Fertile Ground: the scramble begins

Portland's eleventh annual festival of new works is a citywide blur of hopeful creativity. Media night gives just a hint of the pandemonium.

There are a million stories in the naked city, and I figure on a recent Monday evening I heard about 683,427 of ’em. Tall tales, sad tales, hopeful tales, adventure tales. Stories spun by puppets and sexologists and Suffragettes. Roundabout rambles. Elevator speeches. Solos and duets. A surge of stories, a flood of fables. Soft sells, hard sells, stories spun with urgency or jazz-hands pizzazz.

It was media night for Portland’s eleventh annual Fertile Ground festival of new works – what festival director Nicole Lane likes to call “speed-dating the media” – and there I sat at my little assigned corner café table on the mezzanine of The Armory, other little tables splayed out in a semicircle on either side as an invading cast of producers, directors, playwrights, actors, and assorted backstage types pressed forward, slapping press releases and postcards and business cards on the tabletop and launching into their three-minute schpiels before moving on to the next line at the next table to do it all again.

Festival director Nicole Lane, clanging the bell: time to switch partners and start again. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

Fertile Ground – which runs officially January 30-February 9 in spaces scattered across the Portland metro area, although some shows have already begun and some will run longer – has, as Lane noted before unleashing the horde, “seventy-five shows, a hundred-twenty or more acts of creation.” That’s because some programs have multiple short works: a half-dozen each for the promising Portland’s Mini Musical Festival, PDX Playwrights’ Crazy Dukes Instant Play Festival, and the Groovin’ Greenhouse dance showcase, for instance; eight for Daisy Dukes Shorts Night. Linestorm Playwright’s Lunchtime Reading Series (a couple are actually in the early evening) at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie includes free readings of ten new scripts, by the likes of such familiar names as Rich Rubin, Josie Seid, E.M. Lewis, and Sara Jean Accuardi. Like a set of Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls, there are festivals within festivals.

So maybe I exaggerate about the number of stories I heard. Still, the action was so fast and furious at my little café table that I’m sure I must’ve heard pitches for all 120 acts. Or almost: “We tried to get in your line,” one actor/writer messaged me the following day, “but a puppet and a votes-for-women activist pushed us out of the way.” That’s life in the Fertile Ground fast lane.

Fertile Ground ranges from A to Zed in the theatrical alphabet. Everything’s new, and “new” covers a lot. The festival includes workshops, readings, and full-fledged premieres. It covers solo shows, performance art, dance, multimedia, straight plays, musicals, and pretty much everything in between. It’s a petri dish of creative hopefulness, a chance for solo artists and mainstream companies alike to bring a project before an audience for a trial spin. Some shows will end right here. Some will develop long and robust lives. It’s pretty much wide open, which is both its weakness and its greatest strength, and it’s red-penciled on the city’s annual performance calendar as one of the events.

So no wonder media night kicks into action with a dash of pandemonium. Here’s a digest of how I survived the evening. I’ve reassembled the experience from notes, handouts, quick-hit conversations, and blurred impressions gathered, it somehow seemed, as if I’d been staring out the window of a train whipping a hundred and twenty miles an hour across the countryside:

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

*

FROM CLAYMATION TO MICHAEL CURRY’S CELEBRATED large-scale puppet figures, Portland’s a town that loves its fabricated figures. A couple of puppeteers, Anca Hariton and David Woodin of Leaven Dream Puppets, were the first to snag a spot at my table, along with some of their wooden-headed charges and a mini-version of their puppet stage. They’ll be premiering a show called The Magic Fish. Intended for family audiences and kids ages 3 and up, it uses, in Woodin’s words, “some Punch-and-Judy type techniques, and a little bit of mime.” She’s a teacher, he’s an art therapist, and they learned puppetry while living in Europe. As Tevye so eloquently stated his case: “Tradition!”

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WE ARE LIVING, AS YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED, in politically and culturally fractious times. Andrea Stolowitz, one of Oregon’s leading playwrights (Antarktikos, Ithaka, others) talked about her newest, Recent Unsettling Events, which is being presented by the Portland Civic Theatre Guild as this year’s guild new-play winner. This one could set the halls of academe on fire. It’s set at a small progressive liberal arts college that’s immersed in protests over its required Western Civilization course – reflecting, at least in its topic, recent unsettling events at Portland’s Reed College. The key question, according to Stolowitz: “Who has the right to tell what story?”

