For the past ten years, Fertile Ground has been the most dynamic event of the Portland theater season. For eleven days the city is engulfed in theater that is by turns thrilling, preposterous, fantastic, raw, hilarious, scary, brutal, inconsistent, challenging, and courageous – sometimes all at once. For these eleven days, good or bad, professional or not, polished almost never, audiences encounter theater at its most honest, vital and perhaps even important — or dangerous.
There is the opportunity, at Fertile Ground, to see something magical. There is also a chance to see something that is totally raw and unfinished, or even just bad. And then there are the myriad stages in between. It’s new work. Anything can happen. What Fertile Ground provides is the opportunity to be present at the exact moment that the spell is being cast.
FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL 2019
Few moments in life bridge the gap between the magical and the mundane like the act of creation. Inspiration, where it comes from and why, is a mystery that borders on the supernatural. But getting from inspiration to actualization demands discipline and hard work. Sometimes hard work is encapsulated in the nuts and bolts, the rolling-your-sleeves-up and getting-your-hands-dirty. Other times, hard work can mean recognizing what’s holding you back – and then overcoming it.
Where does inspiration come from? What drives the artists to do what they do, to make what feel they have to make? I talked to a handful of the myriad creators in Fertile Ground, and without a doubt, certain themes came up that are driving this year’s festival. The socio-cultural divide in the country, building bridges, listening, fear of the other, the need for connection and the lack of it. Over and over again, what is driving the art is a need not just to be heard, but to listen and to not be afraid of voices that are different from yours.
For Jessica Wallenfels, the leader of Many Hats Collaboration, her work is “a response to the times that we’re in, since Trump has been elected. It feels like there’s a lot of urgency to make sure that the underrepresented voices won’t be suppressed. The stakes are really high because we need to make sure that we’re not being silenced by the political forces that are happening right now.”
“I hope,” says Danielle Weathers of Chapel Theatre Collective, “to bring to the audience an interest in engaging and initiating conversation with people outside of their own easy range of scope, of principle.”
Laura Dunn, of Broken Planetarium, says, “I feel like above the political, above everything, I’m trying to think, ‘Is this human project worth it? Are we worth it? In this moment, when everything is going to shit and we are the plague of the planet, I want to find a way to ask that question and have the answer be ‘Yes.’” This seems to be the over-arching concern of the Fertile Ground Festival 2019.
Four years ago, Many Hats Collaboration produced the jewel of the 2015 Fertile Ground Festival, The Snowstorm, created and conceived by artistic director, Jessica Wallenfels, and her husband, composer and musician Eric Nordin. The Snowstorm was beautiful, dreamlike and virtuosic: an adult theatrical fairy tale based on Rachmaninoff’s music (which Nordin himself played). After that, what do you do for an encore?
Many Hats’ entry into this year’s Fertile Ground Festival is a world away from The Snowstorm. For Wallenfels, one of our most renowned theater artists, The Undertaking is an intensely personal work of art. In the years since 2015 much has changed. Wallenfels went to graduate school, and her mother passed away. It was a difficult time. “There are many times when you feel like you’re failing. At least I did. ‘Am I hurting her? I’m trying to care for her. She doesn’t want this. I feel like this is best for her.’ There’s so much push/pull in that relationship in that phase of your life. And this person is frail and failing and the last thing you want to do is hurt them. It’s really confusing.”
The Undertaking has a lot of Wallenfels’ story in it and is a powerful exploration of the mother/daughter relationship under these tragic circumstances. Initially, Wallenfels’ conception of what the piece was going to be was different. “I was convinced that I wanted to use a man because I needed a step removed. So, a father/daughter relationship. But when I did that I couldn’t grab on as much as I wanted to.”
“Grabbing on” required venting. “I did a lot of writing. I ended up writing five hundred pages. It was insane. I really needed to vomit a lot of my experience out there.” But by her own admission, Wallenfels is not a playwright. On the recommendation of close friend, Beth Thompson, she brought in Emily Gregory to help her pare down her experience to something that could be turned into a performance piece. “I turned to Emily as this playwright/dramaturg/devisor and I was like, ‘Here are my ideas. I have all of this writing. I could excerpt it for you.’ Gregory reassured Wallenfels: ‘You don’t have to send me excerpts. You can just send me the whole thing.’
