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Fertile Ground Fest: Different approaches

How to decide what to see? There’s more than one way to approach the overwhelming bounty of Oregon’s annual celebration of new stage works.

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Basement Stair Collective’s “Skinshow.” Photo: Owen Carey.

Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival of New Works is Oregon’s most abundant annual flowering of theatrical originality. But it poses a major puzzler for audience members: how to decide what to see. 

With 68 projects and 136 performances over the next 10 days, the annual (pandemics notwithstanding) orgy of homegrown creations is simply too big to get a handle on. And the material and creators are largely, by intention, unfamiliar. It’s not like previewing the umpteenth production of, say, Othello

You could start by perusing the website’s capsule descriptions. That’s what ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks did in his astute DramaWatch overview, producing a solid list of recommended dramas. 

But as with any artwork, the value to the audience usually depends a lot less on how cool an idea sounds than what the creator does with it. Sometimes a less original plot or concept makes for a better experience than something more original but less well executed. Plus, a major reason creators bring their works-in-progress to Fertile Ground is to find out what they’ve got and how it works in front of an actual audience of non-insiders — and we won’t know that until the festival’s finale.

Breast Pump Dance from ‘Anne Zander is MOTHER.’ Photo: Jess Bohonik.

So ArtWatcher and actor/director Bobby Bermea’s overview took a different approach, drawing on his long and esteemed participation in Fertile Ground and Portland theater in general, and on his attendance at the Festival’s Media Night. Bermea’s insider knowledge allowed him to zero in on artists and companies with strong track records and come up with a half-dozen well-informed recommendations. 

I also attended Media Night, and have some insights gleaned from readings of earlier versions of a few of this year’s scripts presented by Linestorm and PDX Playwrights, plus acquaintance with the creators’ previous FG and other work. But here, I’ll also offer some alternative ways into the festival’s vast and vibrant galaxy of homegrown creativity. You’ll notice almost no overlap among these ArtsWatch previews, and yet even so, we’re omitting most of the shows available, any of which might turn out just as appealing as any of our recommendations. Such is the abundance and adventure of Fertile Ground.

The Dark Fantastic

One way to approach the intimidating schedule is to look for themes to explore and let that guide your planning. Plenty permeate this year’s Fertile Ground — disability (e.g. Rhythm & Autism, Extraordinary People), queer experience (Merry Xmas and Happy New Queer, Lesbian Pageant), autobiography (Exhale, The Play about My Father, Ann Zander is MOTHER), history (Joan in the Desert, Heaven and Hollywood) and more. These examples are by no means comprehensive, and as you’ll see, many shows fall under several possible themes. 

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One theme that stood out to me this year is plays emerging from the fantasy and horror genres. Once dismissed by literary critics, they’ve become rich sources for fiction and drama on page, stage and screen. Interest in horror and dark fantasy genres has surged in this century — it sometimes seems as though we’re on, or beyond, the brink of a horror fantasy now — so you might consider tapping into today’s dark zeitgeist by making this year a journey into eldritch realms. Here’s a smattering:

• Staged at a mysterious Southeast Portland mansion, the newly fledged Basement Stair Collective’s Grindhouse is an immersive, site-specific theater piece that plunges a desperate family — and audience members — into a “grotesque dinner party” featuring creepy soundscapes and movement. 

• The young quartet of company members, who met at Portland Experimental Theater Ensemble’s Institute for Contemporary Performance, are also presenting Skinshow, starring Frankenstein’s Monster and The Creature from The Black Lagoon in a show that “dissect(s) queer identity, sapphic yearning, and dysphoria through the lens of monsterdom.”

• At an intriguing new Southeast Portland performance hotspot, JaJa PDX, Blue Girl and the Burning Bushes tells the story of the titular collective of mythologically inspired musicians, aerialists, and fire dancers, who guide the protagonist (a junkyard-born science prodigy) on a hero’s journey to save humanity. 

Hyacinth (Damian Lichtenstein), Grandmother Rosemarie (Stephanie Crowley), and Camelia (Jen McDonnell) are three generations of a family struggling with mental illness in “A Circle of Stones.” from “Bone Sorrow.” Photo: J. Remy LeStrange.

• Even in table readings, Nina Monique Kelly’s trio of surrealist dramas collected under the rubric of Bone Sorrow somehow conjures haunted atmospheres via evocative language, archetypal characters, and near-hallucinatory settings, ranging from the Salem witch trials to a modern care facility, depicting vulnerable individuals struggling against larger, impersonal forces.