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POLITICAL STORM WARNINGS appear to be flying in Downward Facing, too  – a comedy, said its author, Mishelle r. Apalategui, that “follows five folks who are intertwined in a way, though you don’t know exactly how until the end.” Gutter punks, New Age yoga enthusiasts, and upscaling neighborhoods are involved. Apalategui scrawled this message on the cardboard back of her postcard-size flyer:

HIGH RISE JEANS: $200
VINTAGE V-NECK: $75
GENTRIFICATION: PRICELE$$

Perhaps tipping its hand on where it stands, the show is charging just 10 bucks.

*

THINGS GET HISTORICALLY POLITICAL in Laura Christina Dunn’s new musical Tear Down This Wall, which nabs its title from Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle the Berlin Wall. Produced by Broken Planetarium (Sirens of Coos Bay; Frankenstein: A Cabaret) it’s set in Soviet era Berlin and also draws from Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, the lovers separated by a wall (the same story that Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” play for comic effect in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and reflects on “our own political moment of division and fortified borders.” It’s an all-female production, director Emilie Landmann said, with a chorus of 15-20 voices: “It’s very folk-type music. We have some modern dance, too.”

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DID I MENTION POLITICS? Maybe a political sleepover? Slumber Party To Dismantle the Patriarchy? “I’m here with my sleeping bag,” said Maisie Speer, one of four writers of Hand2Mouth’s new show, “because we’re going to use it to take down the patriarchy.” This being a Hand2Mouth show, it’s no sit-and-watch-the-actors-from-a-safe-distance affair. It’s more of a – well, a slumber party, for which you’re invited to bring your own sleeping bag, tell a scary patriarchy story or two, eat some snacks, make face masks, and generally help create the evening. “It’s being developed by an all-female creative team,” Speer noted. “We’ve all worked together for a very long time.” She paused, then added: “We’re always trying to make plays that we need to make.”

*

OR MAYBE YOU’D RATHER EAT THE RICH. That’s the message that was scrawled on the back of the mini-protest sign that Maria Choban slapped assertively on my tabletop. Her new play, written with Brett Campbell (both also write for ArtsWatch, where Campbell is a senior editor) is titled The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism: A Comedy, and that seems to pretty much sum things up. “We are putting socialism on the floor,” Choban declared. “Except when they’re rolling on the floor. Nobody wants to listen to that shit. So we made it a comedy.” Set in 1906, the PDX Playwrights offering gathers four famous socialists of the time – actor Ellen Terry, science fiction novelist H.G. Wells, playwright George Bernard Shaw, “neurotic” economist/reformer Beatrice Webb – and a time traveler. A time traveler? With Wells, author of The Time Machine, already in on the action, why not?

*

THEN AGAIN, IF YOU WANT TO CHANGE THINGS, you can always vote – unless, of course, you can’t. Randi Douglas strode forthrightly to my table in full Suffragette regalia, from wide-brimmed hat to buttoned shoe. She’s the solo performer in the new show 2020 – the New 1920? Why Vote? Just Ask History, playing seven of the key activists in the 72-year movement leading up to the ratifying of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Douglas seems to revel in the energy and bravery of the movement, while recognizing the daunting opposition the Suffragettes faced: “If you think politics are dirty today, you should have seen it during the Civil War.”

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Vortex 1: Gov. Tom McCall gambled with the Devil, and won.

SOMETIMES MESSING AROUND WITH POLITICS is like playing poker with the Devil: You don’t even want to think about the consequences if you lose. Playwright/lyricist Sue Mach and composer Bill Wadhams dropped by to talk about their musical Vortex I, which stands a fair chance of being one of the highlights of this year’s Fertile Ground. It’s been here before, last year, when it showcased its first act and a squib. Now it’s back for an entire run-through, carrying a fascinating chunk of Oregon history with it. With a high-powered cast and the talents of Mach, Wadhams (of the group Animotion), talented arranger Reese Mashburn, director Allen Nause, and a crack band including Wadhams, Tom Grant, Paul Trubachik, Martin Zarzar, and Charles Pike, it tells the unlikely tale of the only rock festival ever sponsored by a U.S. state government – Vortex 1, which Gov. Tom McCall agreed to back in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam antiwar movement, to lure potential protestors away from downtown Portland and a massive march by American Legion national conventioneers. The Devil lost the bet. “The festival, really, musically was a bust,” Mach pointed out. “They were going to get Santana and other big acts, and none of those people showed up. … The play isn’t about the festival. The play is about how you get to the festival.” It even includes a number, sung by actors playing McCall and his sidekick Ed Westerdahl, called Political Suicide.