For Wallenfels, Gregory was a godsend. “I can’t even believe my luck,” says Wallenfels today, “that she was available and said yes and wanted to do this project.” There was also the connection of loss. Gregory’s grandmother had passed away very recently.
With Gregory on board to take care of the words, Wallenfels could turn to what she does best, directing and choreography. “I’m not a writer,” she says, “but I do make dances.” To stand in as Wallenfels’ surrogate, she brought in close friend and collaborator Beth Thompson. “Beth is a monster in terms of being able to learn and ingest choreography — and act it.” Now she had to find a suitable actor to portray the mother. Damaso Rodriguez, artistic director of Artists Rep, helped Wallenfels find Joann Johnson. Along with the grace and Old Testament gravitas that Johnson brings to all of her work, she had the bonus of having a movement background, which was especially useful for a piece where she would be devising physically.
For the musical component, Wallenfels turned to another classical composer, Shostakovich: “Eric starts playing me Dmitri Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites.” What Wallenfels chose was a piano concerto that had been a requiem for a friend of the composer. “I listened to it and I saw the entire piece before my eyes.” Because of the nature of Wallenfels’ work, this piece is not that particular vision, but it gave her a leaping-off point. “It was all about taking an elder out of their home through various assisted, rehab and hospice institutions to the elder’s passing at the very end. It was written initially as a sort of requiem for a dear friend of Shostakovich’s on an individual scale, and then it is also thought of within the body of music literature as a giant requiem for the Jewish casualties of World War II. It’s definitely about death.”
Wallenfels then brought in the Northwest Piano Trio, Heather Mastel-Lipson, Hannah Hillebrand and Susan McDaniel. The collaboration was fortuitous in unexpected ways. Hillebrand had been a nurse. “She came in,” recalls Wallenfels, “and talked to the cast about what death looks like from a nursing perspective.” McDaniel, for her part, had recently lost her father.
Whereas The Snowstorm had come to Fertile Ground in world-premiere shape, The Undertaking is a workshop whose destiny is not simply to be performed in a theater. “I had always wanted to do Edinburgh tours and stuff like that,” says Wallenfels, “but this was the piece that I felt like I wanted to start building next and then I was like, ‘This piece doesn’t need to tour Edinburgh, it needs to tour Terwilliger Plaza, it needs to tour Holladay Park Plaza where my mom passed away. We need to take it to those places. The goal is to be able to bring The Undertaking to the communities that need it most. That would be elders, families, medical contacts, hospice care and assisted living. What I’m trying to do is put it up in a workshop, get some video, some documentary footage and hopefully be able to secure funding from other agencies and bring it to them.”
There is a companion piece that Many Hats is producing to go with The Undertaking – The Art of Aging. Actor, director, and deviser Camille Smicker “has not just compiled,” says Wallenfels, “but woven all of these verbatim responses into a play that is a choral reading of elders’ experiences of what it feels like to age, from their point of view. What are the things you gain? What are the things that you lose? It’s funny and sad and meditative and reflective. And it really feels like this is a group of people we don’t hear from that often.”
“It’s exactly those kinds of collaborations,” says Wallenfels, “and that kind of cross-pollenization of ideas that Many Hats is about.” The Undertaking is the first of the company’s Five in Five program, in which Wallenfels hopes to build a new piece, every year, for the next five years, building community partners each time. “I love ridiculous challenges,” she says, laughing.
Sirens of Coos Bay
If Wallenfels is one of the most renowned theater artists in Portland, Laura Dunn is probably one of the least well-known — unless you’ve been attending Fertile Ground the last few years. Dunn is the prime mover behind Broken Planetarium (the name comes from the irregular shape of the studio Dunn lived in in New York), a relatively new theater company in town. Dunn is a theater artist by trade if not by training. She started out as a folk singer in New York, where she sometimes wrote songs for a small theater company. Writing songs for the company turned into taking small roles on stage. “I’ve always loved theater,” she says. But that experience sealed the deal: It fully encapsulated what, theretofore, Dunn hadn’t even known she was missing. ““Music that tells a story,” she remembers thinking; “that’s what I want. I want it to be a whole world we’re creating.”
When she came back to Portland, she went through a difficult time with her brother, who was suffering from heroin addiction. Her first foray into Fertile Ground, The Snow Queen, was Dunn processing that experience.
