FERTILE GROUND ’21

Building Resiliency with the Arts

Portland's I Am MORE helps traumatized young people heal by sharing their stories

The Portland-based advocacy organization Stand For Children annually awards $16,000 Beat The Odds scholarships for students who “have overcome obstacles on their path to graduation thanks to great educators & school programs.” In November 2018, three of Portland’s four winners — out of 16 statewide —shared something in common. Each were Black teens who had survived various forms of trauma, including food insecurity, homelessness, bullying, and sexual violence. And all had been mentored by the same teacher.

But S. Renee Mitchell was more than an educator. The poet (she’s poet-in-residence for Portland’s Resonance Ensemble), youth activist, and award-winning former newspaper journalist had been recruited to Roosevelt High School to teach journalism. But she also helped mentor students with their personal issues; brought in fruit, day-old bagels and cream cheese; revived the Black Student Union; created a Black Girl Magic Club, and invited in community members to perform, speak, encourage and share their wisdom with the school’s low-income students. 

Co-founders Jeanette Mmunga, Justice English and Johana Amani 

So when three of Mitchell’s Black Girl Magic mentees – Justice English, Johana Amani and Jeanette Mmunga each received a Beat The Odds scholarship, they decided to help other youth tap into their resiliency. Together, Mitchell and the four students, now all attending college, founded I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday), a nationally award-winning, creative-and arts-based youth development program. I Am MORE has trained hundreds of students, schools, parents, and educators – statewide and nationally – on culturally relevant trauma-informed and social-emotional practices that “increase hope, healing and a sense of belonging,” according to its mission statement. 


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Part of I Am MORE’s programming to help youth share their wisdom and creativity with adult audiences involves the arts. The organization’s 2nd Annual “Resiliency in Rhythm” showcase at this year’s 12th Annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works includes poetry and rap performances, interviews conducted by Mmunga, one of I Am MORE’s three youth co-founders, and a fascinating discussion that allowed three young Black leaders of Portland’s Black Lives Matter protests to publicly discuss – for the first time – challenges they regularly faced attended public schools and, now confronting racism as college students and within society. 

Providing young people of color with an emotionally safe space for personal storytelling about their often-challenging life experiences proved to be a critical part of their healing from trauma and creating success on their own terms. In working with them, Mitchell discovered that unlocking traumatic personal experiences, and connecting those experiences with opportunities to gain insights could help shape one’s sense of purpose. That discovery not only helped her develop wisdom that improved her own life, but also helps others empower and bring joy to others — students and adults. That need is even greater now, Mitchell noted, with the pandemic’s documented rise in youth suicide and depression rates. 

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Fertile Ground 2021: The Aftermath

Covid changed the game for the new-performance festival. But going virtual was a renaissance, not a retreat.

My Fertile Ground is not your Fertile Ground. That doesn’t mean I magically attended some sort of alternate-universe version of Portland’s annual festival of new works; I immersed myself in the same virtual rush of performances. Yet this year, I was intensely aware of how undefinable the festival can be.  

Seeing every project featured in Fertile Ground is all but impossible, which makes the event difficult to evaluate. If I had watched different (or more) shows, would I have thought the festival was better? Worse? With no in-person performances, it felt more important than ever to assess it as fully as possible. My job wasn’t simply to review the stories being told. I had to review whether the festival had successfully adapted to the constraints of COVID-19.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


For me, the answer is simple: yes. My favorite Fertile Ground projects of 2021 were Chosen; Fold in Gently: Recipes for Friendship and Forgiveness (and Fucking Up); Oh Myh Dating Hell; and The Prismagic Radio Hour. What made them invigorating was how they each—in epically different ways—embraced the struggles of making art in a locked-down world, transforming obstacles into creative fuel.

Chosen is a solo performance. Fold in Gently is a baking podcast. Oh Myh is a next-gen romantic comedy. Prismagic is a comedy-circus-dance extravaganza. If I learned anything from Fertile Ground this year, it’s that there wasn’t one way for the festival to work during COVID. Some artists compensated for the limits of screens by blitzing audiences with movement (Prismagic is packed with miraculous acrobatic feats), but minimalism proved equally magical.

Alissa Jessup’s “Chosen”: A singular tale of trauma and survival.

