jessica wallenfels

A room with a redemptive view

Fertile Ground 2021: "The November Project," which takes place in a bathroom, has its roots in a life-turning crisis in Jessica Wallenfels' life

Twenty-six years ago Jessica Wallenfels was standing on the precipice of her life and looking over the edge into the abyss. Today, Wallenfels is one of the most popular and respected theater artists in her adopted city of Portland. The November Project, created by Wallenfels’ company, Many Hats Collaboration, and making its debut on Sunday, Feb. 7, in the 2021 Fertile Ground online festival of new performance, is the latest evolution of a journey that began more than a quarter-century ago. 

In 1995, as an undergrad at California Institute for the Arts, Wallenfels was spiraling out of control. Drugs had taken over, and things got so bad that the school stepped in. “After a series of embarrassing events,” Wallenfels remembers on her blog, “my theater faculty had devised a plan for my probation.” The plan included Wallenfels attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a move which, at the time, made her feel “stupid and embarrassed and angry.” At first she was, in her words, “an oddity,” the only woman among several men and twenty years younger than any of them. But she was drawn in by the storytelling and the ritual. One day, another woman did come in and uttered a statement that still resonates with Wallenfels: “No man comes in between me and my drugs.” This simple statement, which could be seen as a desperate observation of a woman in crisis, struck Wallenfels differently. She saw in it a statement of empowerment, a woman who was putting her own needs before those of the men in her life. A seed was planted.


ONLINE FESTIVAL: FERTILE GROUND 2021


By 2002 the seed had flowered and become an original piece called Rest Room, performed at various spots around New York City. Those NA sessions in California had helped Wallenfels understand that in her life she was surrounded by addiction. Some of the people closest to her had been trapped in the cycle of substance abuse. With their permission, she interviewed them about their relationships with drugs and used those interviews as a soundtrack for the piece. (If you go to the blog you’ll find a short video from that production; about halfway through the less-than-a-minute segment is a heart-stopping moment when you can hear Wallenfels’ mother, saying through tears, “I think I’ve had enough … of this conversation.”) 

Drama in the bathroom: Many Hats Collaboration’s “The November Project” at Fertile Ground.

In 2006, Many Hats Collaboration was made up of Wallenfels, director and photographer Lava Alapai, and sound designer Annalise Albright Woods. They were granted a place in Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival, in the site-specific component known as You Are Here that was taking place at the World Trade Center that year, and decided to revisit Rest Room. The Trade Center gave Wallenfels something she never had in New York: a set. She cast Yolanda Suarez and Paige Jones, and the characters evolved into archetypes of women on the drug addiction spectrum. Alapai got the idea to add a video component, because a piece that takes place inside of a bathroom just can’t get too voyeuristic. 

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DanceWatch: Jan-bruary is the resilient month

Fertile Ground leads us into the next month of virtual dance

Welcome to the Jan-bruary edition of the dance calendar and the 396th day of 2020. It just keeps gettin’ better,  don’t you think? Somehow, though, through it all, a pandemic and the attempted overthrow of our government, dance artists are still making dances. I am continually amazed at how resilient humans are, even under the harshest conditions. 

Today I am feeling celebratory. Every month that DanceWatch can fill its calendar with dance performances is a minor miracle and a joyous occasion. Art is the mark of civilization. If we are here dancing, then we are thriving. 

This edition of DanceWatch is full to the brim with work that will break your heart open, make you want to smash through your screens and dance with the folks on the other side, transport you, connect you, and generally make you feel good. Enjoy!

January Dance Performances

The Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, which features new experimental work in various development stages, opened on January 28 and will run till February 7. Projects are available through Feb. 15 to stream on Fertile Ground’s Facebook and YouTube channels. Curated by a committee for the first time in its 12-year history, the festival, not strictly a dance festival, will feature 31 projects by regional choreographers, theater artists, puppeteers, improvisers, animators, and mixed-media artists.

I was privileged to participate in Fertile Ground’s meet-the-press zoom call, where I met and heard the pitches from every participating show, and I can say with certainty that these shows are a must go! They are powerful and beautiful and are everything you need right now. Luckily all of the performances will be streamed online through the Fertile Ground Facebook and YouTube pages and will be available to view for seven days after, so you won’t miss a thing! And most importantly, they are FREE to watch. 

Artwork for the Fertile Ground production of Allies & Accomplices. Photo courtesy of Echo Theater Company

* Fertile Ground
Allies & Accomplices
Presented by Echo Theater Company
Performers include ETC Pro Lab, Noelle Simone, Tessa May, and Variat Dance Collective with direction by Laura Cannon and Aaron Wheeler-Kay
Opened 7 pm January 29; available to view through Feb. 15
Open and closed captioning available
Free

In these world premieres, five independently created dance works highlight the stories of marginalized and oppressed voices and examine how artistic creation is a political act. They seek to personalize the Black experience and the accompanying fear, help you find your voice through the Black Lives Matter movement, and lead you on a journey to discover your inner Greek goddess. 

