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Fertile Ground 2021: Digital seedlings sprout

Portland's annual festival of new works, running Jan. 28-Feb. 7, has become a garden of virtual theater.

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As the pandemic raged through Portland last year, Nicole Lane wondered what to do about Fertile Ground. For 11 years, the festival had been a sweeping showcase for new works (it’s best known for theater, but has also incorporated dance and film). Yet with a tradition of cramming crowds into venues across the city, it was ill-suited to a post-COVID 19 world.

That’s why Lane, who has been festival director since 2010, began to envision a virtual version of Fertile Ground. “I don’t know what bee was in my bonnet, but I saw it,” she says. “I saw the possibilities.”


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


On January 28, those possibilities will become realities. By offering a zany mix of free, prerecorded performances through February 7 (the festival features everything from an interactive baking show to a spinoff of A Christmas Carol titled Fezziwig’s Fortune) Fertile Ground 2021 seeks to sustain the festival’s rambunctious spirit—and shake up its status quo with a lineup with works from BIPOC and LBGTQ visionaries.

Myhraliza Aala’s audacious tale of the horrors of the dating game, “Oh My Dating Hell,” premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, Fertile Ground’s opening night. It’s produced by Aala Is Possible.

Fertile Ground has long been renowned for its restless rhythm. It typically spans an epic range of stories (the Fertile Ground plays that I’ve written about include a multigenerational airport drama and a screwball comedy about an alligator-ravaged hotel) and beckons audiences into performance spaces both expected (Artists Rep) and eccentric (Mother Foucault’s Bookshop). 

Lane knew that the scope of the festival (which was launched by the Portland Area Theatre Alliance and founded by Trisha Mead in 2009) would have to shrink. “I just happen to be kind of a medical-issue nerd,” she says. “My dad was in medicine. It was very clear in those communities that COVID was not going to magically go away. Vaccines weren’t going to be distributed like butterflies, and even when [they became available], there was going to be a long road.”

Her solution was to have all of the Fertile Ground artists film their performances so that they could be streamed for free on Facebook and YouTube, giving audiences the opportunity to safely experience projects from such audacious storytellers as Myhraliza Aala (who is contributing Oh Myh Dating Hell, a tale of dating-app travails) and Charla Hathway (who, in Tales of Sex Magic and Healing, reveals stories from her career as a sexologist).

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Rhyan Michele gets investigative as Detective Beck in “Cat Napper.” Kwik Jones’s full-length play, produced by the Portland Civic Theatre Guild, premieres at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 30.

Lane also wanted to expand Fertile Ground’s cultural reach. A planned community discussion about how the festival could better serve underrepresented groups had to be cancelled, but a desire to diversify led to the foundation of the Grow Panel, a group that evaluated festival pitches based on multiple criteria, including cultural sensitivity (the panel also selected nine artists to each receive the festival’s $500 Grow Award).

“Primarily it was about artistic merit,” says panelist Michael Cavazos. “That was really the ultimate score. And the marginalized or the POC part of it wasn’t an indicator that they were automatically in. That wasn’t the point. It was something that we were taking into account.”

Cavazos praises the panel’s vast spectrum of voices, noting that “we had queer people, we had people of color, we had disabled people—everyone had a different lens, so they could enlighten us about what could be perceived as problematic or what was effective. As a queer, non-binary person and Latino, my experience hadn’t allowed me to think about what it might be like for someone who’s disabled to read the same pieces.”

The comic book zombie musical “Hot Mess” leaps from page to virtual stage at 7 p.m. Feb. 4.

Greater scrutiny meant greater demand for artists to clarify their intentions. In the case of Mark LaPierre, that meant explaining why he, a male playwright, was submitting the animated Hot Mess – a Zombie Musical, which has a cast filled with female characters, some of whom are sex workers.

“Part of it is that I’m really blessed to have incredible women in my life,” LaPierre says. “My wife, Diane Englert, is just an amazing human being and collaborator and artist, and I want to offer my daughter representations of women flailing and women rising against odds in order to get what they need and want while being true to themselves.”

During what LaPierre describes as an “extended conversation,” he explained his vision for the play and why he had included sex workers in the story (“I just expressed my honest feeling, which is that sex work is hard work—and I have nothing but respect for anyone who puts in a hard day’s work,” he says). With the panel’s concerns assuaged, Hot Mess was accepted into the festival.

Heath Hyun Houghton’s “Shooflies & Psilocybin” premieres at 7 p.m. Jan. 31. From left: Murren Kennedy, Samson Syharath, Jacquelle Davis. Photo: Heath Hyun Houghton.

Appointing the members of the Grow Panel to be de facto captains of quality control inevitably raised questions about how the festival’s longstanding preference for authenticity and spunk over slickness and stature would be impacted. If Fertile Ground 2019 had been curated, for instance, would a scrappy play like Leaving Manzanita (a profoundly moving teen detective mystery written by the young playwright Maeve Z) have made the cut?

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Lane, for one, is confident that Fertile Ground’s creative fire is still burning. “The funny thing is that it’s art, so it’s necessarily messy,” she says. “The most extraordinary thing is how these independent artists and producers have professionally grown, based on the needs of the festival and it being recorded and filmed. They could go in and fine-tune their work in a completely new way. It’s an extremely different process. It’s like film.”

What that means for Fertile Ground’s future is anybody’s guess (while subsequent iterations of the festival could conceivably mix virtual and in-person performances, Lane seems somewhat leery of the idea). At least one thing, however, hasn’t changed: Lane is hungry to experience Fertile Ground—and not just as a festival director.

“I have decided that I am going to participate in Fertile Ground like an audience member,” she says. “Which is just like I do every year. There’s magic in performance. I guess, in these weird times, I’m just trying to find a little bit of that.”

Adrienne Flagg shushes the audience in “Martha Bakes.” Don Wilson Glenn’s play, produced by Vanport Mosaic, premieres at 4:30 p.m. Subday, Jan. 31. Photo: Nora Colie

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Fertile Ground runs January 28-February 7. Shows are viewable free on Facebook and YouTube, and have staggered opening times and dates. Tickets and scheduling information: http://fertilegroundpdx.org/

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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