch new theater works that emphasize music and movement.

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Many Hats Collaborations' Jessica Wallenfels. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer
Many Hats Collaborations’ Jessica Wallenfels. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

For nearly two decades, Many Hats Collaboration has been one of the most daring and imaginative theater companies in Portland. Now that verve, grit, and sense of wonder have paid off with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, officially announcing Many Hats to the national stage.

Many Hats’ intention, in turn, is to take that money and the newfound attention and turn it into an incubator for new work, fittingly titled The Hatchery. The Hatchery will be a six-day, five-hours-a-day pair of workshops running simultaneously August 20-25 of this year, with public performances on August 25 at The Judy, Northwest Children’s Theatre’s home in downtown Portland. The festival currently has a budget of $30,000, which represents the sum of the NEA grant as well as individual donations.

What sets The Hatchery apart from other theatrical new works festivals, according to Many Hats’ artistic director and prime mover Jessica Wallenfels, is that “It is meant to specifically develop new works that demand music and movement in their earliest stages.”

New work and physical theater have been the twin poles that Wallenfels and Many Hats have built their oeuvre around. Wallenfels’ toolbox is derived from the uncanny valley between theater and dance, wholly belonging to neither but to both. Her choreography focuses less on creating beautiful shapes with athletic bodies and more on revealing the emotional truths of her characters. What this has meant is that her work often creates its own kind of text, one that is more precise and accurate than what can be achieved with the blunt instrument of spoken language alone.

Wallenfels never feels like she’s being experimental or esoteric for its own sake. There is always something very clear and specific she’s trying to say; something she’s trying to convey through her characters and their bodies, and that is true whether she’s working with two lonely people connecting through heartbreak in 19th century Russia (The Snowstorm), a mother and a daughter struggling to connect as the former faces her impending death (The Undertaking), or as two young lovers struggling to define themselves while caught in the emotional tempest of their affair (Great Wide Open). All of Wallenfels’ work is intensely personal and evocative.

(Come to think of it, “struggle” and “connection” are two more hallmarks of Wallenfels’ work.)

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Portland Opera Puccini

Claire Rigsby, Aurora Gooch, Anthony Michael Shepard, Hannah Sapitan, Michael Hammerstrom in “Ritual Project,” part of Many Hats’ Five in Five play development initiative. Photo: Emma Stuart

Now, Wallenfels hopes to give other physical theatermakers the time and space to take these same risks, uncover their own truths, and tell their own stories. For her, the impetus has always been clear. “When I was coming of age as an artist in Los Angeles there was a really influential new works development festival called The Common Ground Festival,” she says. “They were doing more experimental theater work than most of what was happening in Los Angeles at the time.

“It was the only thing I’d seen that I could apply for where they wanted a script sample, but they would take images, an essay, a treatment of what you had in mind. Because for me, very often when I’m coming up with a new work it comes from music, sound, imagery, character, and it doesn’t start with a script. I thought, ‘Oh my god, here is one festival that I might have a shot at.’ Because otherwise if you’re a theatermaker who’s not a playwright, you’ve got to find a playwright to get with if you want to make new work.”

Wallenfels didn’t make it into that festival, but the promise that it gave the then up-and-coming artist never left her. “There was hope for someone who was coming from a non-script based starting point,” she says. “I have always wanted to step in and nurture that sector.”

Urgency to create the festival was compounded by the recent trials of regional theater companies and festivals around the country. In short, there are fewer and fewer places that specifically engender new work. Wallenfels cites the closings of the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, and The Lark Play Development Center in New York, among others, as events that underlined a growing need. “Year after year the best plays of the Humana Festival would be on the shelf at the library,” she says. “There were other prominent pillars of new work development in the U.S. that seemed like they would never go away. For that to fold in our lifetime felt cataclysmic to me.”

If the fall of new works festivals was one source of inspiration, the rise of others was another. She notes that there are relatively new festivals that focus on original work in places as diverse as Denver, Colorado and Greenville, South Carolina: “It sounded like, ‘Wow, maybe we need to decentralize these new works development hubs. If South Carolina can have a great new play development festival, then so can little ol’ Portland, Oregon. And maybe even smaller companies like my own can step in and fill the gap.”

Wallenfels states up front that she’s “not the only person in town who had this idea.” She names PETE Presents, CoHo, Risk/Reward and the newly resurrected Fertile Ground Festival as other local theater projects that focus on new work. “It makes me excited to be another lily pad,” she says. “Having been part of the founding of Fertile Ground so many years ago, at that time what we were talking about — and what I’m still passionate about — is, can we make Portland and the Pacific northwest a hub for new works?”

Monique Holt, author of "Why and How Are Not in the Picture." Photo: Patty Liang
Monique Holt, author of “Why and How Are Not in the Picture.” Photo: Patty Liang

In this initial phase, its pilot season, The Hatchery has two slots. One is being used for a piece that Many Hats is shepherding, Monique Holt’s Why and How Are Not in the Picture. Holt, actor, activist, ASL translator and coach, is also a playwright with whom Wallenfels worked with at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Why and How, according to Wallenfels, “takes place inside of a deaf person’s brain. The characters are What, Who, When, Where and Which. Each one of these characters is trying to create meaning from their very singular point of view.”