• Another witchy work at JaJa, Dreya Weber’s solo show, Hexen, dramatizes the demonization of women throughout history and the reclamation of the mystical, via aerial dance, Weber’s original music and choreography and more. 

• FG Media Night was menaced by the costumed and Kiss-makeupped Ahriman, “the wicked god of metal music,” who’s the antagonist of Rogue Pack Theatre’s Six String Showdown, which presents concert performances of some of the songs from Rock Dojo founder Brian Parham’s upcoming original metal musical and martial arts fantasy (“Star Wars meets Iron Maiden”) for kids and families, Elijah & the Sacred Song. Can young heroine Destiny and her brother Elijah defeat the Dark God? “Not gonna happen!” Ahriman growled to the Media Night crowd. I’m betting on the kiddos. 

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Sounds Onstage

Six String Showdown is only one of a startling number of musically accompanied works that could easily constitute an entire mellifluous FG24 itinerary for fans of music and theater. Fertile Ground has always embraced a broad definition of performance, including for a while a designated dance series, musicals, and other genre-nonconforming productions. This year, at least a dozen shows sport some form of musical accompaniment, ranging from traditional original musical theater to metallic rock to rock opera to rave opera to opera opera and much more. (The presence of musical-oriented Lakewood Theatre in this year’s festival no doubt contributed to the musical profusion.) So you could make this a musical Fertile Ground!

• We get a rare chance to witness the birth of an opera in A Bridge to the Promised Land: 1968, composer/librettist Milton Williams’s story about a Black politician who wrestles with the challenges and choices thrust upon him in a Southern town during a fraught period in American history. Initially acclaimed as baritone singer (in settings ranging from opera to musical theater to jazz, blues and contemporary art song) and orchestral conductor, over a five-decade career Williams also became an accomplished composer, arranger, and music professor who himself had to deal with racism at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in the 1960s. This first public performance of some of the opera’s songs with piano accompaniment invites the audience to participate in a discussion about the work’s origins and development. 

• Singer-songwriter-guitarist Andee Joyce’s Rhythm & Autism is a sensory-friendly solo performance about growing up autistic in the 1960s and ‘70s. If the audience-friendly humor of the Flapping Song she led us in at Media Night is any indication (“flapping” is a characteristic behavior common among but not exclusive to people on the autism spectrum), it should be as entertaining as it is enlightening about neurodiversity.

• Chari Smith’s original rock musical Freedom: the Untold Story of Moses answers the question the show’s writer/composer/director had asked since encountering the Hebrew prophet’s story in childhood: where are the women in this story? Like much recent history, it sheds new light on an old story by bringing (in this case imagined) previously omitted perspectives of marginalized participants.  

Denni Edlund, Niku Edlund-Farsad, Diego Solan Kjelland in ‘Freedom: the Untold Story of Moses.’ Photo: Andie Petkus Photography.

Other music-inflected shows include, but are not limited to:

 The Ballad of Johnny Rose, “a spiritual rock opera in two acts with nine-piece band and twelve singers,”

Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil, a full-length jukebox musical shown here in two parts and featuring classic vaudeville songs, a deal with the devil, circus acrobats, and much more. 

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Starstruck, Jeffrey Michael Kauffman’s new musical based on a real-life meeting between Judy Garland and Frances Farmer in Indianapolis in 1967.

The Mall! The Musical!, Rachael Himsel’s show about a food-court turf war. (You could make a ‘90s mall-themed spring by also taking in next month’s non-FG show, Middletown Mall, at Coho Theatre.)

Neighborhood Nodes

Another way to experience Fertile Ground — and one envisioned by this year’s leadership team — isn’t thematically but instead geographically. The festival website organizes the shows by region, so you can easily choose your schedules not by theme or concept or track record but by location, and get to experience venues that have in many cases long presented worthy theater afield from the usual central city spotlight. Others are newer to the thespian game.

As Artistic Director Tamara Carroll told ArtsWatch, this was a conscious choice that makes it convenient for audiences to discover not just new plays and playwrights, but also venues — and not just for a long week in spring, but year-round. Portland is a city of strong neighborhoods, after all, and its surrounding suburbs are also coming into their own as independent cultural centers. Fertile Ground’s new centripetal emphasis increasingly makes its poster/brochure slogan — “A City-Wide Festival of New Works” — obsolete.