Initially, as far as Dunn knew, that was going to be it: one and done. But once the project was over, her close friend and collaborator Maggie Mascal asked her, “What are we going to do next?” Dunn’s joking answer, as her eye landed on a classic tome on her bookshelf, was “Frankenstein — A Burlesque,” and she laughed. Laugh though she may, Mascal insisted, “We’re doing that.”
What followed was as singular a piece of theatre as Portland has seen in some time. If you saw it, it wasn’t quite like anything you’d ever seen before, whether you were a veteran theatergoer or not. Frankenstein: A Cabaret (as the piece evolved into) was a phantasmagoria of tropes and cliches turned upside down and inside out. There was a fishnet-wearing “Captain” (Mascal) who was the MC, and a pregnant Mary Shelley (the actually pregnant Dunn; her baby was born two weeks after their Clinton street run), folk songs, nudity, two monsters, and Phantom of the Opera masks, all filtered through a raw and profoundly feminine sensibility.
Much of Broken Planetarium’s impact is directly borne out of Dunn and company’s lack of theater pedigree. She is unbound by the conventions of mainstream theatre, the restrictive needs of the “well-made play” construct, or by anything resembling rules or guidelines for how you make a “good” play. The result is a challenging and refreshing brand of theater you won’t see anywhere else.
Broken Planetarium’s offering this year, Sirens of Coos Bay is, again, an original script by Dunn, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with original music by Dunn and her band of collaborators, and her maverick sensibility well intact. If anything, she’s doing what she does better than ever. Some of the writing is the most effortlessly poetic that she’s attempted, and much of the music is the most powerful and polished her band of merry misfits has yet put together.
All of Broken Planetarium’s shows have a mix of professional performers and nonprofessionals. This isn’t an accident. Dunn doesn’t hold auditions. The reason is simple. She doesn’t want to work with only actors. “I also want [Broken Planetarium productions] to be open to anyone who wants to do theater. I feel like if I hold auditions, it’s only gonna be actors and it intimidates everyone else. I wouldn’t audition for anything. I don’t know how to act,” she laughs. “But then non-actors end up being really able to access beautiful performances. Because we’re all storytellers.” This rawness brings with it a distinct shift in attitude that is undoubtedly refreshing and makes any Broken Planetarium piece unique.
But what really sets Broken Planetarium’s work apart is the mind of its creator. Sirens of Coos Bay’s inception came about during Broken Planetarium’s last production, Rosa Red. “I just could not sleep,” remembers Dunn. “I was delirious. It was 3 a.m. I had this weird, hallucinatory, insomnia vision of mermaids on all different levels of a stage, wearing rock t-shirts instead of seashells. I was like, ‘That’s weird.’ I went back to Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid later that week and I was like, ‘Oh my god. She can’t speak. She injures herself to become part of this world, to become part of the patriarchal world. But then she is silent in that. She can’t speak in the world. How does she navigate it? How does she claim any part of it? And I was like, ‘Oh it was a choice in the end. She chooses to participate in the patriarchy. She chooses to either commit this act of violence, killing the prince and saving herself, or she chooses to not participate in the patriarchy, not participate in a culture that is poisonous and not commit violence.” For Dunn, as well, the piece she envisioned had resonance in today’s world. “It feels like all the things that are happening right now are in this fairy tale. This fear of people who are not from this world. Like, ‘You don’t belong here. You’re not one of us.’ This is part of the national conversation we’re having right now of who belongs and who doesn’t? There are separate worlds; there is ocean and the land. We can cross borders. Sometimes you are told you don’t belong and you can claim a place for yourself.”
For Fertile Ground, this iteration of Sirens of Coos Bay is a staged reading with music, and the music is some of the best Broken Planetarium has produced. So, even within those parameters, Dunn’s goal of creating an entire world unto itself with music is achieved. But for Dunn, this reading “is our little try-out for an audience.” There will be a full production at Clinton Street Theatre in May. History suggests that both the reading and the full production, will be unlike anything you will see anywhere else.
The Tarot Show
For years Kate Mura has been one of the most multifaceted theatre artists in Portland. Her extensive skill set includes actor, deviser, writer, director, puppeteer, mask-maker, dancer, mover, carpenter, ground rigger and union stage hand.
Oh yes, and tarot card reader.
The beauty of theater is that it’s art written in the sand. Take the same play, cast, theater, even audience, and night to night the play will be different. Mura’s The Tarot Show takes this basic principle a step further.
