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Oregon playwrights, seeding Fertile Ground

PDX Playwrights and LineStorm Playwrights help Oregon writers get their scripts onstage at the just-concluded annual festival of new works – and beyond.

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Director Melory Mirashrafi and LineStorm playwright E.M. Lewis at this year’s Fertile Ground Festival.

As its name suggests, Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, which just completed its return to live performance this weekend, provides a nurturing landscape for homegrown acts of stage creation.

But someone has to plant those seeds — the independent writers, directors, composers, performers and producers who create the art that brightens festival stages. Almost since the festival’s inception, a strong proportion of those works — maybe a third — have emanated from two producing organizations, LineStorm Playwrights and PDX Playwrights, which produce and/or present performances by their members, smoothing the path ’twixt page and stage by handling many of the non-writing aspects of putting on a show. This year, both organizations again produced festivals within the festival, collectively responsible for 20 productions that include several dozen plays, short and full-length. 

Both groups subscribe to a community playwriting model, in which playwrights guide each other’s journey through their original creations. While other producers of original Portland theater tend to emphasize experimental or ensemble-derived work, PDXP and LineStorm focus on the playwright,” says Portland playwright Matthew Miller, who’s participated in both organizations and serves as Oregon’s ambassador to the national Dramatists Guild. They’ve established unique and valuable niches in Portland’s theatrical ecosystem. 

Entry Ramp

Founded in 2009 by Sven Bonnichsen and David Holloway, who’d taken classes from local play writing teachers, PDX Playwrights (initially called Portland Playwrights Group), held its first meetings at a small art gallery on NE Portland’s Sandy Boulevard. That original table read format (members sit around a table and read dialogue and stage directions from the script) continues. 

The following year, Brad Bolchunos joined. Like many PDXP members, he’d had a long interest in theater but didn’t major in the subject in college. After moving to the Oregon coast from Colorado in 1995, Bolchunos squeezed acting performances (including self-written sketches) in Cannon Beach and Astoria around his day job as a newspaper reporter.

But even though he’d had a play produced in Fertile Ground, Bolchunos was still finding his feet as a writer of full length plays, and knew he needed a wider perspective on his work.

Portland playwright Brad Bolchunos.

“PDXP is like a garage band of dramatic writing,” he says. “You learn so much by hearing the work read aloud in what is usually a developmental stage of their work, and begin to recognize  where your intent as a playwright is accomplished and where it isn’t based on how people are offering feedback. It’s a vulnerable place for new writers especially, so we go to great lengths to remind our playwrights that we don’t want to place them in that defensive position, and encourage them to give feedback that is valuable.” 

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The group’s default presentation and response process and Bolchunos’s warm, encouraging attitude (shared by the rest of the admin team) make it especially valuable to newbies, but the group also works with more advanced writers who often bring their own specific questions to their readings. The vibe generally accentuates the positive.

The membership varies widely in age and occupation, and has recently included a retired attorney/stage legislator, past and present workers at nonprofit organizations, occasional high school and college students, and several educators past and present. 

Recently, Bolchunos says, “we’ve been trying to sustain and uplift and encourage diversity in our group,” citing several past and present nonwhite board members, immigrant writers, presentations about diversity sensitivity for writers, and more. “We are trying to foster that sensitivity and awareness, to honor the lived experiences of all people,” he says. “We’re trying to be welcoming and to feel like a safe place” for diverse playwrights.

An early PDX Playwrights reading at the group’s original gallery space.

PDXP has sponsored at least monthly table reads for 14 years running. After several years meeting semimonthly at Portland Center Stage, then a pandemic-prompted spell of online table reads, the group now meets monthly at Portland Playhouse, and attendees vary considerably, now numbering about 20 per session (from a much larger pool), according to the website. There’s no membership fee or qualifications to join. Recently, admin team member Karen Polinsky (who is also a playwright, director, and educator) has forged a partnership between PDXP and Northwest Portland’s CoHo Theatre to develop and stage new works in a workshop program called Scenario. Some of those works went on to further development at this year’s Fertile Ground.

I’ve participated in PDXP often in recent years and it’s produced several of my shows in Fertile Ground. Beyond production assistance, valuable knowledge of how to get shows onstage, and useful feedback, for me, PDXP, like most writers groups, also provides a welcoming community of fellow travelers along what can be an isolating creative path. During the festival especially, it summons the sense of collective creation many of us have enjoyed in theater companies, with the difference being that the latter usually contain few if any writers.

