fertile ground

Fertile Ground 4: The one-act itch

In his final look back on Portland's new-works festival, Jae Carlsson scratches an "Itch" and dives into one-acts and other rabbit holes

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson has discussed each of these four theater pieces at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

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One-act plays are the bastard child of serious theater. All playwrights write them.

But these tend to be throwaway, one-idea plays – usually comedies – which no one is expected to take all that seriously. Least of all their playwright.

At Fertile Ground 2020, this is clearly the case with The Portland Mini-Musical Festival, which you discuss in Part 1 of this series. Lots of entertaining song and dance, but each one-act is built upon a single thin idea through which to maintain audience attention – plus maybe a little ah-ha twist at denouement, good for a slightly more self-aware laugh from you just before applause at curtain.

But you are a fan of one-acts, when they are done right. Accomplished either by finding a means to very quickly give them depth and force. Or accomplished by stringing several one-acts together – connecting them thematically as in Itch or in Osho Returns, or as a discontinuous narrative as in Hannah and Other Stories or Dearly Departed. But what is it that permits such one-acts to work so well? And to work, sometimes, more effectively than even very good full-length plays? . . .

On the Cusp of the Absurd

When you try to stretch the single idea of a one-idea play to 90 minutes, people often whisper that the author should have whittled it down and made a one-act play out of it.

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

The Ghost of David Balasco, written and directed by Cynthia Whitcomb, is a case in point. This festival piece is a mostly-staged full-length play performed at Lakewood Theatre, and it turns on one very clever idea. Four characters enter an old, rundown theater, speaking in period and foreign accents. They wish to do a seance, in order to exorcise a ghost from the theater, so they can clean up the space and produce a new play here – without all the freaky “mishaps” that closed up the theater years before, after a death in the building.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Confronting the great divides

America's battle with itself comes alive in a pair of plays, a book on the working-class tightrope, and a photo show about the persistent South

AS YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED DURING OUR RECENT IMPEACHMENT SPAT and other real or manufactured public outrages, we are living in deeply divided times. One of the roles of art is to look into such abysses and give them shape that either clarifies the issues or reveals them to be more confusing and complex than we believe. In times like these art is not simply decoration: It also can be, and likely should be, a relentless and unwaveringly human mirror. 

Jason Glick and Andrea White, caught in a Blind. Photo: Lindberg Media

Art often looks back to look forward. While watching Lynn Nottage’s brilliant play Sweat in its recently closed, knockout production by Profile Theatre, I felt the lurking presence of the late, great Arthur Miller in the hall. Nottage’s play, which deals with the economic crumbling of the American working class and the way such stresses also can reveal racial and other fault lines, suggests some of the underpinnings of populism’s hard turn to the right and left. It also feels like an updating and almost a reverse image of Miller’s 20th century social realism in the likes of All My Sons, a play that looks at the effects of economic skullduggery from the vantage of the owners, while Sweat considers its brutalizing effect on the workers.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: a squeeze, a shuffle, a Fertile sprawl

Real-estate blues and a major reshuffle at RACC top the news; Fertile Ground's new works sprawl across the city; Federale's Hegna sounds off

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION, the real-estate mantra goes, to which we might add: Availability, availability, availability. Price, price, price. As greater Portland’s real-estate market heats up, prices are rising and affordable places to use for performance halls and galleries are becoming scarce: In a city that’s staked its future on the creative economy, many of its creative groups and people are finding the landscape tough to negotiate.
 

High-stakes space crunch: Lever Architecture has designed a new theater and office complex for Artists Repertory Theatre on half of the block it used to occupy in Goose Hollow. The other half features a large tower. Rendering courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

In his story Arts groups play the real estate game, architecture and planning writer Brian Libby, who knows the city’s development scene through and through, takes ArtsWatch readers into the space squeeze and the many ways that artists and cultural groups are coping with it. “The erosion of small performance spaces seems to indicate how a booming economy can be a curse for struggling arts organizations as much as a blessing,” Libby writes. This is the first of several stories Libby will be writing for ArtsWatch on the complex topic of space and art: Watch for more.
 

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DramaWatch: Uncommon Ground

Fresh voices and surprising ideas emerge through the annual Fertile Ground festival of new work, and the theater week stays busy elsewhere, too.

The time has come again for Portland’s annual mid-winter performance bloom. Fertile Ground, “a city-wide festival of new works,” marks its 11th year and features 11 days of world premiere plays, play readings, workshop productions of works in-progress, dance, puppet shows and so forth. Dozens of shows in dozens of places around town, some ticketed, some free, almost all accessible with a $70 festival pass — that “almost” caveat necessary because many shows sell out or at least producers of popular shows fill up the reservations set aside for pass-holders.
In any case, it’s a great time to take time to race around (obeying all traffic codes and etiquette, mind you) and indulge in the cold-weather cornucopia. 