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Belling Shakespeare’s cat

Fertile Ground 2021: Sue Mach's "Madonna of the Cat" imaginatively fills in the 16-year gap in Shakespeare's romance "The Winter's Tale"

According to a common rule of thumb about Elizabethan plays, tragedies end in deaths, comedies end in weddings. Romances, those fanciful neither-fish-nor-fowl creatures that became Shakespeare’s late-career specialty, find their happy endings often at the altar as well, but festooned with symbolic blooms of reunion, reconciliation and restoration.

So it is in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which finds a pair of royal families ruptured by  irrational passions until, first, divine intervention, and then, human agency can set things right. 


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


Adapted from a 1588 novel called Pandosto, by Robert Greene, The Winter’s Tale concerns  two longtime friends, King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia. The trouble starts in Sicilia when Leontes comes to the mistaken belief that his wife, Hermione, is cheating with his friend. Polixenes slips back to Bohemia, and Leontes puts Hermione on trial, where amid the shock of it all she collapses and is pronounced dead. The complicated path to a resolution of this mess takes 16 years, a change of scenery to the sea coast of Bohemia (never mind that the region is actually quite landlocked), a shepherd girl of mysterious origin, young love, Leontes’ grieving repentance, Polixenes having a snit of his own, and much plotting by various parties. 

Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863), “Scene from ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (Act IV, Scene 4),” Guildhall Art Gallery. Photo: City of London Corporation

And of course, there’s that bear. But more on him later.

Proper order is restored at last when Paulina, the wife of a Sicilian lord, reveals that she has kept Hermione alive and hidden all this time, awaiting the proper moment for love and forgiveness.

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Looking for light, packing a punch

Fertile Ground 2021: In the brief but powerful "Livin' in the Light," opera singer Onry seeks a space for a Black man to breathe

One morning last June, the opera singer and multi-hyphenate artist Onry could not get out of bed. Amidst the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Onry says, “I, like so many other African Americans, had a moment. I was afraid, both for my life and for what the world would think of me and view me.” This impasse, Onry recalls, led him to the realization that “I was living in the truth of others versus living in the light of myself.” 


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


Livin’ in the Light is the title of Onry’s film, which premieres on Saturday, Feb. 6, as part of Fertile Ground’s 2021 online festival of new works. Directed by Hannah Hefner, the short film is a stunning musical journey of self-actualization. It opens on Onry in a cloistered world, which seems to be constructed from dark pink cloths—rays of sunlight are trying to break through. Soon the scene shifts to the outdoors. “A river, a giant field, a forest,” Hefner says, “Each has these particular heavy and beautiful and romantic physical qualities.”

Onry moves through these spaces as if in search of an unknown destination. We see him running his hands through the grass, pausing to admire wildflowers, sprinting through the woods. A chorus sings background to Onry’s solo, (My soul never burned so damn bright / I wanna be livin’ in the light). Eventually, Onry returns to the same closed space from the beginning, but now he’s changed. He looks directly into the camera. He inhales and exhales, his breaths deep and certain. 

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Days of Fezziwig past

Fertile Ground 2021: An overlooked character from "A Christmas Carol" gets his close-up in "Fezziwig’s Fortune"

Fezziwig’s Fortune is technically a prequel to A Christmas Carol, but that description is both accurate and inadequate. The play – which was written by Josie Seid and Sara Jean Accuardi and is being featured in Fertile Ground‘s 2021 online festival of new performance – is something more: an intensely moving portrait of a grieving father and the forces (supernatural and otherwise) that reveal the possibilities beyond his pain.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


In A Christmas Carol, Fezziwig is Ebenezer Scrooge’s ex-mentor—and a model for him to emulate (Charles Dickens presents him as a man who hasn’t let his cash eclipse his heart). “Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then?” Scrooge wonders. “The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

The premise of Fezziwig’s Fortune is perfect and perverse: It asks what agonies might lie behind its protagonist’s ebullient exterior. By the beginning of the play, Fezziwig (James Dixon) has witnessed the death of his daughter Joy (Barbie Wu) and the worsening headaches of his wife, Catherine (Nicole Accuardi). When an apparition named Hope (Andrea White) arrives to prepare Catherine for the next life, the scope of Fezziwig’s tragic existence comes into focus: He will be forced to endure a second loss when he hasn’t even begun to recover from the first.