Many of the shows in Southeast Portland happen at reliable venues Backdoor Theatre and Clinton Street Theater, plus the new JaJa. Northeast includes shows at one of the city’s finest theaters, Portland Playhouse, and other less familiar venues. The Milwaukie/Sellwood area slate revolves mostly around the intimate Chapel Theatre, while downtown Portland is anchored, fittingly, by the thankfully revived Artists Repertory Theatre, which hosts 21 performances. 

This West Sider is especially excited about the festival’s connection to  Hillsboro’s Main Street, which boasts two theaters within a block of each other. The Vault, run by Bag&Baggage professional theater, is hosting several events, including the premiere of Beauregard at Manassas, written by Scott Palmer, the visionary director who brought Bag&Baggage, and Hillsboro’s arts scene, to unparalleled heights during his ambitious tenure. If this script-in-hand staged reading of his debut play reflects Palmer’s vivid, audience-friendly directing style, it should be one of the festival’s highlights. 

Bag&Baggage Artistic Director Nik Whitcomb is directing another Fertile Ground reading at The Vault, Renee Flemings’s empty spaces, which “explores the ways in which society responds, or doesn’t, when a Black woman goes missing.”

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Downtown Hillsboro’s other theater, HART, isn’t participating in Fertile Ground this year, but the fact that its energetic artistic director, Harrison Butler, is a member of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance board that governs the festival, and chairs PATA’s Fertile Ground Committee, and former Bag&Baggage AD Cassie Greer is the festival’s managing director, suggests that Main Street could become an even more vibrant part of future festivals. 

Andee Joyce in “Rhythm & Autism.” Photo: Angela Dawn.

A third Main Street location, the Walters Cultural Arts Center, is hosting another Fertile Ground show, Rhythm and Autism. At the Media Event, creator Andee Joyce led the audience in a “Flapping Song,” which humorously refers to a characteristic behavior commonly but not exclusively prevalent in people on the autism spectrum.

In West Side sprawlburb Beaverton, Spark Plug Theatre Collective has emerged over the past year or so to present strong performances in the unlikely cozy space of a backroom at the Ki Coffeeshop, a charming refuge from the surrounding stroads. Last fall, I really enjoyed Spark Plug’s Futura, a play I’d seen years before during its development at Portland Center Stage’s Just Add Water Festival. Now the company presents an enticing-looking trio of short plays by local playwright James Van Eaton collectively titled Looking for Light. (Demand was so high, and the space so small, that the run sold out quickly, so they added some post-FG performances, for which a few seats remain.) 

Maybe it’s too speculative, but wouldn’t it be wondrous if this Fertile Ground portends a continuing surge in neighborhood theater productions, built on original, homegrown acts of creation? That could add yet another boon to Fertile Ground’s already considerable legacy.

Tasting Menus

One way to maximize exposure and minimize risk (in terms of time commitment) around otherwise unfamiliar art is to sample it in small portions, like reading a multi-author anthology instead of a novel. If some of the bite-size portions don’t grab you, there’s a good chance others will. Fertile Ground offers multiple short play showcases:

• The always intriguing Theater Diaspora’s Ten-Minute Tapestry: AAPI Writers’ Showcase explores the multiple identities of Asian American and Pacific Islander writers. 

• PDX Playwrights’s Strange Burdens offers a clutch of 10-minute plays written on an intentionally broad titular theme by local creators who’ve participated in the long-running organization’s regular reading sessions.

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• LineStorm Playwrights’s Small Bites features an hour of shorts by some of the city’s more experienced playwrights. 

Jerilyn Armstrong and John San Nicolas in PlayWrite Inc.’s ‘Write.Voice.Play!’ Photo: Karla D. Smith.

Some of the sampler shows focus on tomorrow’s playwrights. You could also make this Fertile Ground a time-traveling journey into the future of Oregon playwriting. Don’t tell the younguns, as Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups might call them, who’re involved in several Fertile Ground readings, that theater is passé. They’re making it anew:

Write.Voice.Play! showcases original one-act plays written by area at-risk youth and workshopped and performed by leading local theater artists. Read ArtsWatch’s feature about the producing organization, PlayWrite Inc. 

• Lakewood’s Young Playwrights Festival (YPF) showcases one-act plays by outstanding high school playwrights who worked with professional directors, actors and playwrights to develop their plays.

 Life at the Edges/Wild Caught double bill features works produced in Profile Theatre and Artists Repertory Theatre’s current mentorship programs.

These emerging playwright showcases, like the Fertile Ground Festival itself, are testament to Oregon theater’s continuing vitality and lasting relevance. There’s much, much more happening over the next 10 days than what we can mention, so by all means, go out and experience it for yourself. And let us know what you find in the comments section below. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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