To the Next Level

Founded as P-Town Playwrights in 2012 by Portland writers Rich Rubin (read my ArtsWatch profile), Susan Faust and others, LineStorm Playwrights is “a diverse group of writers with a commitment to the craft, and to working in a community,” says LineStorm President Lolly Ward, who produced this year’s Fertile Ground slate of LineStorm shows. “Being a writer can be lonely, and it’s hard to know how to get your work out in the world — how to do a contract, how to take the next step in your career. We provide this support system that shows writers everything from how we get words on a blank page, to a completed draft, into the theater, to a tour — the whole gamut” from less developed work to full productions.

After Ward joined upon arriving in Portland from Los Angeles in 2015, the group adopted a process model based upon LA’s Playwrights Union, where she’d been a member. Inspired by a Robert Frost poem, the group also rebranded as LineStorm playwrights, expanded its membership, and commenced an artist residency at Artists Repertory Theatre, where it now holds its meetings in a room that limits the size of the group to about the current 14 members. Membership is by invitation; they invited Miller to join after his play I Love You/Who Are You won the Portland Civic Theatre Guild New Play Award in 2018.

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LineStorm playwrights Sara Jean Accuardi, Alan Alexander III, Audrey Block, Susan Faust, Francisco Garcia, Heath Hyun Houghton, E. M. Lewis, Matthew Miller, Sofia Molimbi, Holly Richards, Rich Rubin, Josie Seid, Lolly Ward, and Ken Yoshikawa.

The group now comprises some of Oregon’s most accomplished and prolific playwrights. Many, like E.M. Lewis and the prolific Rubin, have had shows produced at major festivals and top theaters around the country, most notably Lewis’s How the Light Gets In, which started as a reading at Fertile Ground, went on to further development at major theaters in California and New York, and won the American Theatre Critics Association Steinberg New Play Award.

“PDXP is great for early level writers,”  explains Miller, “while LineStorm more involves “people who are trying to do it professionally.”

Along with its meetings, LineStorm also hosts bimonthly public readings of a work by a single playwright. (Next up in June is Rubin’s newest.)

Bolchunos is also a member of a third Portland playwriting group, Northwest Theatre Workshop, which didn’t have a formal role in this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, though several of its members, including Bolchunos, did have plays in the lineup. He draws distinctions among the three groups, which he views as complementary.

“PDXP is more open to folks who are just dipping their toes in and want to learn how to hear their work and think about how to improve it,” he explains. “LineStorm is a more by-invitation group, which is somewhat true of [NWTW], although anyone, even newer folks, can register for free programs it offers there, like a scene-to-scene workshop. Its community playwriting model is similar to PDXP’s, but employs some different feedback questions and other strategies. If you have a full length script, that’s what Northwest Theatre Workshop lends itself to. It’s often people looking at 10 pages at a time, which can be helpful to start getting your head around how all the little pieces have to fit into the overall arc of a play.”

From Seeds to Saplings

After table readings, the next stage of development for some LineStorm and PDXP plays in progress is a staged reading or some other more advanced production at Fertile Ground. The groups will produce or co-produce some shows with members, which smooths the path to production immensely. Both also curate an annual juried short plays showcase at the festival. 

Miller estimates that the two groups historically have contributed about a third of the festival’s new plays. In return, the festival gives those writers crucial opportunities. “If you’re a playwright, the stakes aren’t that high,” explains Miller, now LineStorm’s treasurer. A Fertile Ground reading] provides “a very generous audience who doesn’t necessarily want it to be perfect. They’re showing up for the mess.”

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“Both build their entire year around Fertile Ground,” he continues. Without it, I don’t think either would be as successful as they are.” 

The cast of Nina Monique Kelly’s “The Elder Tree,” in PDX Playwrights’ January Scenario playwriting showcase at CoHo Theatre.

“It’s always been a key part of what we do and who we are as a group,” Bolchunos says of Fertile Ground. Our festival within the festival provides an incentive for our playwrights through the course of the year to be thinking, ‘I might actually get an audience to listen to this too.’ It’s a thrilling thing to hear your work reach a wider audience beyond yourself and other writers. For playwrights who are just kind of getting on their feet, it’s an honor and exciting to have ticket holders and cast actors to rehearse your work for a staged reading or concert read. It inspires those of us who are doing this work to carry on. It reminds us of the real world of theater and how it connects you to everyone listening and experiencing the play. That can propel your work on that piece and with other projects.”

