All Classical Radio James Depreist

DramaWatch: Re-seeding Fertile Ground

The Portland new-works festival is at a crossroads, seeking to ensure its future. Plus: a new/old face at Center Stage, hip-hop from Profile, "Mad" teens and more.

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A small slice of the action at The Armory in 2020: theater people everywhere, swapping stories and dreaming dreams. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

“Art for art’s sake. Money for god’s sake.”

So sang the British rock band 10cc. The precept is holding true these days for Portland’s Fertile Ground festival. Since 2009, the citywide event has served as a midwinter hothouse for hundreds of new works of theater, dance and other art forms, not just offering audiences a feast of fresh entertainment but also helping to nurture shows through the development process and even kickstarting careers. And it has accomplished all this on a budget that would make a shoestring look fat; though individual producers pay a small fee to take part, the festival has relied on passionate, largely volunteer organizers.

Even the Covid pandemic couldn’t stop the festival, which went entirely online for its 2021 iteration.

But this year the past couple of weeks have been quiet, as Fertile Ground has gone fallow for a season, planning to re-seed itself as a more sustainable operation.

A large portion of the festival’s work has been shouldered by Nicole Lane, who took over as festival director after the departure of founder Trisha Pancio. These days, though, Lane is busy as marketing and communications director for Chamber Music Northwest, and after a decade of almost unpaid work as organizer, publicist, mentor, etc. for Fertile Ground, she’s ready to hand the tiller to someone else.

LineStorm Playwrights has debuted many works at Fertile Ground, giving new plays their first tests in front of an audience. “Through the festival, supporters got a first peek at some LineStorm plays that went on to national acclaim: E. M. Lewis’ ‘How the Light Gets In,’ Dan Kitrosser’s ‘Svetlana! Svetlana!,’ Rich Rubin’s’ Cottonwood in the Flood,’ and Anya Pearson’s ‘The Killing Fields,’ to name a few,” LineStorm said in a Facebook post. “The platform also encourages us to keep creating so we’ll have something new to present each year.”

Hence this season’s pause and a fund-raising effort by the Portland Area Theatre Alliance (now the umbrella nonprofit organization for Fertile Ground) to hire – and actually pay! – a new festival director. We’re not talking one-percenter money here, of course; the goal of the GoFundMe campaign for the purpose is just $10,000.

“When Sara Jean Accuardi came on board PATA’s Fertile Ground committee to witness what we do, she noted that the mechanics of Fertile Ground are a bit like ‘Oz behind the curtain,’ meaning that it seems to be a much larger operation than it actually is,” Lane wrote in a press release about the fundraiser. “Run by a small and dedicated team, Fertile Ground has an enormous arts ecology footprint.” 

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“Fertile Ground Festival needs you, needs your support for what/who is ahead,” Lane added in a Facebook post thanking many of others who’d help keep the festival going. “Please be a part of that, and join me in making a small donation so that we can offer this leadership role with guaranteed income.

“Onward for the sake of artists and what they teach us, and the value of new work!”

Under new(ish) management

Liam Kaas-Lenz, PCS’s new managing director. Photo courtesy Portland Center Stage.

Portland Center Stage, in need of a new managing director to replace departed company stalwart Cynthia Fuhrman, has promoted from within, naming Liam Kaas-Lentz to the post. The announcement earlier this week officially puts Kaas-Lentz into a co-leadership role with artistic director Marissa Wolf; he has served as interim managing director for the past 11 months.

Well-liked and respected in the area’s theater community for the past two decades, Kaas-Lentz landed at PCS after working as a production manager and stage manager for several other companies, including Sojourn Theatre, Portland Playhouse and Hand2Mouth. Somewhat similarly to Fuhrman, who rose through marketing-related roles to the company’s top administrative post, Kaas-Lentz has moved through production-oriented jobs, using broad expertise and good humor to keep the creative trains running on time.

“I worked with Liam for years, and he was someone I consistently relied upon as a strategic thought partner,” the company’s press release about the hire quotes Fuhrman, who left PCS last year  to work for an arts consulting and executive-search firm. “His deep knowledge of all that it takes to run a theater, coupled with his collaborative style and acumen with budgets, makes him an ideal managing leader at a time when the theater field is faced with so many complex challenges.”

Opening 

Profile Theatre’s “Welcome to Arroyo’s” opens at Imago Theatre. Photo courtesy Profile Theatre.

One of the most impressive productions of the season in Portland theater, so far, has been Profile Theatre’s staging of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which used the milieu of pro wrestling to tell a multi-layered, sometimes menacing, story of money and control, in-group loyalties and cross-cultural conflicts, and, above all, the tremendous yet tricky power of storytelling.

At the center of all that, though, was a central character full of innocent, good-natured enthusiasm. Now Profile is presenting Welcome to Arroyo’s, another – earlier – play by the same writer, Kristoffer Diaz, that foregrounds such essentially agreeable characters.

