RIGHT ABOUT NOW EVERY YEAR FOR THE PAST ELEVEN YEARS before 2021 the hustle and bustle’s hit performance spaces large and small in Portland and environs – an energetic outpouring of new work at just about every stage of development, from first reading to workshop to staged reading to full-blown premiere production. In an ordinary year the Fertile Ground festival of new works presents more than 100 pieces of theater, dance, film, and other performance, by Oregon artists, from first-timers and unknowns to projects from the biggest performance companies in town. It’s been a creative free-for-all, predictable in its unpredictability, a sprawling mega-event in which you never know what you’re going to see next, and that’s a very big part of the fun.
This year, of course, is far from ordinary – and so, Fertile Ground 2021 is far from ordinary, too. You might say it’s breaking new ground, which might be as fertile as the old, but in very different ways. Fertile Ground opens today – Thursday, Feb. 28 – and continues through Feb. 7 entirely online, with a lineup that’s both curated and vastly reduced: thirty-six projects, all created to be streamed online, making their debuts over the run of the festival and available to view on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube channels through Feb. 15. Streaming the shows is free, although the festival is happy to accept donations.
In Fertile Ground 2021: Digital seedlings sprout, Bennett Campbell Ferguson gives the lowdown on what to look forward to and how things are working in this most unusual of pandemic-defined years. He talks at length with festival director Nicole Lane, who essentially had to spearhead a reinvention of the festival to meet the challenges of the time. “I don’t know what bee was in my bonnet, but I saw it,” she told Ferguson. “I saw the possibilities.” And here, now, we are. Welcome to Fertile Ground online.
- INTERACTIVE COOKIES AND SCARES. In the first of several reports by several writers over the run of the festival, Ferguson takes a look at two early projects – Elsa Dougherty and Rachel Wells’s interactive Fold in Gently, in which performers and audience alike make chocolate chip cookies as they chat about all sorts of foody things; and The Reformers’ RE: Lilith Lopez, “an impressively bizarre augmented reality game.”
LOOKING AT PICTURES: THE HUMANS IN THE FRAME
ARTSWATCH’S WRITERS HAVE BEEN SPENDING A LOT OF TIME LATELY looking at paintings and photographs and sculptures and installations, trying to discover not only what’s aesthetically “good” or “bad” about them, but perhaps more importantly, what they reveal about the culture at large and the people who shape it with their passions and flaws and actions and beliefs.
What, for instance, of the people who’ve been taking to the streets in protest during this divisive and politically explosive time? In Portrait of both sides: An interview with a protest photographer, Blake Andrews talks with journalistic photographer Rian Dundon, who’s been shooting protests in Oregon for more than a year, from Black Lives Matter and anti-ICE gatherings to Proud Boys meetups and post-election “Stop the Steal” rallies. It’s a fascinating inside look at images and messages. “I don’t know if protest should be viewed or valued only in terms of what it accomplishes,” Dundon tells Andrews. “The act itself is enough. It’s a confrontation, and that has value as a disruption of the status quo.”
RIVA WOLF: UNDER A BLACK CLOUD, A BRIGHT PALETTE EMERGES. David Bates tells the story of the life and art of the stylistically restless painter, who died last fall at age 87, and whose works are on view in a retrospective exhibition at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Wolf’s art seemed irrevocably tied to the life around her: She was born in Poland in 1933, daughter of a rabbi, survived the Holocaust (much of her family did not), and eventually, after the war, found her way to the United States. Her art ranges from starkly social-realist wartime images to colorful, Fauvist-influenced paintings.
BODILY LIMITATIONS RECAST: PANTEHA ABARESHI AND KAYLEY BEREZNEY. If art is an expression of the artist’s experience in the world, the exhibition NO SANCTUARY at Portland’s Fuller Rosen Gallery is fully engaged in the process, revealing sophisticated art created from very particular experiences. “In both artists’ works, the body becomes more dynamic and versatile—not despite the limitations of disability, but because of them,” Lindsay Costello writes. “Neither artist shies away from the fear, isolation, and rapid changes they face as artists with health challenges. Abareshi has Sickle Cell Beta Zero Thalassemia, a genetic condition causing debilitating chronic pain. Her videos feel urgent in their response to this lived experience; they’re severe and coarse, but that atmosphere provides penetrating insight into the dynamics of power and powerlessness within bodily perception. Berezney’s experience with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer is unveiled in her sculptures, which feel like stand-ins for bodies in recovery. They’re enticing, but also feel heavy, fatigued.”
