Fuse Theatre, one of the most energetic and committed repositories of original work in Portland, has created another festival expressly for this purpose, aside from its annual and enormously successful OUTwright Festival. The Atelier Festival (“atelier” means “workshop” in French) is another opportunity for Fuse to do one of the things it does best: give new and emerging artistic voices a platform to have their say.
Participants receive a grant from Fuse and use of the Backdoor Theatre for two to three weeks to develop their work. The festival, which began July 8 with a one-night performance of Drew Swatosh and Brian Dang’s If Only I Could Give You the Sun, continues through Sept. 17.
“Our hope,” says Rusty Tennant, Fuse’s artistic director and resident energizer bunny, “is to provide an incubator for local work to find its legs. It’s completely a community-building effort. There is no way we can ever recoup our expenditures, but it is directly in line with what we do.”
For theater artist Mishelle Apalategui, it was an opportunity to take another step in what has been the long artistic journey for her original script, Downward Facing.
Downward Facing, which will be performed July 21-30 at Atelier, has been with Apalategui for more than a decade, and in that time has grown from ten minutes to sixty and gone from topical and immediate to very topical and very immediate. In its original iteration it was called Yoga and Crepes, was part of a 24-hour festival, and featured a character who was nonbinary before the greater collective consciousness had developed the vocabulary to express the concept.
From its inception, Downward Facing has dealt with themes that are at the forefront of the Portland political psyche — themes, as the show’s press statement notes, such as “gentrification and homelessness, chosen family, abandonment and LGBTQIA+ relationships.”
Apalategui, a southern California native who has worked in places as diverse as Milwaukee, central Jersey, and Chicago, honed her writing craft doing performance-art nights once a month in a restaurant. “I really learned that I could generate a lot of ideas by doing these small performance-art pieces,” she remembers today.
Of all the stuff she generated in those days, Downward Facing had the most momentum. Even after she would put it down for a while, she would find a reason to pick it up again: “I was going through some personal stuff that lent to writing it larger, so I wrote a thirty-minute version. And then I tucked it away for a while but I would use it a lot to practice, if you will. I practiced writing new scenes. I liked the characters so much, I would just write stuff for them, just to help myself hear their voices.”
While working on it periodically in this capacity, Apalategui had an epiphany: “I found that a lot of the ideals, issues and politics were very West Coast. When I moved out here I was like, ‘Oh. This is basically what I’ve been playing with.’
For instance, one of the primary relationships in the play is the relationship between the pregnant Jenna and her newfound love interest, Janna. “They meet cute and fall in love,” says Apalategui. “Then we see little snapshots of their tumultuous relationship and how it ends with, ‘You know what? We’re gonna to figure this out, we’re gonna work it out.’”
This was a deliberate choice by Apalategui because she was tired of LGBTQ relationships in theater ending in disaster. “In the thirty-minute version,” she says, “I remember an audience member telling me that they were just waiting for the other shoe to drop; they just knew some disaster was going to happen because that’s the typical trope with gay or LGBTQ couples. This has gotta be a tragedy for this to be on stage.” Apalategui set out to upend that expectation.
On the other hand, a different audience member asked her why she had to focus on the difficult aspects of the relationship. Apalategui’s response was simply, “Because that’s what happens.” But in 2023 she feels that “the world is a little more ready for a queer story where their relationship is troubled but it’s not disastrous.”
The last time Apalategui workshopped Downward Facing was in the Fertile Ground Festival 2020. She funded it herself, and it was a reworking of the previous half-hour iteration.
“There were some people who I wanted to work with who I was just like, ‘I like you. I like the way you act. You’re a whole artist,’” she says. “We workshopped it for a couple of months and then put it up at the Shoebox [now 21ten Theatre] for Fertile Ground 2020. I had an epiphany about how great it felt to just do something original. These actors felt really, really excited about doing these characters that they originated, that hadn’t been studied, that hadn’t been done a million times before.”
This time, in 2023, even though Atelier is primarily a festival of workshops of scripts that are in various stages of completion, Apalategui is determined to have it as fully produced as possible. “This time around,” she says, “I didn’t want to do any more workshopping.”
For herself, and for her artists, she felt it was only fair to fully produce Downward, or at least to the extent she could with the resources she had and that Fuse provided. Even within that goal, it was important to Apalategui to use her actors as sounding boards and fellow creators. although she felt the script was pretty much complete, she decided to take advantage of the fact that she was in the rehearsal room with her director and actors, and be open to what her fellow artists were bringing to the table.
“For example,” she says, “one time, Jessica Tidd, who is a hilarious person and a funny, funny actor with great timing – she did a bit and then stopped and was like, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not what that said.’ And I’m like, ‘You know what? Let’s keep it. Because it’s just so good.’ No matter what, I feel like I am never against really making sure that what comes out of the actor’s mouth is what I meant, but I’m not so egotistical that it has to be the exact thing I came up with alone in my room. And I think that helps the actors with a feeling of ownership.”
For Apalategui, her fellow artists taking ownership is an essential part of the experience. It is important to her to build a creative community of like-minded artists and have them get as much out of her putting on her play as she does.
“I’m so fucking excited, because I had a rough year in theater last year and I was considering not doing anything for a while,” she says. “With this, I wanted to bring in people that I really wanted to work with or that I liked working with. I wanted to give some of these artists a good experience working with a great director, because Molly [Shevaun Reed] is a great director.
“For me, this has been the pure artistic joy of a group of people having a good time and doing some really great work. At the end of the day, from first read until now, it’s just been a great time. I’m glad I could provide the template for that. For myself, I want more of that. How can I make that happen?”
One way such a thing can happen is for established companies like Fuse to give marginalized artists a chance they may not have otherwise. “I definitely want to thank Fuse,” says Apalategui, “for providing the space and the opportunity.” She is grateful, to Fuse, to Atelier, to her fellow artists, to everybody she is supposed to be grateful to. And in talking to her, you can feel her passion, her hunger, her commitment.
For every artist, there comes a moment when all she has is belief in herself, and the next step is entirely dependent on her will to take it. That moment has arrived in the shape of Fuse Theatre’s Atelier Festival, and Mishelle Apalategui is not going to back away.
- Where: BackDoor Theatre, behind Common Grounds coffee shop, 4319 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland
- When: Through Sept. 17
- Tickets: Pay what you can, from $0 to a suggested $20 and on upon up. Reservations in links below to each show
- Downward Facing: July 21-30; fully staged production
- Tea Party: Aug. 10-12. Sean Abley’s play about a married, heterosexual crossdresser in Montana; partially staged production
- Ritual Treatment: Aug. 18-27. A dance collaboration by Sophia Flores and cast, with Roots & All Theatre Ensemble. Cast collaborators include Paulina Jaeger-Rosete, Naiya Amilcar, and Daye Thomas. Some performances also at the Boiler Room Theatre in Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall; tickets for those shows here.
- Rebels & Priestesses: Sept. 2-17. A devised work, intended to grow and change from opening to closing nights, based on Mary K. Greer’s book Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses.