Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

Fertile Ground Festival takes a break

Portland's annual festival of new works, which reinvented itself during the pandemic, will take a "strategic hiatus" in 2023 to reinvent again.

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At the pre-festival press and producer mingle at The Armory in 2019. Poet and producer S. Renee Mitchell is at far right. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground Festival

The Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, Portland’s sprawling, unpredictable, loosely tamed, and sometimes surprisingly beautiful annual citywide celebration of new staged and sometimes filmed works, will take a “strategic hiatus” in 2023, the festival announced Sunday.

Fertile Ground, which was hatched in 2008 by founder Trisha Mead and produced its first shows in 2009, has been an annual highlight of the city’s performance scene ever since, usually running in January and February. In its prime it’s been a highly small-d democratic gathering, a come-one-come-all festival of fresh works from all corners of the city, in all sorts of forms, from new theater (its mainspring) to dance, music, puppetry, clowning, comedy, video, animation, solo shows in a dizzying variety, and more. It’s presented as many as 130 new works in a single festival, and more than 1,300 total. More than 70 have gone on to further productions locally, nationally, and at festivals worldwide.

Maureen Porter joined the CoHo Clown Cohort for “Witch Hunt,” a seriously comic take on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” as part of Fertile Ground 2019. Photo: Urban Body Project.

Like so many other gatherings, the festival was forced to radically reinvent itself in the past two pandemic years, moving from its overflowing, Edinburgh Fringe Fest-style approach to a much more focused, curated approach with far fewer offerings, and delivered not in live performance spaces but online. That necessary distancing has had a profound effect on a festival that thrived on bringing performers, writers, and audiences together in real space and real time.

At the 2019 pre-festival press “speed-dating” night, Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane kept her mouth on the harmonica and her eye on the clock: Four minutes, and the mouth harp sounds. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground Festival

Those changes, in addition to radically shifting the festival’s focus, have also profoundly pinched its financing. “During the 2021 and 2022 festivals,” Fertile Ground said in a statement announcing the hiatus, “not only were registration fees reduced to create access for artists, but the festival productions were offered on a donation-to-the-artist basis only, or a pay-to-view fee paid to producers by ticket-buyers. Fertile Ground felt this was important to support the artist community struggling through the pandemic, and in order to draw an audience to the works. This vision meant that Fertile Ground did not have access to the revenue-generating $50 Festival Pass that had been essential in moderately funding the previous 11 years.”

That squeeze, said Nicole Lane, festival director since 2010, helped prompt Fertile Ground to take a break in 2023 and, essentially, reinvent its reinventions. “It has taken a village of dedicated volunteers to make Fertile Ground happen and adapt each year to the needs of the festival,” she said. “I believe now is the time to look back, and identify successes and improvements, in order to look forward. It is time to assess how the program can become sustainable, fiscally and from a human-powered perspective.”

Dré Slaman, the festival’s managing director since 2014, added: “This moment in time offers a chance to make the festival stronger, so that it may continue to be an outlet for artists to share their work, and the Portland community to enjoy it for years to come.”

At the pre-gathering for the 2015 festival, David Saffert and Sammuel Hawkins showed up in character for “David Saffert’s 40th Birthday: The Liberace Edition.” Photo courtesy Fertile Ground Festival

What might the reinvention look like? It’s highly likely that Fertile Ground’s GROW program, which began in 2021 as a way to highlight work by artists from traditionally underrepresented communities, will survive in some form.

The festival in the past has been notable for its all-shapes-and-forms quality. Audiences might see a new play in a first staged reading, or a workshop production, or a full-blown premiere. Sometimes the same piece would come back in a more advanced form in the next festival. Producers and writers have used the festival to get early looks at how a show is playing to an audience. Playwrighting groups have used the festival to present mini-festivals of short works by their members.

Some producers see the festival as an end in itself: Each year they produce something new to be shown at Fertile Ground. Others, often artists relatively new to town or not tied to any particular production companies, have used it as a kind of general auditioning of their talents. Sometimes mainstream theater companies have arranged world premieres of their own to run concurrently with the festival.

“Just This One,” with blues singers Saeeda Wright, Lisa Mann and LaRhonda Steele, was part of the 2018 Fertile Ground Festival. Photo: Josh Wilson

It’s all contributed to the festival’s vitality and alluring unpredictability. One show might be a flop. The next might show great promise even as it reveals flaws to be reworked. A third, arriving seemingly from left field, might be a surprising, resounding success. However this tradition is refocused or rearranged, it has to work economically.

Fertile Ground is a program of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance, and during the hiatus PATA’s board of directors will be involved in restructuring the festival’s funding and staffing. “This festival has provided an amazing, and invaluable, platform for local performers and creators for the past 13 years,” PATA Board President Samson Syharath said in the hiatus statement. “We hope to expand upon the equitable practices already in place under the leadership of Nicole Lane and Dré Slaman, with more support from grant funding, and a sustainable staffing structure.”

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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3 Responses

    1. Thanks to both of you, Paul and Marty. Of course, you’re right — looks like I was living in the past. “2o13” has been updated (literally) to 2023.

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