“OUR DIVERSITY IS OUR STRENGTH.” This photographic exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery brings together a variety of “ordinary” people – a ballerina, an artist with an alter ego, a family of Jewish refugees on a train, kids playing at home while their mom works, a psychiatrist forced out of his homeland, Black Lives Matter marchers, a vineyard worker, a winemaker, a chef, and more – and celebrates the vast diversity in what they have in common: All are immigrants or children of immigrants, and all have stories to tell. “We must find a way to first, always see the humanity in each other,” the curators Paige Stoyer and Jim Lommasson write in their exhibition statement. “It is the only way we will start to heal the deep wounds and divisions in this country.”
ARTSWATCH WELCOMES DMAE ROBERTS AND “STAGE & STUDIO”
ARTSWATCH WELCOMES DMAE ROBERTS. As far as we’re concerned here at ArtsWatch, the best news of the week is that Dmae Roberts, the veteran Oregon broadcast journalist, playwright, performer, writer, and producer, will be joining us as a regular contributor. Beginning February 23 we’ll be hosting her podcast Stage & Studio, which has been heard on KBOO-FM community radio, and on which, over 23 years, she’s interviewed more than 1,000 working artists in the theater and other disciplines. We’ve known and admired Dmae’s work for many years, and are thrilled to add her voice. In addition to helping us expand our coverage into podcasting, she’ll also strengthen ArtsWatch’s commitment to telling stories from all cultures. Her projects with ArtsWatch will be, in her words, “especially focused on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) artists and arts.” On a personal note, I’ll add that among her many other skills, Roberts is a highly talented editor, a point brought home to me after she did a long-distance interview with me last year during pandemic time: Once it was broadcast, all of my hems and haws and pauses that had had me wincing during the interview had magically disappeared, and the show sailed smoothly on.
AT THE FLICKS: A NIGHT IN MIAMI & MORE GOOD PIX
STREAMERS: “ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI” PLUS MUCH MORE. In a time of pandemic shutdowns and shrunken production possibilities, movie extravaganzas are in short supply. But great movie options to see at home aren’t, Marc Mohan declares in his latest “Streamers” column. He spotlights One Night in Miami, Regina King’s fascinating movie that puts Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke, football great Jim Brown, and a pre-Muhammad Ali Cassius Clay together in a Miami motel. When you’ve finished that, Mohan has several other likely suspects rounded up for you, among them the art-house thriller Always Shine.
THEATER: AT CENTER STAGE, NEW STORIES IN THE MAKING
TELLING TALES OF HERE AND NOW. Get ready for some new stories somewhere down the line – maybe even, eventually, inside an actual theater. Portland Center Stage at The Armory, the city’s biggest theater company, has just commissioned new works from four prominent playwrights: Brittany K. Allen, whose Redwood had its world premiere at PCS in 2019; Portland-based Anya Pearson, whose critically lauded short play Three Love Songs was commissioned by PCS at the beginning of the pandemic for the national Play at Home series; San Franciscan Christopher Chen, whose play Caught was produced in Portland by Artists Rep in 2017; and Christina Anderson, who’s had her plays How To Catch Creation and pen/man/ship produced in Oregon, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Playhouse respectively. The commissions are part of Center Stage’s PCS Remix project.
TAKING REFUGE IN A “SACRED SPACE.” Shaking the Tree, the small and innovative company producing in a Southeast Portland warehouse space, has had a long association with the art of ritual and the possibilities of a theater suffused with striking visual images. Opening Saturday and continuing through April 24, the company will be presenting Refuge, a sort-of live production in which small groups of up to five people in the same pod can enter the space and be surrounded by an installation of 11 large painted panels and a soundscape, each panel representing a goddess or sacred feminine principle. The company commissioned a writer/performer for each panel, and it’s a talented group, including, among others, Lauren Modica, Anthony Hudson, Josie Seid, Nicole Accuardi, and Sara Jean Accuardi. Enter at your own risk, and with all precautions: You won’t be in (distanced) contact with anyone but a stage manager and a box office person. What will happen in the encounter is a bit of a mystery. But Shaking the Tree has a long and excellent track record with the mysterious, too.