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A room with a redemptive view

Fertile Ground 2021: "The November Project," which takes place in a bathroom, has its roots in a life-turning crisis in Jessica Wallenfels' life

Twenty-six years ago Jessica Wallenfels was standing on the precipice of her life and looking over the edge into the abyss. Today, Wallenfels is one of the most popular and respected theater artists in her adopted city of Portland. The November Project, created by Wallenfels’ company, Many Hats Collaboration, and making its debut on Sunday, Feb. 7, in the 2021 Fertile Ground online festival of new performance, is the latest evolution of a journey that began more than a quarter-century ago. 

In 1995, as an undergrad at California Institute for the Arts, Wallenfels was spiraling out of control. Drugs had taken over, and things got so bad that the school stepped in. “After a series of embarrassing events,” Wallenfels remembers on her blog, “my theater faculty had devised a plan for my probation.” The plan included Wallenfels attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a move which, at the time, made her feel “stupid and embarrassed and angry.” At first she was, in her words, “an oddity,” the only woman among several men and twenty years younger than any of them. But she was drawn in by the storytelling and the ritual. One day, another woman did come in and uttered a statement that still resonates with Wallenfels: “No man comes in between me and my drugs.” This simple statement, which could be seen as a desperate observation of a woman in crisis, struck Wallenfels differently. She saw in it a statement of empowerment, a woman who was putting her own needs before those of the men in her life. A seed was planted.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


By 2002 the seed had flowered and become an original piece called Rest Room, performed at various spots around New York City. Those NA sessions in California had helped Wallenfels understand that in her life she was surrounded by addiction. Some of the people closest to her had been trapped in the cycle of substance abuse. With their permission, she interviewed them about their relationships with drugs and used those interviews as a soundtrack for the piece. (If you go to the blog you’ll find a short video from that production; about halfway through the less-than-a-minute segment is a heart-stopping moment when you can hear Wallenfels’ mother, saying through tears, “I think I’ve had enough … of this conversation.”) 

Drama in the bathroom: Many Hats Collaboration’s “The November Project” at Fertile Ground.

In 2006, Many Hats Collaboration was made up of Wallenfels, director and photographer Lava Alapai, and sound designer Annalise Albright Woods. They were granted a place in Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival, in the site-specific component known as You Are Here that was taking place at the World Trade Center that year, and decided to revisit Rest Room. The Trade Center gave Wallenfels something she never had in New York: a set. She cast Yolanda Suarez and Paige Jones, and the characters evolved into archetypes of women on the drug addiction spectrum. Alapai got the idea to add a video component, because a piece that takes place inside of a bathroom just can’t get too voyeuristic. 

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Strike up the virtual festival band

ArtsWatch Weekly: Online Fertile Ground fest marches on, film fest updates, Hal Holbrook on jackasses & politics, monthly guides

BELLS ARE NOT RINGING AND NO MARCHING BANDS OR HIGH-STEPPING HORSES are sashaying through the center of town, but it’s festival time in Portland. We’re talking, of course, about Fertile Ground, the city’s annual festival of new performance works, which in an ordinary year would see revelers scurrying high, low, and in between across the metropolitan area, into basement and attic spaces and grand theater halls, to be among the first people on the planet to see the beginnings of upwards of a hundred new creative works, in all stages of development, from first readings to workshops to full-blown world premieres. Over its dozen years Fertile Ground has become something like a localized Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with the restriction that shows aren’t imported – they have to be made here, by people who can plausibly claim to live here.
 

A whirlwind of dance, circus, and aerial action awaits in Petra Delarocha’s “Prismagic Radio Hour,” premiering at 9 p.m. Friday in Fertile Ground.

This year everything’s changed: What had been known and celebrated for its in-the-moment acts of performance has transformed because of Covid restrictions into a virtual festival. As the 2021 festival moves into its final days – it began on Jan. 28 and closes on Saturday, Feb. 7, although projects can be viewed online through Feb. 15 – ArtsWatch’s writers have racked up a lot of screen time. We haven’t seen everything, but we’ve spent hours watching, and we’ll be watching more. One thing that’s stood out has been the ability of some projects to think like hybrids, making the most under the circumstances of the possibilities of both film and live performance. 

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