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Bobby Bermea: Six picks from Fertile Ground

As Portland's sprawling 10-day festival of new performance prepares to hit the stage running, the creators of half a dozen fresh shows talk about what they're doing and why.

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Nathaniel Holder and Mary Rose of Portland Action Theater. Photo courtesy Portland Action Theater.

Like spring after a year-long winter of silence, the Fertile Ground Festival is born again, and the city is a better place for it. The Portland theater scene needs its incubator of new works back to live performances, and after a year of a strategic hiatus, that time has arrived.

For 10 days, from April 12 through 21, in every corner of the Rose City, theater that pushes boundaries, utilizes and eschews multiple disciplines, bends rules and breaks them or creates new ones altogether, that is polished and professional or raw and searching, will be yelling, crying, dancing, aching, laughing ,and most of all, happening, happening right now, in the moment. Because more than any other art form, theater only exists when it is happening right now.  

Theater is in the midst of a tectonic shift in perspective. The pandemic took a bite out of the industry in a way that it still hasn’t entirely recovered from. Frankly, the business of theater may never again look exactly as it did. Money is harder than ever to find, space is at a premium, and it’s nearly impossible for any stage to compete with the plethora of screens.

Quarantine only expedited the moment that everyone knew was coming. Even before Covid, the business model of regional theater was known to be shaky at best and downright irresponsible at worst. Across the country, theaters that were once thought untouchable have run into trouble; some have even been forced to shut their doors. In times like these, it becomes more imperative than ever that this art form, which sweats and farts and coughs and is never the same from one night to the next, continually replenishes itself with new ideas, new methodologies and new imaginations.

For theater to stay relevant in these troubled times it must redefine why it’s important. One aspect of that importance is going to be that, more and more, theater must rise out of the community in which it is being produced, be about that community, and deal with issues that that community faces every day on its own streets. What are we thinking about? What are we fighting over? What solutions do we have at hand? Who are we? Who do we want to be?

For the past decade and some change, the Fertile Ground Festival has asked these questions. In 2024, nearly seventy projects at various stages of fruition are taking place in more than two dozen venues (including the virtual realm), from Hillsboro to Portland city proper, to Milwaukie and Lake Oswego. For our big little city, that is an epic undertaking. I talked to a handful of festival veterans, some of Portland theater’s most esteemed movers and shakers, about what is driving them, challenging them and keeping them coming back to Fertile Ground.

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Mary Rose and Nathaniel Holder are Portland Action Theater, a company that espouses the teachings of dancer Ruth Zaporah. For this year’s festival, they will be performing The Last Lost Canada Goose at their own space, #211 in the North Coast Seed Studios, April 13, 16, 18, 19 and 20.

“Action Theater” itself is a discipline of physical improvisation created and developed by Zaporah, from whom both Rose and Holder received their certification to teach. Rose says Action Theater “allowed me to act, dance and get my weird on all in one place.” Because it is body-based rather than text or narrative-based, story is based on the needs and desires of the bodies participating. Before coming into contact with Action Theatre, “Improvisation, for me, had been very top down,” says Rose. “Come up with an idea and then do it.” Action Theater, she says, gives artists the opportunity to “feel where they are and then allow things to rise out of that.”

Goose came about when a friend of Holder’s, musician Molly Mayo, aka <Something Calico>, approached him with the idea of turning songs she had written into a show. Holder brought the idea to Rose, who was resistant because the rest of her life was fairly hectic – until she heard Mayo’s music. Then, she thought, “I could see this music working with what we do.” The title of the piece comes from one of Mayo’s songs that is about a goose seeking connection: “Love and longing and being lost and found — when Nathaniel and I dance, that has a lot of that in it.”

For Rose, this is a major issue people are grappling with today. “Loneliness and isolation have been the overarching emotional struggle of society,” she says. “There has been so much longing to connect; it’s a call that needs to be answered. We’re flying out there alone seeking that love and connection.”

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Eleanor O’Brien and reading material. Photo courtesy Dance Naked Creative.

Connection is the mission of Dance Naked Creative, Eleanor O’Brien’s “pussy-owned, sex-positive, pleasure-forward” (her words) theater company.  O’Brien is a true believer, and her sincerity and genuineness has made her message of “joyful vulnerability” resonate with audiences in the U,S., Canada and Europe.

O’Brien, who has been flagged, suspended, kicked off and banned from just about every social media platform out there (she tells a hilarious story about OnlyFans and a carrot which … you should ask her about some time), continues her risk-taking ways with Plan V: Acts of Pleasure (Activism), a type of choose-your-own-adventure that is, ironically enough, the one FG piece that is taking place on Zoom. 

