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.
That is true of Chosen, in which Portland-theater mainstay Alissa Jessup tells the story of how she met her biological mother. Dressed in a striped shirt and facing the camera, Jessup (who collaborated on the project with director Dan Kitrosser) reveals a tale of trauma and survival that leaves you both emotionally gutted and profoundly grateful for her candor.
“I would say it was one of the hardest experiences I’ve gone through as a creative artist—as a writer, as a director, as an actor,” Jessup told me. “It felt daunting, at the end of it, to release control. I don’t know who’s watching it. I’m not picking up their energy in the room. Is the audience with me? Are they not with me? It was a really interesting surrender.”
Jessup admits that “when we first shot it, I didn’t know where I was looking. I just was sort of like, ‘What am I doing? Is this a performance? Is this a story?’ And reshooting it was like, ‘I’m just going to talk right to the camera. And hope that my college theater training kicks in and makes it engaging.’”
Chosen is my favorite entry in the festival because it embraced the scrappy spirit of Fertile Ground. One of the best actors in the city telling a painful, personal story with nothing more than charisma and a camera? If you’ll pardon the outdated parlance, that’s so punk rock. I don’t want to be the Pollyanna of the pandemic, but there’s something thrilling about seeing actors work out how to express themselves at a time when many of their tools (stages, live audiences, et cetera) have been taken from them.
Of course, it doesn’t end here. It’s unsurprising and understandable that there are Fertile Ground artists who want their creations to be more than virtual theatre. Jessup wants to bring Chosen to the stage and Myhraliza Aala, the star and creator of Oh Myh Dating Hell, says the project (about a Filipina-American’s torturous experiences with online dating) is getting a second episode—and could become a television series.
“I have a number of friends that are at networks,” Aala says. “I don’t want to say where. And I’m hoping that I might be able to pitch to those networks, but if not, I will take it through the film festival episodic route.” Aala says the next episode will run 10-15 minutes and has teased the return of Nick Serrone as her character’s hilariously cool love interest “Dan the Man” (“Dan the Man’s probably going to be there a little bit more because he’s the friend, kind of crush, that cannot be,” she says).
I’ll be honest: there were times in 2020 when I despaired over the state of theater in Portland. At first, it seemed like we might have to survive on a diet of nothing but audio plays for the duration of the pandemic, a less-than-appealing prospect (with the exception of Artist Rep’s blockbuster revival of E.M. Lewis’ Magellanica, the format kept falling flat for me).
Yet Fertile Ground gave me hope. The innovations of its many artists showed me that even in an unrelentingly grim age, the state of the performing arts in Portland is brighter and more imaginative than I realized. And in visionaries like Jessup and Aala, we’re not just seeing the present. We’re seeing the future.
Fertile Ground 2021 ran officially Jan. 28-Feb. 7, when the final projects were placed online. But all festival projects will be available through Feb. 15 to stream on Fertile Ground’s Facebook and YouTube channels. More information at: http://fertilegroundpdx.org/.
PREVIOUS STORIES ABOUT FERTILE GROUND 2021:
- Fertile Ground 2021: Digital seedlings sprout. Bennett Campbell Ferguson previews the festival and talks with director Nicole Lane about the switch from live to online viewing.
- Interactive cookies and scares. Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes about two plays with interactive aspects: Fold in Gently and RE: Lilith Lopez.
- Martha Bakes in Black & White. Bobby Bermea talks with playwright Don Wilson Glenn and director Damaris Webb about Martha Bakes, a play about race and history and the nation’s first First Lady in her colonial kitchen.
- Tough questions, tough answers. Lisa Collins’ “wonderful and exacting” new play Be Careful What You Ask For delves into a Portland killing and matters of race, Max Tapogna writes.
- The rhythm and meaning of Lilies. In the short Lilies, Max Tapogna writes, poet Joni Whitworth and filmmaker Hannah Piper Burns find the mythic amid the reality of Covid-19.
- A “Hot Mess” of a zombie jamboree. Mark LaPierre and Ian Anderson-Priddy’s zombie comic-book musical, Max Tapogna writes, will make your pulse rush. If you have one.
- Strike up the virtual festival band. This ArtsWatch Weekly update talks about Kwik Jones’s screwball comedy/mystery thriller Cat Napper and Rachael Carnes’s post-apocalyptic What a Memory Looks Like.
- Looking for light, packing a punch. Max Tapogna lends an approving ear to opera singer Onry’s brief but powerful Livin’ in the Light.
- Days of Fezziwig Past. Bennett Cmpbell Ferguson finds something intensely moving in Josie Seid and Sara Jean Accuardi’s Fezziwig’s Fortune, in which an overlooked character from A Christmas Carol gets his closeup.
- A room with a redemptive view. Bobby Bermea talks with the makers of The November Project, a play that takes place entirely in a bathroom, about its real-life impetus and long road to its current fictional form.
- Belling Shakespeare’s cat. Marty Hughley investigates Madonna of the Cat, playwright Sue Mach’s investigation of the mysterious 16-year gap in Shakespeare’s late romance The Winter’s Tale.