*

OF COURSE, THERE ARE ALWAYS VAMPIRES, as many an observer of politics has long suspected. Karin Polinsky’s Fly Away, Breath, actor Katy Philp declared, is “a political vampire comedy,” with a dark undercurrent, taking place “at the intersection of vampire myth and anti-Semitism.” An aspiring comedian, Hollywood, and a Pennsylvania coal mine with an ancient curse get in on the action. What could it mean: Fossil fuels sucking the lifeblood of the planet, perhaps?

*

IF NOT VAMPIRES, PERHAPS GHOSTS. David Fuks goes a long way back in Portland theater, and his new play Invisible Friend sounds more than intriguing. “I first wrote the piece as a novella in 2016,” he said, and now he’s adapting it for the stage. An eight-actor show, “mostly from the Hispanic community,” it tells the tale of Luna Gomez, who was 3 years old when her 9-year-old sister Alma died in an accident while saving Luna’s life. For more than 20 years Alma has been “haunting and protecting” Luna, who’s been navigating her parents’ unresolved grief over Alma’s death. Jane Unger, who founded Profile Theatre, directs the bilingual reading at Milagro; translations are woven into the play.

*

TIME FOR ANOTHER PUPPET BREAK – and, like Leaven Dreams’ The Magic Fish, another tale of the sea. This one, from Whorls of Wonder Puppet Theater, is called Terran’s Aquarium, and it arrives on dry land with impressive credentials: It’s partly funded by the Jim Henson Foundation, and has previously been workshopped, at Jane Henson’s invitation, in New York. It’s “a family ecological show,” said its creator, Mary Hildebrand Nagler, that uses Czech puppetry techniques to tell a tale of the world’s rising freshwater crisis. Plumber Andy and his magic pipe wrench put in a lesson-teaching appearance, and who besides the current official dismantlers of the Environmental Protection Agency could object to that?

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Writer-about-town S. Renee Mitchell. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

BEFORE THE OFFICIAL FREE-FOR-ALL BEGAN I spent a little time chatting and catching up with S. Renee Mitchell, the performer/director/teacher/writer and all-around community force who was my colleague for several years when she was a columnist for The Oregonian. Her newest project is Three by Ten & More, readings of three 10-minute plays presented by PassinArt at Self Enhancement, Inc.: Love Me Right, about a Valentine’s Day encounter; Blood Is Thicker Than Color, about a Native American family during slavery; and Shaping of an Avalanche, about the aftermath of a bullied high school girl’s suicide. They promise to be provocative. As Mitchell puts it: “Words have power. Choose them wisely.”

Mitchell is also the producer and director of Resiliency in Rhythm. Subtitled A Phantasmagoria of  Youth Storytelling, Dance, Art & Other Creative Expressions, it’s conceived and performed by students in Mitchell’s organization I Am M.O.R.E., telling their own stories.

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ANOTHER STUDENT-LED SHOW, this one devised with Hand2Mouth Theatre, is Rough Riders, created by acting students at Roosevelt High School, and it doesn’t shy from the tough topics. Hand2Mouth, which is in the midst of a year’s residency at Roosevelt, started working with 18 acting students in September, co-director Jenni Green Miller said, and the students chose the subject they wanted to address: school shootings, survivor guilt, the politics of guns. As Green Miller noted, “This is happening everywhere.” Seems a good idea to listen to the young people who enter the school doors every day.

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“AND IT’S TOO LATE, BABY NOW, it’s too late,” the great Carole King (children, ask your parents) famously sang, and Mary Rose seems to have taken the message to heart. Rose conceived the new show Too Late!, directed it with Sean Bowie, and created it with Bowie and the exquisitely named Portland Action Theatre Ensemble, or PATÉ. It’s “a show about regret,” Rose said, with a six-actor ensemble, “almost like a Greek chorus. Some comedy, some drama. It can get pretty intense.” The show’s postcard spells thing out a little more: “”We’re navigating the murky sea of regret and loss through a fusion of theatre, movement, music and imagery. We’re probing the chocolatey center of the human condition.” Here’s to the chocolatey center. Long may it thrive.