THE BERLIN DIARIES. Andrea Stolowitz’s very good play, which premiered in Berlin in 2016 and had its Portland premiere the following spring at Hand2Mouth in a fine production starring Erin Leddy and Damian Kupper, is now available through June as an audio drama from Artists Repertory Theatre, where Stolowitz is the Lacroute Playwright-in-Residence. This time around it stars Miriam Schwartz and Michael Mendelson. It’s a fascinating and potent personal detective story in which Stolowitz follows her family history back to Berlin based on clues left in her German Jewish great-grandfather’s journal after he escaped to New York in 1939. As we wrote in ’17, “The past comes forward in recurring waves, touching futures as they unfold.”
ERMA BOMBECK: AT WIT’S END. Times like this need a lot of things, and one of them is good escapist entertainment. (Cue television’s Bridgerton and its 82 million households served so steamily so far.) Triangle Productions is an experienced hand at such things, and Erma Bombeck, for years one of America’s most popular wits, is an excellent subject. That she’s being played by Helen Raptis, who’s starred at Triangle in such previous fare as 5 Lesbians Eating Quince and I’ll Eat You Last (no, this isn’t dinner theater), is a bonus. Starts online on Thursday and stays available through Feb. 13
STONE SOUP, THE MUSICAL. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Lakewood Theatre presents a livestreamed production, performed entirely on Zoom, of a musical you can eat right up. Let the company describe it: “The musical is an adaptation of the folk story of the same name. A traveler named Alex stumbles upon a city made entirely of stones where its citizens have been taught by their evil Mayor to trust no one and fear everything. Alex unites the citizens to work together and teaches them to confront their fears, by convincing them to help him cook his world-famous recipe for stone soup.” Pass the pepper, please, and a saltine or two.
THEATER TEKKIES TO THE RESCUE? Stage managers and tekkies are, of course, the unsung heroes of the theater world (could someone get to work on composing that song?) – and maybe for the bigger world, too. The Hollywood Reporter writes that IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, has offered its services to the new administration “to contribute to building or converting vaccination sites across the country,” so that when inoculations are finally available for most people, we’ll have a place to get them. Memo to the White House: These people know how to repurpose and build, and turn a project around on a dime. And presumably they’d go first to the places that need the help most.
AFTER THE ECHO MOUNTAIN FIRE, A HELPING HAND
GRANTS HELP COASTAL ARTISTS REBUILD AFTER ECHO MOUNTAIN FIRE. The 2020 wildfire season was devastating across the West, destroying communities and forests in what was both an environmental and an economic disaster. Among the fires’ many victims were artists, some of whom saw their work and even their homes go up in flames. Among the damage was the early September Echo Mountain Complex Fire, which burned roughly 2,500 acres, destroying 300 homes and hundreds of other buildings in and around the little town of Otis, near Lincoln City. The damage hit several artists hard, Lori Tobias reports, and the Lincoln City Cultural Center, with aid from the Oregon Community Foundation, stepped in with money to help 11 local artists get back on their feet.
REMEMBERING CLORIS LEACHMAN, 94
CLORIS LEACHMAN, THE TERRIFIC FILM, TELEVISION, AND STAGE ACTOR, died on Tuesday in Encinitas, California, of natural causes, at age 94. She was probably best-known for her recurring role as the neurotic yet oddly lovable Phyllis on television’s Mary Tyler Moore Show and then her own spinoff series, Phyllis, but she was utterly brilliant in a number of memorable movie roles, in which she displayed a fierce and often funny intelligence and a broad acting range. She was an actors’ actor, someone you could, and if you were smart would, learn from.
When I read of her death I remembered a long-ago conversation I’d had with her, and then looked up what I’d written about it, in a 2014 column that began with a reminiscence of Mickey Rooney after he had died at age 93. What follows is a memory of a memory, capturing just a little sense of the admirable things that made her tick:
“Cloris Leachman, whom I revered for The Last Picture Show and Young Frankenstein, came through town in a stage show about Grandma Moses, and while the show clearly was important to her, it also clearly wasn’t working very well. Like [Jerry Lewis, who had spent forty minutes on the phone arguing over my review of a touring production of the musical Damn Yankees in which he was playing the Devil], she called me the next morning. Unlike Lewis, she didn’t want to vent. She wanted to talk. What wasn’t working in the show? What was missing? What didn’t come across? What was working? She was interviewing me, I realized, and her questions were a working theater person’s questions. I’m wrestling with this thing. I’m not sure about it. I’m looking for a way in. In the end, the show never did click in. But it wasn’t because Leachman didn’t try. She was immersed in the craft of the thing, an actor in the honest and admirable sense.” Good night, and thanks for the memories.
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