The audience, guided by Mama V (played by O’Brien), “a former Mormon matron turned pansexual, polyamorous pleasure activist, intent on changing the world,” will participate in a gathering of the mythical Plan V, a cult whose mission is to bring peace to the planet through “restoration of reverence for the Divine Feminine.”

At this meeting the cult is trying to decide which act of activism to pursue; one, says O’Brien “is a man pitching that we need a ‘house of pussy-worship.’” Another pitch is about “a woman that had cancer and lost her libido and what brought her back was this woman who could bring her to orgasm through sucking her nipple.” (It says something about the depth of O’Brien’s connection to her audience that she is able to bring these kinds of stories forward.) The third option is supporting the real-life mayoral candidacy of Portland stripper Viva Las Vegas, a cause near and dear to O’Brien’s heart. 

Throw in some surprise guests, story-sharing, and things not always being what they seem, and you have what O’Brien promises is an “immersive Zoom room unlike anything they’ve ever been in. It’s interesting stories, it’s funny people, brilliant ideas, and the possibility of the future they wouldn’t have considered.”

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Of course, one of the foundations of Western theater is the written word, and Fertile Ground has no shortage of new scripts. At noon April 20 playwright, actor and director Josie Seid, a member of LineStorm Playwrights, perhaps Portland’s preeminent playwriting group, is presenting a staged reading of her new script, The Alchemy of Steam.

Steam tells the story of Ifeoma, a Black woman struggling to make her way in a world that demands, says Seid, “that she be ten times as good to get half as far.” Significantly complicating matters is Ifeoma’s claim that she is a mermaid. The psychologist whose care she is put into must figure out whether it is Ifeoma’s mind she needs to change – or the way she, herself, does medicine. Meanwhile, Ifeoma’s love interest must deal with his own shocking revelation; and together, the two of them must decide how they are going to move forward.

Seid, whose play The Great God of the Dark Storm Cloud also involved the supernatural manifesting itself in our prosaic reality, has very concrete reasons for exploring the magical and fantastical in her work. “I didn’t have a sexy upbringing,” she recalls. “I needed somewhere for my brain to rest. But I also needed somewhere that taught me that when things are hard there will always be help. Even if that help is from inside of yourself.”

Seid also uses the juxtaposition of the mundane and the mythical to focus a lens on the treatment of Black people – and especially Black women – in this country. “We’re not believed when we go to the doctor,” she says. “If you stand up for yourself, you’re considered to be angry and violent and volatile.” But for Seid, the political point is not about anger or even necessarily political rights. It’s about something deeper. “The second act is a gentle, beautiful love story,” she says. “Because we don’t get to see that with Black people. There has to be conflict, there has to be drugs, there has to be a baby born out of wedlock. Somebody’s gotta be in jail. It’s never just two people tenderly trying to do life in this world.”

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Sara Jean Accuardi, another LineStorm playwright, has been hammering out a steady drumbeat of excellence over the past several years, with awards and accolades following in her wake. Her new play, Pull, was initially inspired by a podcast she listened to that focused on teachers in the Midwest training to arm themselves in the classroom, a concept Accuardi is strongly against.

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“I’m from a family of teachers,” she says. “I listened to this story really expecting to look down on these people who were taking this class or even considering it in the first place. But listening to this interview with these teachers – it was just a bunch of people who have no idea what to do. They’ve been forced into a corner and are grasping at a terrible option in a pile of terrible options. It was really heartbreaking, fascinating and eye-opening to me.

“Basically, I carried that with me in my mind for a long time. I kept thinking of this story over and over again and trying to wrap my mind around how this is even a conversation that we are having right now, that this is something that we are asking teachers to grapple with. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to me. So, I decided to write a play set in one of those trainings.”

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Theatre Diaspora, “Oregon’s only professional Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) theater company,” is presenting Ten-Minute Tapestry: AAPI Writers’ Showcase, a type of theatrical collage of plays, poetry, excerpts from novels and short stories. Samson Syharath, managing artistic director of Diaspora, notes, “There are excerpts from Dmae Lo Roberts’ young adult novel coming out called Bronte; we also have some poetry by Ari Aquilla-Saund, Wild Wild Daddy Intro Poems by Ari Aquilla-Saund, supernatural stories in Larry Toda’s ‘Dad’s Lucky Star’ and ‘Bubby and Sis,’ a look at ‘diversity’ in the educational system in Ashley Song’s play Cream, a short piece about family identity in Kelly Novahom’s play And Now, As Tears Subside, a look at family dynamics with Alzheimer’s in Emery Thanathiti’s Little White Lies.” There are even scenes from what will be Syharath’s own full-length play Knock, Knock.