Mary Rose’s “Too Late”: comedy, drama, a Greek chorus. Photo: Sean Bowie

*

ON THE WAY UP THE ELEVATOR to the mezzanine at The Armory I ran into playwright Bonnie Ratner and actor Jason Glick, who stars in her new play Blind. It’s already opened at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie, and I caught it over the weekend: It’s worth your time. It’s set in Brooklyn and on Long Island in 1967, in the season of national race riots that sparked the Kerner Report on racism in America, and is based in part on Ratner’s memories of the place and time. A Jewish store owner (Glick) who locks his shop doors out of fear in a mostly Black Brooklyn neighborhood is drawn into a relationship with a Black schoolteacher (Andrea White) and her son (Blake Stone).

*

THE LONGTIME TEAM of Tobin Gollihar and Ian Paul Sieren is back for its sixth straight appearance at Fertile Ground (and 16th full two-act show together), this time with the comedy Dearly Departed, a vastly more succinct title than last year’s puckishly epic Men in Comfortable Pants at the Hi-falutin’ Pomegranate Hotel. The comedy’s a little darker this time round, too, Gollihar said: It involves a mom who runs away from home, a son who drops out of college, and a dad who “idly contemplates which coffin is best suited for burying the tattered remains of a life built on lies.” Yes, it’s a comedy.

*

AJAI TRIPATHI DROPPED BY to talk about his solo show Osho Returns, one of PDX Playwrights’ string of offerings at Hipbone Studio. It’s about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian guru whose followers flocked to the Oregon desert town of Antelope in the 1980s, renamed it Rajneeshpuram, and roiled up the locals. The Bhagwan collected Rolls-Royces, and his deputy Ma Anand Sheela was convicted of attempting to poison citizens of The Dalles and other crimes. In his play, Tripathi seems to take a more benign view of the Bhagwan, or Oshi, himself. “I’m channeling him, the best I can,” he said. Or, as the Fertile Ground program puts it, “Taking refuge in a local actor, Osho will return once more to speak of his life and his truth.”

*

ANOTHER PDX PLAYWRIGHTS WRITER, Katie Bennett, talked up two of her Fertile Ground projects: Suicide in the Garden, part of the Daisy Dukes Shorts program, and the longer Jephthah’s Daughter, in which a time traveler goes back to “an imaginary place, where men and women are equal,” in ancient Mesopotamia. It reimagines two sacrifice stories: The traveler meets and befriends Isaac on the day of his intended sacrifice by his father Abraham; and fears that, with the destruction of Yahweh’s feminine counterpart, Asherah, she’ll be sacrificed by her own warmongering father, Jephthah.

And writers Brad Bolchunos and Lisa Collins stopped by to talk about yet another PDX Playwrights entry, 5×3: A Collection of Short Plays, which includes five plays written by them and Nicky Nicholson-Klingerman. One of them, Collins’ Lunch Room, is a romantic comedy about two women trapped in the lunch room of a corporate office.

*

AARON WHEELER-KAY, A LONGTIME MAINSTAY at Echo Theater, which creates aerial and acrobatic performance, talked about Echo’s Interplay, two weekends of workshop programs with seven pieces total of about 20 minutes each. The shows will feature dance, video, music, physical theater, and more, and focus on movement by performers from a variety of marginalized communities. “We’ve been working a lot with disabled actors,” he said.

*

A glimpse of the crowd at media night. That’s Samson Syharath, author of “8-24-9 (Secret Asian Man),” in the green shirt. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

WHILE I WASN’T LOOKING, actor and writer Samson Syharath or a surrogate for him slipped a card onto my table for his work-in-progress 8-24-9 (Secret Asian Man), a movement piece exploring the dual identities of being Laotian American. He’ll be collaborating with the Vietnamese American choreographer and dancer Minh Tran – a formidable uniting of talent. Another mysterious arrival via flyer touted writer/director David Wagstaff’s Sweet Iago: Soldier of Beauty, in which the Shakespearean universe is hurled forward to the year 2050, Iago is the chief strategist for the Pentagon who’s being replaced by the robot Cassia (she’s beautiful), and the arts of war and iambic pentameter mix into the equation.

*

OTHER PROJECTS ALSO RETHINK, revisit, or update history. Linestorm Playwrights’ Matthew Miller gets all cozy-murdery with a fresh adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first Hercule Poirot mystery. Experience Theatre Project’s Alisa Stewart gives a twist to Robert Louis Stevenson with her fluid, audience-immersive, and already opened The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: “We’re taking a Victorian story and making it dirty, basically, by placing it in the Wild West. There’s a sense of lawlessness, and yet hope.” And The Roosevelts’ Women, by Thomas and Craig Mason with Annie Leonard, is just that: a play about the various affairs of FDR and Eleanor.