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“It’s a more youthful, more innocent kind of play,” says director (and ArtsWatch columnist) Bobby Bermea. “That, for me, is the main draw, what I love about it. It’s unusual for me to find a theater piece where I just like everybody, the characters in the play. I want them to succeed. They’re all young and trying to define themselves and live the lives they want. They have these impediments internally – there’s love, grief, confusion, and they’re all hustling – but their hearts are always in the right place.”

The subculture that Diaz lovingly mines this time is street-level hip-hop. The story is set in a fledgling bar in New York’s Lower East Side, where the owner’s friends/employee keep trying to finagle performance spot for their duo, and one customer thinks she’s discovered a link between the bar and a lost figure from early hip-hop history. 

“If you can place a Puerto Rican women at the dawn of hip-hop’s creation, not just as an observer but as a vital participant, you change the perception of all women’s entitlement to the form AND you reshape the face of ethno-racial relationships throughout the Afro-Latino diaspora,” says the aspiring academic Lelly, in what’s one of her less jargon-laden effusions.

But whereas Chad Deity danced along a line between celebration and satire of its subculture setting, Arroyo’s is neither conflicted nor complicated in its stance.

“Arroyo’s is a play about gentrification, specifically in New York City’s Lower East Side,” Diaz wrote in an artist’s statement. “It’s a play about identity and authenticity, about an individual’s obligations to all of the cultures that contribute to defining exactly who he or she is. It’s a deeply personal play for me; I worked out a bunch of my own cultural issues in the writing process. Most importantly, though, I think this is a play that celebrates the spirit of Hip Hop culture, particularly classic Hip Hop culture. It’s a play about taking the good stuff out of life, mixing it all up, cutting it, scratching it, and spinning it back as something new.”

It’s not nearly as ambitious or artful a work as Chad Deity, which was a Pulitzer finalist. But it’s a work of honest enthusiasm, playfully theatrical in its way yet simply, endearingly human. 

 “I’m not doing satire or realism,” Bermea stresses about his approach to it. “I think this play is all about heart.”

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OCT’s “The Mad Ones” opens Friday at CoHo Theatre. Photo courtesy Oregon Children’s Theatre.

“Paralyzed with grief, Samantha Brown loses touch with the part of herself that was learning to be brave,” begins the play description of The Mad Ones on the Oregon Children’s Theatre website. “Caught between a yearning for the unknown and feeling bound by expectation, she telescopes back to a time before her world had fallen apart. Now, Sam has to make a decision: Will she follow her mother’s dreams for her, or will she summon the courage to drive away into a future she can’t imagine?”

Sounds like your typical kids’ show, right?

Well, for the work of OCT’s Young Professionals company, it does. The YPs continue an important facet of OCT that began under the late artistic director Stan Foote, staging thought-provoking works for teen audiences. Written by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, The Mad Ones is a musical, originally titled ​​The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, that tracks, mostly through flashbacks, Samantha’s relationships with her mother, and also with her best friend, who has died in an auto accident.

***

In The Second City Swipes Rightsubtitled An Incomplete Guide to the Ultimate Date Night the famed sketch/improv comedy company dives into the fertile subject of love and romance (and, we’re guessing, less presentable subsets of those). 

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Triangle Productions launches a new series of readings in tribute to early LGBTQ plays produced in Oregon from 1971 to 1985, beginning with Jerker, perhaps best explained through its full title: Jerker, or The Helping Hand: A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty.

***

And while we’re on a theme, Eleanor O’Brien returns to the Back Door Theatre with Plan V: Pussy Parables and Epiphanies, the latest extension of her series of sex-positive shows that increasingly feel like rallying cries for a pleasure-centered social liberation movement.

The flattened stage

The Second City has had a broad and undeniable influence on comedy, be it in nightclubs, television or film. But to my mind, nothing greater has come from it than “SCTV,” the sketch series launched by the Toronto branch, which far outshone the higher-profile “Saturday Night Live” during the years they both were on the air. 

Closing

Shows on the way out this weekend include Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B, Kate Hamill’s gender-switch adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes detective franchise at PCS; the classic musical Cabaret from Stumptown Stages; Ain’t Too Proud, the touring Broadway jukebox musical about the Temptations; and Okinum, the French performer Emile Monnet’s dream-fueled exploration of ancestry and identity, for Boom Arts.

The best line(s) I read this week

“I say this now more to myself than anyone, but with you as my witness: most everything we learn of significance is ushered in on the arm of hurt and a perception of failure – for it is out of stirred ruin that sparks fly; out of trauma that woke pledges are made manifest. We are none of us – globally speaking, but most particularly as Americans – out of the woods, I mean to say. And the woods are burning.
“But here: the fire is as warming and bright as it is consuming. And if you can find me the book wherein history and mystery are peaceably reconciled, we might just be able, hunkered in the wane dancing light, to read to each other from its pages.”

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– Joe Henry, one of the greatest of contemporary songwriters, in the notes to his latest album, “All the Eye Can See.”

***

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

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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