“My piece is about the language barrier with my grandmother and about intergenerational obligation,” says Syharath. “She was hospitalized and I was in early high school at the time. We didn’t have a translator. Laotian wasn’t a language that hospitals would have a translator for. Me being a 15-year-old, trying to describe to my grandmother all these medical terms was really difficult. Having that obligation as a teen shaped part of who I am.” The disparate pieces that make up Ten-Minute Tapestry all provide this kind of specific cultural lens. “They’re slices from different perspectives of the AAPI identity,” says Syharath.

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Kate Mura in "The Play About My Father." Photo courtesy Fuse Theatre Ensemble.
Kate Mura in “The Play About My Father.” Photo courtesy Fuse Theatre Ensemble.

Kate Mura’s The Play About My Father, which will start in Fertile Ground on April 12 but will run at Fuse’s Backdoor Theatre until May 5, is likewise an intensely personal project stemming from her life. “Audiences can expect to go on an emotional journey where we experience me going through 15 different characters over the course of just over an hour,” says Mura. “By hearing all of the different stories of the kick-ass New Jersey community that really buoyed and supported my family after my dad’s freak accident in 1988, ultimately you get our story and my father’s story.”  

The Play About My Father is not entirely new, but an evolution of Mura’s Suburban Tribe, which was initially conceived by the Dell’Arte-trained Mura as a 20-minute mask show at the very first Fertile Ground. “We performed in the upstairs rehearsal at Theatre! Theatre!,” remembers Mura. “Now the play is fully realized and has digested so much over the years and been rebuilt and going from a masked piece to an unmasked piece with the last bits of weaving in my father’s passing.” Though it no longer has masks, The Play About My Father still features Mura’s unique brand of “physical storytelling, corporeal mime, improv and a magic skirt!”

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From left: Fertile Ground writers Sara Jean Accuardi, Samson Syharath, Josie Seid.

Kate Mura, like Josie Seid and Eleanor O’Brien, has performed in different parts of the world outside of the U.S. Samson Syharath was named a Rising Leader of Color in American Theatre magazine. Besides Dance Naked Creative and Many Hats Collaborations, Mary Rose has worked with the nationally known Sojourn Theatre Ensemble. Sara Jean Accuardi has won a Drammy Award, an Oregon Book Award, and was the winner of the Inaugural International Thomas Wolfe Playwriting Competition.

Yet, despite all of their accomplishments, these artists keep returning to Fertile Ground. Why?

“Fertile Ground is one of the best and most visible ways of getting on the radar of the Portland arts scene,” says Seid. “I have my people, my theater circles that I run in. But when you’re in Fertile Ground you’re going to get people who may normally go to ballet, to concerts, or the symphony and such. The opera. You get visibility that you wouldn’t get otherwise. When I did The Great God of the Dark Storm Cloud there was a woman who came to that who told me, ‘Oh yeah, I usually do Portland Revels stuff. I just saw this and came.’ And now, every time I have a reading she is always there.”

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Syharath concurs. “I feel the way Fertile Ground is presented, it is a place where everyone is welcome, no matter if you’re doing a rock opera or a staged reading or a full production; it has such a variety that you know there will be a place for you. The Portland theater community should really focus on creating a space for more diverse audiences. I don’t just mean in terms of race but all walks of life, from all different arts as well. Our community shouldn’t be the same type of person.”

“It keeps our entire arts scene alive,” says Accuardi. “Of course, I’m focused on the theater but it’s everything. It’s dance, it’s music, it’s everything, it’s performance of all types. It brings this city to life.”

Obviously, this is only a tiny handful of the dozens of plays, performances and performers all living, happening and plying their trade in the 10 days between April 12 and 21. There is a story and a committed artist behind every project. The fact that Fertile Ground is once again popping up all over the city is as strong an indicator as any that theater may be finding a path out of the long night of 2020.

“Fertile Ground is the one festival that’s like, ‘Look at Portland theater – all of it,” says Mura. “We have an ecosystem. We have a vibrancy, we have a storytelling and performance community here, pay attention to us, listen to our stories, support us. See yourselves reflected in the stage. Share this space.”

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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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