The premise behind The Tarot Show is simple enough. “I wondered,” remembers Mura, “‘What happens when I give a tarot reading to an entire audience?’ I’ve been thinking for a while that I want to bring my magical and metaphysical work and my theatrical work more together. I’ve done that in some ways in the past.”
Mura’s been reading tarot for twenty-two years. It’s as much a part of how she identifies herself as any of the other skills she possesses. But giving a tarot reading to a group? No research she had done turned up anyone trying it before. “Nobody’s heard of it,” says Mura. “I’ve heard of tarot being used as part of devising processes. I’ve heard of tarot being used as inspiration for characters. I’m aware of the Living Tarot, which is more like an oracle. I would be the Queen of Swords and people would come and ask the Queen of Swords questions. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard of giving a large group tarot reading. I’ve done couple readings, I’ve done trios, but this is the first time I’ve done a group.”
And that is everything that The Tarot Show is. Mura, sitting at a table with her cards on one side, and the audience on the other. When the audience members enter, each is given a different playing card. “I have a beautiful glass bowl that has a triple-goddess that was etched by a friend of mine in the Spiral Grove Coven. I’ll pull a card from that and it might be the three of clubs. Whoever has the three of clubs comes up and picks the first card from the tarot deck. Then say, I draw the seven of hearts. Whoever has the seven of hearts will then come up and draw the second card. There will be audience flow in that way, until all seven cards are up, and then the reading will happen. Then depending on what the cards have to say and the conversation that happens, I’ll feel out whether more cards will be chosen or if people from the audience who have a specific question can come up and choose another card.”
There is also an educational element to The Tarot Show. Each card has a story, as does the deck itself. Mura’s deck is a Waite-Smith tarot deck – that is, a deck whose illustrations were created by a black woman named Pamela Colman Smith in the early 20th century. The Waite-Smith deck (or Rider-Waite or Rider-Waite-Smith) is one of the most influential and widely used tarot decks in North America. Thus, Colman Smith’s contribution to tarot is substantial, but the world being what it is, her contribution had been largely erased from history. Recently there has been a movement to acknowledge Colman Smith’s contribution, and Mura makes sure to acknowledge and educate her audiences about Colman Smith at every reading.
Though Mura is an experienced performer, performing is not necessarily her MO with The Tarot Show. “I’m not trying to perform for people,” she says. “What I’m doing is, I’m giving a tarot reading for the entire audience, and stories and myths. Performance and show would put up that fourth wall.” And not having a fourth wall is essential to the work that Mura does. She needs to be open to the audience’s energy, and they need to be open to hers and each other’s. To achieve this, the audience’s energy is shaped within the tarot ritual. “The cards themselves are not positive or negative,” says Mura. “All of that comes from the audience themselves. Depending on the energetic space that each individual audience member brings to the table, there’s a great potential for transformation within themselves or not. But it’s not something that I’m trying to force or put out there. My intention is to read the cards and to share the stories that the cards want to share.”
The Bad Hour
Karen Polinsky is new to Portland, new to Oregon, but in the year or so since she arrived she’s felt welcomed with open arms. “Portland is a really creative place,” she says. “Everyone is so interested in your ideas.” She joined PDX Playwrights, and in the brief time she’s been with them she’s already moved into an administrative position, even becoming editor of their newsletter. Last year Polinsky contributed a one-act play, Contraband, to the Fertile Ground Festival. Contraband was based on an odd little true story that didn’t have a lot of attention in the news. The Bad Hour, Polinsky’s contribution to this year’s Fertile Ground, has no such humble beginnings, especially in Oregon.
“Even before the (Ammon) Bundy take-over of Malheur (Wildlife Refuge) in 2016,” says Polinsky, a native New Yorker, “right around this time of year, I was really fascinated by the Bundys and what they call the sovereign citizens movement. I think I was interested in it because it seemed like the white pride they expressed really resonates with the cowboy myth and a kind of western war. I think they’re really great PR people. They use our mythology really, really well. So when they talk about cattle and the prairies and the American dream and the maverick cowboys and independence I think more people hear that in a positive way than we might realize in Portland. Because in more liberal enclaves people are just like, ‘Those Bundy brats are crazy.’”
