Lava Alapai

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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SALT on America’s wounds

Inspired by Gandhi's Salt March of resistance, Shaking the Tree's new venture blends art, theater, and dance in a collective raised voice

Shaking the Tree Theatre, under the artistic direction of the imaginative Samantha Van Der Merwe, incorporates visual art into each of its theatrical performances. With SALT, opening Tuesday for an all-too-brief six-day run, Shaking the Tree is flipping that concept on its head. SALT is the first of Shaking the Tree’s acts of resistance – “in direct response,” according to the SALT program, “to a Trump presidency and its implications of hate, exclusion, bigotry, and fear.”

Van Der Merwe was inspired to create this first act in Shaking the Tree’s four-year project by Gandhi’s speech on the eve of the 1930 Salt March (or Dandi March). In that speech, he famously encouraged his followers to resist peacefully. “We have resolved to utilize all our resources in the pursuit of an exclusively nonviolent struggle, he said. “Let no one commit a wrong in anger. This is my hope and prayer. I wish these words of mine reached every nook and corner of the land.” Van Der Merwe asked a cross-section of the city’s finest artists — from many cultures, genres, and backgrounds — to use Gandhi’s speech as a jumping-off point.

SALT teams around Samantha Van Der Merwe’s “Thread.” Photo: Meg Nanna

The Shaking the Tree space is divided into eight 8×8 boxes, and each artist (with Van Der Merwe’s piece, created out of salt, in the center) was given that space to create something, anything. Some artists will be performing as part of their piece, or have others performing. Some is visual art. Some have video. Some are interactive.

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