Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: Desire and Fertile Ground

Eleanor O'Brien talks about how the new-works festival has sparked her sex-positive shows. Plus the festival's Week 2 and the "Anastasia" tour.

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To hear Eleanor O’Brien tell it, she first decided to produce a show in the Fertile Ground festival as a bluff.

Back in 2008, when plans for the first Fertile Ground, a wide-ranging showcase of new,  and in-progress Portland-grown stage works, were announced, O’Brien wasn’t doing much. Scion of a prominent acting family – her mother is longtime Portland stage stalwart Vana O’Brien, her grandfather was the Oscar-winning character actor Van Heflin – she’d been a theater major in college, earned an MFA and then tried her luck auditioning in New York City for a few years. “I found that I didn’t love theater anymore, because I’m not a competitive person,” she recalls. But though she’d written a solo show, and, after moving back home to Portland, acted in a few plays, her theater career was stagnant.

Eleanor O’Brien in her show “How To Really Love a Woman.” Photo: Shiah Lints

One night she attended a party full of hip young theater people, and felt out of place.  Chatting with the actress Julie Jeske – then married to one of the scene’s busiest performers, Chris Murray –  she listened to a long list of the couple’s plans and projects, until Jeske asked  what she was working on.

Too embarrassed to admit that she had nothing in the works, she ad-libbed: “Oh, I’m doing a show for Fertile Ground.” 

Thus committed, O’Brien put together a show called Inviting Desire, a set of monologues about women’s sexual fantasies, which turned out to be one of the hits of the festival. She followed up with a slightly altered version the next year, began touring the show on the Canadian fringe-festival circuit, then continued to mine her chosen subject matter for an ongoing series of shows – such as this year’s digital-only The Cult of Cunnilingus – that she describes as sex-positive theater. In the process, she’s become one of the leading success stories of Fertile Ground, using the festival platform as both laboratory and launch pad to turn her Dance Naked Productions into a self-directed career. 

“I sometimes wonder what I would have become without this festival to act as a catalyst,” she wrote in an email. “Probably still waiting tables at Besaws.”

The sexual focus of O’Brien’s work already was in place: That early solo show she’d done was titled GGG: Dominatrix for Dummies and chronicled her very brief and very unsuccessful attempt at being a professional dominatrix in New York. And on the Dance Naked website, she recalls helping to write and perform a show on teen sexuality for Planned Parenthood when she was 14. Inviting Desire was inspired by the Nancy Friday book The Secret Garden.

“This book changed my life,” O’Brien says, plucking a copy off the shelf in her home office during a recent interview. “I read it and thought, ‘Why can’t we talk about these things?’ That was what really drove that show. I cast the actors and said, ‘Read the book and pick the pieces that you want to do.’ And then they all wanted to write their own instead.”

Another early model for O’Brien’s work was Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, in terms of how to – and how not to – approach the subject. “That was super-influential, but there’s not a lot of celebration in that show,” she says. “I was so strident at first: ‘I want it to be a celebration! I want there to be naked dancing in the street!’ But then through the years I came to realize that it has to be both. For me to be positive positive positive is to deny a lot of people’s experience.”

Making room for the honest experiences of others, and of herself, has led to an element of O’Brien’s work that might be thought of as brazen vulnerability. The ready audiences she’s found for open yet sensitive discussion of sexuality speaks to a need, and she speaks of both sharing and learning – in terms of emotion as much as of technique – as important parts of the work, both for herself and her audiences. 

“I don’t have grants to support my educational initiatives,” she says with a wry smile. “I know how to sell a show. I know it has to be entertaining, it has to be funny. I think this new show is so funny. But no one has seen it except me!”

Doubtless that will change on Thursday evening, when Cult of Cunnilingus premieres in Fertile Ground. Part of O’Brien’s success, financially, she attributes to scheduling: Early on she realized that the smart approach was to open during the latter part of the festival, thus taking advantage of its marketing and support services, then extending the run afterward, thus getting a better share of the overall box office proceeds. She also has expanded the touring of her shows (she plans to take How to Really…Really? (Really!) Love a Woman to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August) and has even hosted a festival of her own, bringing other sex-positive theater to Portland for 2018’s Come Inside Festival. 

