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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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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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