The festival is a vital part of LineStorm’s work, too. “Fertile Ground gives us a deadline,” Ward explains. Each year, the group issues a new play writing challenge to members, urging them to complete a draft within a month, then embark on table reads and rewrites to get a script into shape for a Festival staged reading. “It’s so important for new work to go through that stage of development — to get audiences to hear it and get feedback,” Ward says.

Portland playwright Lolly Ward.

It’s also appealing to many FG audience members . “People love to be in on that ground floor,” she says. “Audiences like seeing those early drafts and having those first eyes and ears on a work. Then once it moves on to local or workshop production, they come back and see things develop. They can be part of it. It’s bringing out the community into the process of creation.”

This year’s LineStorm FG lineup boasted 14 new plays, ranging from five- or 10-minute shorts to one-acts, to full length plays, musicals, comedies, dramas, farces and styles in between. “We try to present a real range that represents the personalities of our members,” Ward says. She also values the “cross-pollination” of getting to work with actors and directors; she wrote one play in this year’s Fertile Ground, produced another, and acted in a third.

Director Cassie Greer leads rehearsal of LineStorm’s Small Bites show at the 2024 Fertile Ground Festival.

According to both Miller and Bolchunos, many playwrights see a Fertile Ground production as their play’s final destination, particularly with short works. Others view the festival as an early stage in a play’s development, perhaps just after a table reading and before what’s called a workshop production, or eventually, a full staging with props and costumes. Getting a show in front of a live audience, hearing and seeing their reactions and the dialogue and maybe even stage action, is an essential step in the creation of a dramatic work. 

Either way, Miller says, a FG show allows its writer to pitch that play or others to other theaters, bolstered by the credibility of having had an actual production.

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Beyond Fertile Ground

While Fertile Ground productions provide a valuable starting point for planted-in-Portland plays, the path from the festival to a production in a Portland theater is uncertain. (Readers: if you work for a Portland theater company and have gone on to produce a play there that you discovered at Fertile Ground, please let us know in the comments section below.) Portland theaters produce far more plays by writers from elsewhere than from their home territory. 

“I do think there’s this intermediary opportunity for many theater artists in town to learn from Fertile Ground and make refinements to their work and then where possible to submit to companies soliciting new work,” Bolchunos says. “But those are rare in Portland — there’s not too many local theaters accepting unsolicited scripts.”

While acknowledging support for Oregon playwrights from Artists Rep, Willamette University’s Theater 33 and a few others, Ward says that local creators are often overlooked by their hometown theater companies. “It happens all over the country — something is newer and shinier when it happens somewhere else,” she says. “It’s great to bring in new blood, but it’s also great to look in your own backyard.”

Portland playwright Matthew Miller.

Still, Miller is encouraged by the number of recent local theater productions of locavore plays, from LineStormer Ken Yoshikawa’s productions at Shaking the Tree and (starting next weekend) Corrib to Third Rail’s upcoming production of Lava Alapai’s Middletown Mall, Medford playwright Octavio Solis’s recent Quixote Nuevo at Portland Center Stage, which also hosted David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris’s Liberace & Liza Holiday Show (and former Oregonian Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me). Miller also points to several recent productions (including PDX Playwrights shows) at Coho, Stage Fright Theatre, Experience Theatre Project, and Fuse, including a pair by former PDX Playwrights admin team member Ajai Tripathi. (Feel free to mention others in the comments section below.) And he urges his fellow play writers to encourage local productions by supporting them when they happen — at Fertile Ground and beyond. 

“We all need to be buying tickets to those shows,” he says. “Volunteer your time, go to see shows. As a larger theater community we need to be better advocates for one another. Write your legislators, city council members, and tell  them theater isn’t just for fun,  but it also  provides a livelihood for many citizens and a massive amount of income for the state.” 

Fertile Ground can prepare the field. Oregon playwrights can plant the seeds. But it’s still up to Oregon theater lovers to cultivate the garden — and reap the harvest.

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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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2 Responses

  1. I had 18 plays produced, moved to Cave Junction which is unfortunately an arts desert.
    This sounds interesting.

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful article about Portland’s robust playwriting community! An example of a play that started at Fertile Ground and went onto full local productions is FEZZIWIG’S FORTUNE, a play I co-wrote with the fabulous Josie Seid for Fertile Ground 2021. It was produced by Anonymous Theatre in 2022 and will be at Twilight Theatre this December!

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