Whether or not they’re “crazy”, per se, Polinsky is positive there’s a method to their madness. “One of their members, LaVoy Finicum, who was a master of media, went there in order to be shot and make a last stand. If you watch LaVoy Finicum and you watch videos of him, you’re drawn to the guy. If you turn off the TV and you think about it, you really wonder about his arguments. But as long as the TV’s on and he’s talking to you in that smooth voice, and looking you in the eye with his cowboy hat, I think he’s a very compelling person. What’s scary about them, too, is they come from a so-called Christian perspective, so they also use a language of love. The whole thing can really make your head spin.”
With her script, The Bad Hour, Polinsky seeks to put a human face on a people and a movement that might not otherwise seem to have one. “As much as I don’t have any sympathy for their politics,” Polinsky says, “I do have sympathy for them as humans. I get criticized for that. A lot of people have told me, ‘Don’t do this. You’re wrong.’” Polinsky however, feels that humanizing the bad guy is essential if the country hopes to bridge the huge schism that divides it. “I’m really influenced by Camus, the existentialist writer. He makes a big distinction between judging people, and judging what they do and what they think and what they say. All of their behaviors and their speech can be really destructive, and those should be judged, but he just withholds this little piece of – ‘Can I really know another human being so thoroughly that I can say that that’s an evil person?’ I guess I just hold back from that. That’s important to me.”
For instance, one of Polinsky’s characters is based on Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. “One of the characters is a white militia guy. He tells his history and a lot of the details of his history come from Timothy McVeigh’s history and it’s a sad story, honestly. One of the things he says is that he went to combat and one of his first days in combat he decapitated an enemy troop with a cannon. That actually happened to Timothy McVeigh. I think his soul got messed up in the military. It was destroyed. I know what he did with the Oklahoma City bombing is terrifying and awful and terrible but I couldn’t help but feel something for that guy as well. I know a lot of people think I’m really out there for saying that.”
For her research, Polinsky went to Burns, Oregon. “When I went to Malheur,” she says, “I listened to a lot of very conservative talk radio. The thing that strikes me is that our country is so divided. People who believe in the Bundys and believe in their arguments really believe in them. People who don’t, don’t. We’ve got this big divide. I’m interested in crossing that divide.”
To that end, The Bad Hour is not meant to be documentary theater. “Malheur sounds like ‘bad hour’ in French but that’s not really what it means. What The Bad Hour refers to is our political divide right now. I just wanted to get people who were extremely different, on the extreme ends of the spectrum, into a setting. They’re there for 24 hours, and it’s a pressure cooker, and make them deal with each other.” To that end, the main character of The Bad Hour is a young Paiute/Mexican woman. “In a lot of the coverage of the occupation, the Native American angle on land rights was really neglected. And that’s really important. I mean, we’re talking about land occupation and for the Paiutes of course, that happened hundreds of years before. They were moved and when they came back they were given basically a dump and it was a tiny, tiny portion of what they had been living in. And now they’ve rebuilt themselves and have bought up a lot of land. That was the original occupation that allowed the ranchers in.”
With the script being so new, Polinsky asked for and got a lot of input from her actors. “We read a draft of the play aloud and then afterwards I said, ‘I really want you guys to advocate for your characters. Strongly advocate. Believe in your character. Even if your character’s the white, militia guy. Advocate for his hurt and his sadness and his dark view of the world and his depression. Advocate for the lady on the bike whose wife has died and she feels like she’s the sandhill crane. Be her. Don’t judge them. Be them. Your character can judge the other characters, just not your own.’ Right away they had so many suggestions for me. It was a long list of things they didn’t like, or they wanted changed, or they wanted more of, or they wanted clarified. And I wrote everything down that they said. And I did everything that they told me to do. There wasn’t one suggestion that I didn’t take.”
Polinsky is afraid of backlash that might happen to her play, but she is resolute in her purpose: “We have to deal with our landscape and our human landscape. I just want to know what’s going on in my country.”
Friends with Guns
The Chapel Theatre Collective is one of the newest theater companies in town. There is always risk involved with any new theater company, but CTC, which is in Milwaulie, is on surer footing than most. It’s headed by some illustrious talent – Jason Glick, Danielle Weathers, Illya DeTorres, and Jacklyn Maddux – and they have their own space, called, naturally enough, the Chapel Theatre.
(They are not, however, synonymous. “Chapel Theatre Collective is the resident theater,” clarifies artistic director Glick, “but not the renting body, which is Chapel Theatre.”)
