Leif Norby

Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

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Astor’s great and messy quest

In Part 2 of Chris Coleman's sweeping historical drama "Astoria," a rich man's dream runs aground – but not before it reshapes Oregon's fate

In the early years of the 19th century, John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who’d already become wealthy through the fur trade and Manhattan real estate, gambled big on a grand vision. His plan was to establish an “emporium” near the mouth of the Columbia River — a geographic feature only recently known to Europeans and Eastern settlers — supported by fur-trapping posts along its tributaries. This would allow him to dominate the Pacific Northwest’s vast supply of one of that era’s most valuable resources. His company would then be able to initiate a lucrative global shipping network, trading in not just furs but Chinese tea and European manufactured goods. Flush with early-American idealism, he further hoped to set the stage for a democratic government in the region, a political and cultural sister to the fledgling United States, then still clustered on the continent’s eastern edge.

Jimmy Garcia as Pierre Dorion and Leif Norby as Robert McClellan with members of the cast of “Astoria: Part Two.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

To these ends, Astor, in 1810, sent two expeditionary parties toward the Columbia, one by sea around Cape Horn, the other overland, heading out from St. Louis along the trail blazed a few years earlier by Lewis and Clark. The harrowing, often deadly, adventures of these groups is vividly told in Peter Stark’s 2014 best-seller Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival, and now in Chris Coleman’s sweeping theatrical adaptation for Portland Center Stage. Astoria: Part One premiered last season; Astoria: Part Two is on the boards at The Armory through Feb. 18, with a few bonus performances of the first installment sprinkled through the schedule.

SPOILER ALERT: Astor fails.

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