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Portland Opera Puccini

The collaboration is something of a coup for Wallenfels and Many Hats. Besides OSF, Holt, who specializes in translating and performing Shakespeare into ASL, has worked at all over the country, including at Woolly Mammoth, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and the Kennedy Center. Many Hats started working with Holt on Why and How last year.

Holt’s piece is written in American Sign Language for a cast of d/Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Hearing actors. “We workshopped it over three days on Zoom,” says Wallenfels. “It’s a hugely ambitious project because it’s all in American sign language. We’ll have open captions. It will have sound. We’ve commissioned composer Joellen Sweeney to create a score.”

For the other slot, Many Hats is inviting proposals. “We’re using our six degrees of folks in town that we know of as devisers and makers and people who might be right for this program and asking them if they might be interested in submitting.” Artists who submit will receive Many Hats full support, but not be under their thumb. “We give a green light to what best fits the parameters of what we can offer,” says Wallenfels, “we have funding for a key collaborator, a project lead, then two to three of their core collaborators. So that could be a stage manager, it could be a choreographer and they’re missing a composer which we would provide. It could be any other combination of artists they have or don’t have. Basically, we wanna fill in the gaps of whatever it is they’re looking for.”

In the coming years, Many Hats hopes to expand the Hatchery to four slots. “Probably,” says Wallenfels, “one would still be taken up by Many Hats, but we can offer three that can come from wherever.”

Actor and Many Hats Managing Director Beth Thompson (left) with actor, director, an writer JoAnn Johnson in "The Undertaking." Photo: Gary Norman
Actor and Many Hats Managing Director Beth Thompson (left) with actor, director, an writer JoAnn Johnson in “The Undertaking.” Photo: Gary Norman

Wallenfels has experience in this role. Providing this kind of support for other artists is not dissimilar to the kind of work that Many Hats has generated in the past, and especially the last five years. They recently completed their epic undertaking, the Five in Five Initiative, in which they created and/or shepherded five (actually seven) new pieces in collaboration with other local artists, among them Charles Grant, Anya Pearson and JoAnn Johnson. The Undertaking and Great Wide Open were part of that undertaking, as well as Grant’s Matter, Pearson’s Poker Project, The November Project, and Ritual Project, an original work conceived by Many Hats collaborator, composer and Wallenfels’ real-life partner, Eric Nordin.

Wallenfels has a clear vision of what she’s looking for in a Hatchery project. “A great proposal doesn’t have to know exactly where it’s going,” she says, “as long as they have really clear questions about what it is they want to pursue over this 30-hour workshop. Then we can help you pursue those.” And of course, with Wallenfels there is always the overarching question, “How are music and movement central to the telling of the story?”

Helping to develop new physical theater has always been a core feature for Many Hats, and The Hatchery will expand that focus. Above, Anthony Michael Shepart and Leiana Petlewski in "Great Wide Open," Many Hats' collaboration with Portland Playhouse. Photo: Shawnte Sims
Helping to develop new physical theater has always been a core feature for Many Hats, and The Hatchery will expand that focus. Above, Anthony Michael Shepart and Leiana Petlewski in “Great Wide Open,” Many Hats’ collaboration with Portland Playhouse. Photo: Shawnte Sims

As an example, Wallenfels talks about Many Hats’ collaboration with Portland Playhouse, Great Wide Open. which she describes as “a beautiful and incredible piece because of the way music and movement wound around the text.” She adds, with a laugh: “But that’s not something that would have come across if I had submitted it to the Humana Festival.” With The Hatchery, Wallenfels hopes to bridge that gap.  

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CMNW Council

Wallenfels is always quick to credit her collaborators. Over the years, her right hand has been multiple award-winning actor Beth Thompson, who also functions as Many Hats’ managing director. The company has a new production manager, director and stage manager, Cassie Greer. And Wallenfels singles out for special praise Jen Mitas and Julie Hammond, who worked on the NEA grant that is making The Hatchery possible: “Julie and Jen have been really great for us. I know they’re going to be quickly overwhelmed but I want to give them all the love I can because they deserve it.”

Creating new work in theater takes a Herculean amount of energy, vision, and commitment. Applying all of that to helping someone else create new work is on another level. Why? Why is this worth it to a theater company that has a small staff?

“It’s invigorating to know that I’m providing a service,” says Wallenfels. “For a long time Many Hats was the bike in the garage that I would ride when the weather was nice. When I relaunched the company with the Five and Five I knew I was going to need to be more serious. I knew I needed to get more money.

“Asking people for money just to make my dreams come true is uncomfortable for me. But asking people for money to collaborate with the community, elevate other voices that have been historically marginalized, voices that need more market-share because they’re operating in a niche of this experimental musical-movement world, is a lot easier. Because I’m not just doing it for me, I’m doing it for everybody.”

And now the National Endowment for the Arts is helping to get it done.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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