Friends with Guns will be CTC’s second show. Its first production was the poignant Anatomy of a Hug, last fall. For CTC, this first season’s theme is about the need for human connection — and what happens when we don’t get it. Friends with Guns is about the disconnect that’s going on over the national conversation around gun control, and how that affects individuals on a personal level.
Friends with Guns is Stephanie Alison Walker’s new play, and this production is one part of a “rotating world premiere.” What that means is that CTC does not have exclusive premiere rights. Friends with Guns will open here, and then, a little more than a month from now, it will premiere again at The Road Theatre Company in LA, and then it will premiere one more time at the Uprising Theatre in Minneapolis,(where it will be part of an entire season themed around the gun issue that also will include Oregon playwright EM Lewis’s The Gun Show.) This production is directed by DeTorres, and will run past Fertile Ground and into February.
During the production, Walker was very generous with the CTC crew, FaceTiming in for rehearsals and being available for answering questions. She will be in Portland for the opening of Friends with Guns, and will speak at the post-show discussions.
For all three CTC members, DeTorres, Glick and Weathers, the piece is a bit of a departure. All three identify as liberals. All three are against guns. Walker’s play, however, is not. “It really explores the middle ground,” says Glick, “and that both sides have their biases and both sides have their immovability. There’s nothing in the script that dictates a side.” Getting into the shoes of his character was a particularly difficult journey for the actor, who is known best, perhaps, for his access to his vulnerability. “I said no initially to the script,” remembers Glick, “and the reason was that the role I’m playing, the guy is so rigid in his beliefs and some of the stuff he says and reacts to, I found myself getting really mad at the script because it felt like a Facebook comments section.” Friends with Guns, he says, “holds a mirror to liberal self-righteousness. What does it take to hear the other side with respect and legitimacy?”
Weathers concurs: “This particular play for me rings very true because I, for most of my life, for lots of personal reasons and personal experiences, have been about as anti-gun as you can get. So much so, that in my own righteousness, I found that I had no sense of any other perspective than my own. I actually had a conversation with a dear friend who was like, ‘Well, isn’t that so adorable that you are so privileged that you would never have to entertain another perspective. That’s really interesting. Have you ever looked at that?”
Like his two stars, DeTorres has closely held opinions about guns. “I’m typically very one-sided on the gun issue. I do take a really strong stance on it.” But, according to Glick, it was also De Torres who insisted that their collective intransigence was the whole point. ‘Well, isn’t that why we should do it,” DeTorres had insisted, “to hold up that mirror?’ It’s a journey. It is scary.”
But this production is not just about liberal self-flagellation. CTC’s plan is more than preaching to the typical Portland theater audience/choir. Weathers and castmate Claire Rigsby, in preparation for Friends with Guns, learned how to shoot guns on a range. To do that, they developed a relationship with “a gun trainer who really knows his stuff.” Weathers shared the play with him and he admitted that a lot of his buttons were being pushed. Despite that, “he’s bringing a lot of people to see this play.” The post-show chats are critical, in Weathers’ mind, because “I want him to share his insights because I want to be respectful. We can disagree, but I just want to know that we can be roommates in a community.”
For Glick, Friends with Guns is not about one side convincing the other that how they see the world is right, but about the atmosphere in which the conversation is had; the how. “The tone we use to disagree,” says Glick, “and the way in which our arrogance about our position results in condescension and dismissal of the other,” is what the play addresses.
“In this divisive time, says Weathers, “I have dialed my principles up to eleven with where I stand on things. I’m so grateful for this play because it has required me to look in the mirror more closely and be more open to seeing the other side than I have been in a couple of years.”
One thing the CTC has learned is that gun owners, like pretty much any other population you can think of, tend to defy their stereotypes. “It’s really easy,” says Glick, “to go, ‘Oh, you’re a gun-owner; then you must be a Trump voter and you must be a redneck and a member of the NRA … and none of that is necessarily true. You can be a gun owner and also be a progressive from a socio-economic level as well.’
“For instance,” adds Weathers, “only 6-7 percent of all gun owners in the United States are members of the NRA.” For CTC, perhaps the primary goal for this project has been having their own horizons expanded, and they hope the same for the audience, whatever its political stance. “I hope,” says Weathers, “to bring to the audience an interest in engaging and initiating conversation with people outside of their own easy range of scope, of principle. I am developing a friendship with this person who shoots guns and teaches and trains organizations how to protect themselves. Never in a million years would I have imagined fostering a relationship with a gun-trainer. And I never would have if not for my involvement with this play.”