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Charles Grant’s Matter at Hand

The Portland actor-writer brings a vivid sense of movement to his play about the ever-present danger of violence that Black Americans face

Matter, conceived, written, and performed by Charles Grant and directed by James Dixon, is a deeply personal portrayal of a young Black man’s quest to find a way to save Black lives by examining police brutality and gun violence. Co-produced by Portland Playhouse and Many Hats Collaboration, the one man, 20-minute, filmed theater piece methodically examines the facts amidst opposing viewpoints, social division, and the constant barrage of news. Grant, frustrated and grieving over the many Black lives that have been lost, becomes aware of his vulnerability as a Black man and the possibility of his death at the hands of the police. While not strictly a dance work, Matter includes a lot of movement, as life should, and includes sections that could be called dances, with movement direction by Many Hats Collaboration’s artistic director, Jessica Wallenfels. Through a combination of camera angles, lighting, sound, text, movement, and the cast’s lived experiences, real emotions and trauma are expressed in the work, framing the complex Black experience. 

Charles Grant in the 2017 version of “Matter.” Photo: Tamera Lyn

“From early conversations with Jessica [Wallenfels], I knew that I wanted to incorporate more dance and movement into this piece,” Grant told me in an email. Grant originally conceived of Matter in 2017 as part of his apprenticeship at Portland Playhouse and is unofficially calling it Matter 2.0 this time around. Sadly, it is still part of our larger cultural conversation because of the disproportionate amount of violence toward Black bodies. He hopes he doesn’t have to keep bringing it back over and over again. 

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MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.

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DramaWatch: Goal-oriented theater at Portland Playhouse

"The Wolves" leads the week in theater with teens and teamwork. Also: the Mueller Report on stage; big buildings and Vertigo; and sensational soloists.

Portland Playhouse’s season-opening production, The Wolves, focuses on the nine teen girls who make up an indoor-soccer team. Which presents an obvious question.
“Is this a rousing, heart-warming, inspirational sports story?,” I ask director Jessica Wallenfels. “Or is it good?”

A disingenuous question, that latter one. Because by all accounts, The Wolves is a terrific play. Written by Sarah DeLappe — apparently her first play to get any notable production — it was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for drama. According to American Theater magazine, it’s one of the Top 10 most-produced plays in the country for the 2019-20 season. Among the many critical huzzahs typed its way, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote of a 2016 Off-Broadway production that it exuded “the scary, exhilarating brightness of raw adolescence.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “one of the most striking playwriting debuts in recent memory, and absolutely not to be missed.”

Kailey Rhodes (foreground) works on ball control in The Wolves at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Wallenfels humors me. “It is inspiring,” she responds. “But not in the usual ways.
“It’s inspiring in the way that it shows a group of girls and insists that their lives, their concerns, their thought processes be considered, in a way that they’re usually not.”

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DramaWatch Weekly: Summerfest!

CoHo's short-run festival and the Risk/Reward fest put the movement into theater. Also: "Sense and Sensibility," last chance for "Fences."

A year ago, when Sayda Trujillo approached Jessica Wallenfels about directing a solo performance she was developing, she had a particular contribution in mind.

“She did come to me with a very specific ask: ‘I want this to be physically demanding and difficult, and I want your help with that,’” Wallenfels recalls.

Trujillo is hardly a stranger to physicality herself — she teaches voice and movement at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. Nor, for that matter, to solo shows — she’s created three previous ones that have been presented internationally, including at such prestigious theatrical incubators as REDCAT in Los Angeles. But she and Wallenfels have some familiarity with each other as well, having met as undergraduates at California Institute of the Arts and later taught together at California State Summer School of the Arts. Wallenfels, a multi-faceted Portland artist, brought expertise as one of the top theater choreographers in the Northwest.

Sayda Trujillo in her solo show “Right, Up, Left (Definitely Oops!.” She’ll perform “Win the War or Tell Me a Story” at CoHo Summerfest.

The resulting show, Win the War or Tell Me a Story, serves as the kick-off to CoHo Summerfest 2018, beginning Thursday, June 28. It should make a fine introduction, reflecting CoHo Theater’s longstanding interest in solo performance and personal storytelling, yet also hinting at the distinguishing characteristic of this year’s selections, which are more movement-oriented overall.

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Painting the town ‘Scarlet’

We're not in the 1600s anymore: Michelle Horgen's marvelous updating of "The Scarlet Letter" adds a modern sensibility (and lots of songs)

Portland Playhouse’s new musical, Scarlet, is no dry historical retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While that popular 19th-century novel was the source material for playwright Michelle Horgen’s retelling, and it is set in the same puritanical time, this is not your father’s Scarlet Letter.

For starters, this is retold by a woman (Horgen is at least a triple threat, having written book, music, and lyrics) in 21st century America. And Hester Prynne has a lot to say — and, it turns out, sing — that rings as true today as it must have in 1850. Judgment and shaming, after all, have become public, prolific, and painful in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where most people can’t simply escape or go home to hide their embarrassment.

Rebecca Teran is Hester Prynne in “Scarlet” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

In Horgen’s hands, the story also becomes much more about motherhood—how becoming a mother “shatters your existence” in a “blinding instant” — than it was in the words of Hawthorne. There is an especially heart-wrenching story involving Hester’s friend, Sarah Winthrop, a new character who was not part of Hawthorne’s story, which is set in 17th century Puritan Boston. Dana Green, who plays Sarah, wears her grief for the rest of the play — across a number of years — and will break your heart. It is also more about the sisterhood we share with other women — our friends, our community, even the crazy old lady everyone pretends not to understand.

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