*

“I GROW OLD … I GROW OLD … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Or so T.S. Eliot lamented in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Well, so we all do, if we last long enough. Writer and performer Johanna Courtleigh talked about her solo show Olding, four monologues about the body wearing out, with perspectives ranging from a refugee and caregiver in a retirement facility to a Jewish man in his 90s, looking back on his life on Atonement Day.

Theresa Carmody’s Syncopation, at Deep End Theatre, is about a couple who’ve been married 60 years, their two grown children, and something of a theatrical plunge off the … well, the deep end. It’s an improvised play, performer Kari Smit said: “The beginning of the play will be the same each night,” and then diverge as different memories crop up and suggest different responses. Like life itself, it seems, the play has a theme but is unpredictable in how things play out.

Dawn Bonder, director of Josh Metzger’s Sitting Shiva, sat down to talk about another look at aging. Three brothers come together to sit shiva for their father, whose death prompts deep discussions about relationships and family and their different views on what things are actually like. The play, in the festival program’s words,  “explores the questions that come at the end of life: for those dying and those who live on without them.”

Charla Hathaway had a decidedly different take on the topic of aging: She strode up to my table with a ukulele in her hands and enthusiastically started singing a song about having sex in her 20s. Nostalgia? She’s close to 70 now, and still talking, freely, about sex. “Grandma’s surprising Sexual Renaissance leads to risk, lust and healing in the Oldest Profession,” the postcard for her solo show Naked at My Age proclaims. In the show she talks about the one-year “marriage sabbatical” she proposed at age 50, and how it led to “new erotic territory,” an initiation into sex work, and “an unexpected profession – teaching empowered sexuality, writing books and leading international workshops on erotic play.”

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BRENDAN RAMSEN CALLS HIS NEW “physical comedy meets scenic art” solo show Box-in-the-Jack: a transdimensional mid-life real estate, and if you’re not quite sure what that means, well, that’s the way the little ball bounces. “It’s about a toy jack come to life in a landfill,” Ramsen explained. He calls himself a “’world’-renouncing monk of unreason” who “emerges in a no-place place where everything is real and nothing is true.” Hop on, if you dare. Might be just what Dr. Who ordered.

*

The miscreant sinks her claws into the mystery hand. Photo: Laura Grimes

FINALLY, I WOULD LIKE TO EXPRESS MY DEEP REGRET over the affair of the dismembered hand. It’s a yellow felt-y thing, complete with four fingers and a thumb, but severed at the wrist. It came attached to a press release that, at the end of media night, I gathered into a stack with 683,427 other press releases (all right; I do exaggerate), carried home, and plopped into a pile on my desk. The next morning I discovered Alice the Intolerable, Terror of the Household, stretched up high on her tippy-paws, batting away at the yellow hand, which was sticking out from the pile and threatening, as she whacked it, to bring the whole stack tumbling down. Carefully I de-attached the yellow hand from its intended paper and lobbed it onto the floor, where Alice happily pounced on it and began a rousing game of solo field hockey. Then I made myself a cup of coffee.

Later, as I sat down to work, I realized that I’d lost track of which press release the yellow hand had been attached to. Why was it there? What did it mean? Did it have something to do with a puppet? – I can only hope. At any rate, to the presumably inanimate amputee who made this great sacrifice in what turns out to have been in vain, I apologize deeply for my carelessness. I’m sure Alice, if she ever gets around to it, will convey her thanks. In the meantime, let’s give Fertile Ground whatever hand we have at hand: Let the scramble begin.

3 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Louise Beaudreau says:

    Keep informed where, when specific acts tone performed

    • Bob Hicks says:

      Hi Louise, thanks for bringing this up. You can find all of the time/date/place information on the shows listed here by clicking the highlighted links on the shows mentioned. The links will take you to specific information about each show. The entire calendar of events is accessible from the first link to the festival, near the beginning of the story.

  2. Thanks so much for the shout out to PCTG’s reading of Andrea Stolowitz’s Recent Unsettling Events. PCTG has recently committed to focusing on bringing new plays by Portland area playwrights to our audiences. This year our season features three new plays from Portland, and next year we go to four. This is a very exciting time for us, and we really appreciate the support. Submissions for next year’s PCTG 2021 New Play Award open Feb 1. We hope that playwrights from the Portland Metro area will take a look at our submission guidelines and send us something to read! http://www.portlandcivictheatreguild.org

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