In addition to the basic concept outlined above, you’ll want to consult the 2020 festival guide or its online equivalent to help make choices about what to see. It’s a lot to take in and even after — perhaps especially after — perusing the 24-page guide you’ll have questions. I did. So I called festival director Nicole Lane.

“Who the heck are all these people??”

Well, actually I tried to make the question sound more professionally journalistic than that. I mentioned that in the festival’s early years it featured major productions by big companies such as Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep, but that’s no longer the case. And that projects seems less likely these days to come from the ranks of theater artists and writers whose work we see the rest of the year. But I was really asking who are all these writers and directors and producers I’ve not heard of before.

Fertile Ground festival director Nicole Lane. Photo: courtesy of Fertile Ground.

“Fertile Ground has evolved in terms of meeting the needs of Portland artists,” Lane replied. “It was founded upon a very open, non-adjudicated process.”

In the beginning — not coincidentally, she pointed out, when she and festival founder Trisha Mead were working for some of those big theater companies — the big producers were paying attention to the opportunity the fest presented and scheduling new works in conjunction with it. But the overlapping complications of new-play development and season planning make it difficult to keep getting brand new plays produced and also make sure they get staged at such a particular spot on the calendar.
Lane points out that the large companies are “finding ways to be supportive without putting shows in,” such as the panel discussion on IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) that PCS is hosting on the festival’s final day, Feb. 9.

As for the folks who are in the festival, Lane was kind enough not to point out that the fact that I haven’t heard of them probably says more about me than about the artists in question. Instead, she gently reminded me that, ““one of the major tenets of Fertile Ground is producer education and opportunity — developing a new crop of producers alongside the new crop of works and ideas.”

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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.

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Inside Fertile Ground: Six Tales

Bobby Bermea talks with the creators of "The Undertaking," "Sirens of Coos Bay," "The Tarot Show," "The Bad Hour," "Friends with Guns" and "Hazardous Beauty"

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.

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DramaWatch: Planning for a bountiful harvest from Fertile Ground

Portland's wide-ranging new works festival offers more than you can manage alone. Plus, new shows from Portland Center Stage, Portland Playhouse and others.

“Conceived and organized by the Portland Area Theater Alliance, Fertile Ground is a new, 10-day, city-wide festival dedicated to the creation and promotion of original works for the theater. Home-grown and wide-ranging, it both reflects and nurtures the creativity, aesthetic diversity and collaborative spirit of Portland’s performing community with three dozen projects in all. Even in these cold, hard times (in terms of the weather and the economy) it looks like something fun and invigorating enough to take root on the highlight calendar of Northwest arts events.”

Doesn’t seem so long ago, really, that I wrote that — in my former life as theater critic for The Oregonian — about the first Fertile Ground festival in January of 2009. Surely enough, the festival did take root and very quickly grew into one of the city’s mid-winter cultural staples. Not only did that first iteration provide proof of concept (a.k.a., “It works!”), but it delivered memorable works such as Christine McKinley’s science-themed coming-of-age musical Gracie and the Atom, Ezra Weiss’s Mad-Hatter-hip jazz version of Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Keystone’s rocketry epic Apollo.

Right off the bat, attendance was in the 10,000 range. Soon, the number of plays/projects/performances on offer doubled, and Fertile Ground became a reliable hot house for buzz-worthy work: The North Plan, Famished, Dear Galileo, Willow Jade The Huntsmen, The Tripping Point, 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan, The Hillsboro Story, My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow, The Snowstorm…

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

So here we are at the 10th anniversary of that inaugural edition, with the 11th annual festival set to kick off on January 24. Chances are good that a critical and/or popular consensus will lift a few of the 70-some presentations to memorable status and/or further development and/or subsequent productions. But the whole idea here is that these shows are new; so while we may have hunches about what’s promising based on the artists involved or the idea they’re pursuing, no one really knows what you really ought to see. Of course there’s the matter of subjectivity. Topics range from Shakespeare to BDSM (er…if you have to ask…), and while my personal “Don’t care!” sign starts flashing red at the thought of, say, vampire stories or circus arts, you might think me a hopeless dolt to be intrigued by a Chekhov adaptation or a drama about gun control.

And schedules only complicate the matter further! For starters, not everyone can do a full Kay Olsen on the thing (Portland theater insiders know what I mean). With so many shows, at venues spread across Portland and (a bit) beyond, at conflicting or overlapping times, even a full-time commitment to the festival wouldn’t allow you to see even half.

So.

Decisions, decisions.

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