This self-reflection is important an important facet of the art that Chapel Theatre Collective is putting out there. “When I think of the plays that I want to produce,” says DeTorres, “and the art that I want to put out there, it all comes with a layer of social justice or some sort of change; for people to walk away with a conversation starter.” Certainly Friends with Guns seems to hit all those buttons.
Friends with Guns will have world-premiere performances at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31, Feb. 1, and Feb. 2; and 2 p.m. Feb. 3 in the Fertile Ground Festival. It will continue post-festival Feb. 9-16, with all performances at the Chapel Theatre, 4107 S.E. Harrison St., Milwaukie.
For as long as she can remember, Bonnie Ratner has been concerned with racial inequality in the United States. This goes back to her upbringing in Brooklyn, New York: “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t concerned with social justice. I guess I would call it fairness.” This commitment to social justice started in her grade school. Ratner was a baseball fan, and her team was the Brooklyn Dodgers. “They were this team that was the groundbreaker for race relations, for bringing people of color into sports, and they were always going up against the Yankees who to me just seemed like this team of bullies.”
Ratner’s father owned a shoe store in Brooklyn, where interaction with people who didn’t necessarily look like you was fairly common. Ratner considers herself a product of the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s. All of these influences have shaped her artistic sensibility and the work that comes out of it. She’s dedicated herself to activism in her civilian life, and exploring the nuances and pitfalls of race relations from a personal standpoint in her creative life.
Hazardous Beauty is a comedy about two women, Chloe and Leah, in their later years, who are taking a memoir-writing class together. The two women, one black and one white, “are charged with helping each other out, with critiquing each other’s work.” But there are certain parameters placed around how the women are supposed to do that. When they step around those parameters, critiquing of their work becomes critiquing of the other person’s life – and that leads to problems. Stereotypes are flipped, buttons are pushed, and mistakes are made. But over time, the two women find themselves with a greater understanding of the other’s humanity. “I had some fun with that, with both of them being awkward and holding each other accountable,” says Ratner. Because in the effort to create some space in the American landscape, everybody makes mistakes. “They play with what it means to become part of a system, and does that work if you want to change a system.”
For Ratner, Hazardous Beauty is “a convergence play.” That means, she says, “If you’re lucky, every few years you write a play that is a bucket for all the things you’ve been thinking about, with politics, with philosophy, how the world works, everything.” Hazardous Beauty posits a pretty elemental question about the human condition. “Can these two strangers, that are really different from each other find each other, see each other?” Ratner asks. The answer is neither simple nor definitive. But what Ratner seeks is to create a space of growing and of humor. ““Every relationship we have is with someone different from us. We’re all strangers to each to begin with. It’s worth it to invest the time. Being awkward is okay. When we did the reading at Profile, I was questioned at the end, as a white writer, how do I get to write parts for black women or black men, for that matter? I’m an author, I’m a writer, I write about the human condition. No one asked how I got to write a homeless person. It’s interesting what we assign to other people. The more conscious we become, the more comfortable we become with the fact that the truth is in the paradox.”
Twice before, Hazardous Beauty has been produced as a staged reading, once for Profile during its Tanya Barfield season, and once for Fertile Ground. This has provided Ratner with the opportunity to work on nuances in the play, “Anyplace where I felt like it wasn’t as clear as it could be, I’ve cleaned it up,” as well as simply getting better at her job: “I’ve spent a lot of time deepening my own craft.” After this run, she intends to start sending it out across the county.
This time, PassinArt, Portland’s oldest black theater company and one of the longest-running theatre companies in town, period, took over the producing. “I really have to thank Jerry Foster and Connie Carly. I’m really glad it’s being produced at PassinArt.”
Despite the complex themes and the potentially heavy subject matter, Ratner doesn’t want the audience to expect a civics lesson or a lecture. What she wants is something much more basic, and perhaps much more healing. “I want the audience to laugh their heads off, she says, laughing herself. “I want them to feel good when they leave. Yeah. Hopeful.”
Hazardous Beauty has remaining Fertile Ground performances at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1-2 and 3 p.m. Feb. 3, plus post-festival performances Feb. 8-16, at Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N. Interstate Ave.