“I had never produced a show before,” she recalls of her first Fertile Ground experience. “And there was such a hand-holding element – they taught you how to write a press release and all those sorts of things. Without the festival, I wouldn’t have had the deadline, the frame. It gave me access to the media, to support from other theaters in town, so many things. It’s the 13th year of it and it still costs how much to get into Fertile Ground? A hundred dollars? What an incredible amount of help I’ve got for $100.

“I’m so grateful for Fertile Ground being so – literally – fertile and grounding for me.”

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The flattened stage

Link to the video here.

Fertile Ground, Week 2

Hand2Mouth Theatre’s “The Town of Many Names,” in the Fertile Ground Festival.

The majority of this year’s Fertile Ground productions are, and have been, available for streaming throughout the festival time period. But as the event moves into its later stages, a handful of additional projects are being introduced. Among those, a few particularly pique DramaWatch’s interest. 

Thinking People’s Theatre is a welcome ideal, and it’s also the name of the company producing Quality of Death, which delves into end-of-life issues that can arise when family members don’t agree on how to approach illness or death. Playwright Ruth Jenkins drew on her own experiences in the field of palliative and hospice care as well as interviews with physicians, therapists and others. The show also will have an in-person run next week at the Twilight Theatre.

The Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie is presenting The Belongings, a new musical by Chad Dickerson, onstage as well as online. The description offered – “a mystical story about the creation of harmony,” with characters that somehow emerge into the world as adult with a kind of naive purity, “free from the baggage of social pre-conditioning” – sounds amorphous but full of thematic/dramatic potential. The show is being shepherded by Chapel Theatre’s co-founders, Illya deTorres (direction), who has acted at Artists Rep, and Corinn deTorres (choreography), who runs the resident dance company TriptheDark. 

The ever-adventuresome folks at Hand2Mouth Theatre spent part of last summer cooking up a show with a half-dozen students in the company’s Youth Devising Residency. Extending the process, they present a second part, The Town of Many Names, in which they “explore the Wild West of the World Wide Web.” H2M members Erin Leddy, Liz Hayden and Jenni GreenMiller share the directing duties – and longtime Fertile Ground fans may recall that Leddy’s My Mind Is an Open Meadow was a runaway hit in the festival about a decade ago.

Opening 

A recent article in The New York Times outlined the challenges facing the touring versions of Broadway shows. The bad news is that Covid-19 outbreaks among the casts and crews have forced cancellations and/or the juggling of lots of personnel, with extra understudies being added to the traveling troupes and/or called up from past productions. 

The good news, though, is that folks in the provinces are not reluctant to come out to the shows.

Marley Sophia as Little Anastasia and Gerri Weagraff as the Dowager Empress in the Broadway-musical tour of “Anastasia,” coming to Portland in the Broadway Across America series. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The latest Broadway Across America presentation headed to this province is Anastasia, the 2017 musical based on earlier movies based on romantic but ridiculous rumors about a supposed surviving princess from the last Russian royal family. In this story, a pair of con men find a young amnesiac to groom and present as the missing princess. Summed up the fine Minneapolis critic Dominic Papatola, “Think of it as My Fair Lady. But — you know — with Bolsheviks.”

On one hand, the show has a ready fan base inherited from the 1997 animated version and it boasts a heavyweight creative team: the book is by the acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally, the songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens – all three of them Tony winners for their work on Ragtime. On the other hand, as  Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, “It is a reminder, among other things, that bloody periods of history, like the Russian Revolution, do not naturally lend themselves to perky song and dance.”

Let’s get jaded

PassinArt launches a new series, Play Reading Mondays, with The Spanish Jade, written by Javon Johnson and directed by William Earl Ray, about three characters in a search for acceptance and equality.

Best line I read this week

“I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are and then having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.” 

– from the essay “Autobiography,” by Willam H. Gass

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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