Fertile Ground: Let the fest begin

ArtsWatch's writers "speed-dated" the producers, writers, and performers of Portland's sprawling new-works festival. Here's what they discovered.


If you host it, they will come. And come they did, from east, south, west, and north: dozens of playwrights, producers, choreographers, clowns, actors, dancers, acrobats, and other show folk, each intent on one thing: to serially date as many members of the press as they possibly could in one brief evening.

The press, let it be noted, does not ordinarily do this sort of thing. But this first Thursday of the new year was the Fertile Ground new-works festival’s speed-dating-with-the-media night, and for everyone involved (including three of us from ArtsWatch – Brett Campbell, Christa Morletti McIntyre, and Bob Hicks), getting a lot of information out there in a very short time seemed like an excellent idea.

It was also a little like a drive-by clipping by a fleet of eighteen-wheelers. Or a massacre in the making. “Why is that woman coming at us with a hatchet in her hand?” we found ourselves wondering nervously at one point.

Festival director Nicole Lane, calling the speed-dating shots. Photo: Christine Toohey

Festival director Nicole Lane, calling the speed-dating shots. Photo: Christine Toohey

As reporters and editors sat at long schoolhouse-style tables in the upper lobby at Artists Repertory Theatre, or set up their cameras and mics in any spare corner they could find, supplicants lined up chin-deep for their five-minute shots at making an impression. At the end of five, a clang sounded above the clatter and din, and the next in line moved up. “Give ’em your elevator speech,” festival director Nicole Lane instructed helpfully, although no elevator was in a sight.

This year’s festival, the eighth, is an eleven-day sprawl January 21-31 throughout the metropolitan area: more than 160 performances on more than 30 stages. It ranges from simple readings to staged readings, workshop productions, and full-blown premieres. Writers and producers sometimes use the festival as a first chance to see how things are working for an audience, and sometimes as the launching pad for a completed show. A few full productions have already opened, among them Olga Sanchez’s Broken Promises at Milagro; Juli Crockett’s Moby-Dick evocation [or, the whale] for Portland Experimental Theatre Company; and Sue Mach’s adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper at CoHo.

Whatever the level of development, the rules are simple. Everything presented is new, which doesn’t mean it might not have been workshopped or had readings beforehand. And the festival, which is sponsored by the Portland Area Theatre Alliance, isn’t juried or curated: if you can get your act together, you’re in.

Here’s who we talked with and what we heard in our five-minute bursts. For a complete schedule, including all those acts that didn’t show up for speed-dating night, see the festival’s calendar:



Hangin' around "Between Worlds" at Echo. Photo: Renata Kosina

Hangin’ around “Between Worlds” at Echo. Photo: Renata Kosina

Between Worlds, Bianca McCarthy; Echo Theater. Echo will be the festival’s home for contemporary circus arts, with works from its own company, plus The Circus Project and TEMPOS Contemporary Circus. Toss in a couple of comic books, with Echo’s Super Hero Old Folks’ Home. Expect puppetry, acrobatics, dialogue, and aerial work. “It’s using all the tools in the toolbox to tell the story,” McCarthy said cheerfully.

Displaced, Subrosa Dance Collective at Conduit. It’s fitting that Subrosa is producing this fully staged premiere at Conduit, because the piece is about “rising rents, no-cause evictions, and an increasing lack of creative spaces in the city.” Conduit is one of several dance companies or centers to be displaced in the past year, losing its longtime downtown home and finally landing at the Inner East Side’s Ford Building. It’s a site-specific piece, with six dancers.

Noise in the Waters: Music & Theatre on the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis, Cristina Miles, Bobby Bermea, Ryan Anthony Francis, Boom Arts; Alberta Rose Theatre. A trio of seasoned drama talents take on a story first told by Teatro delle Albe. An Italian admiral has watch over a tiny island, but bodies keep washing up on the shoreline. The crisis grows, and he imagines stories for the dead faces he becomes responsible for. Will the Admiral come to a detente with the lifeless? Can he survive the world knocking at his door?

The Big One: A Monologue About the Earthquake, Shoba Satya; Cerimon House. Are you ready for the earthquake? The massive tectonic shift that will take down the 13 bridges crossing the Willamette? You probably don’t have enough palettes ready for all the Kirkland bottled water and 10-pound bags of rice you’ll need to stockpile. Just on the off-chance you are ready, maybe all of your preparations for the end of the world, as we know it, won’t pay off. For this workshop production, Satya asked herself similar questions, and after doing some detective work found some answers from a tiny island off of India.

David Berkson in "Dear Committee Members." Photo: Jasmine Spiegel

David Berkson in “Dear Committee Members.” Photo: Jasmine Spiegel

Dear Committee Members, David Berkson, Wendy Wilcox; Readers Theatre Repertory. Berkson, a teacher and the son of professors, fell in love and into a laugh riot with Julie Schumacher’s best-selling and award-winning novel. With elbow-patched sports jacket in tow, he adapted the book for stage. This one-man show promises a night of unconventional laughs about university office conditions, fighting the good fight against grade inflation, defending the noble ivory tower of academia through Dalton Trumbo-esque letters of recommendation for his students.

Frankenstein: A Cabaret, The Broken Planetarium, Laura Christina Dunn, Maggie Mascal, Rebekah Stiles; The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven. Not shying away from the feminism of Mary Shelley, Broken Planetarium reimagines Frankenstein as an allegory for the roles that women juggle among work, motherhood and self. Set on modern-day Division Street as a documentary being filmed, the play looks at the social climate that impacts the shifting identities of women. In between Gothic novel magical realism and the mythic changing masks of a Japanese Noh play, Frankenstein: A Cabaret sets the stage for some provocative thinking about contemporary challenges.

I Hate Positive Thinking, Faith Helma; Shout House. Have you noticed your Facebook feed filling up with corporate-looking motivational posters with quotes about being mindful of mindfulness, but when you exit your screen you’re back to the hustle of living and paying bills? Created and performed by Helma, this premiere solo show is dedicated to accepting the reality of life in all its hues between black, grey and white. She’s looking for some answers on how to live authentically in a world where escape is pretty convenient.

A Thousand Tongues, Jocelynn Suarez, Samantha Ravenna Sóley Shay, Source Material Collective at The Headwaters. This young collective, which relocated to Portland last year from L.A., roots itself in historical experimentalism. A Thousand Tongues offers a first look at a performance concert by the Danish folk singer and songwriter Nina Julia Bang, whose performance will include flamenco, Greek lullabies, and traditional music from Romania, Bulgaria, Kurdistan, and Kurdistan. It’s been workshopped in Copenhagen and will have its premiere this November at the Grotowski Institute in Wroklaw, Poland.

Anne Rutherford of "Grimm Northwest," hatchet in hand.

Anne Rutherford of “Grimm Northwest,” hatchet in hand.

Grimm Northwest, Anne Rutherford, Norm Brecke, The Oregon Tellers; Lucky Lab Taproom. It was Rutherford who came at us with the hatchet in hand. Fortunately, it was mere show-and-tell. These are refashioned Grimm tales, after all: think Little Red Riding Hood, and the Woodsman, and the Big Bad Wolf. Rutherford, who wrote the script, and Brecke, who directs, talked of the tales as stories about people making risky decisions. “Think about it,” Brecke said. “They’ve already been told this is not a good idea, but they do it anyway.” Each performance will include an open mic, and audience members can tell their own true tales of doing something forbidden.

American Atlas, Rob Katsuno, Chris Harder; Artists Rep. Katsuno’s American Atlas, which Harder directs in this lunchtime reading, begins his tale 250 years ago in Japan, with his ancestors from the noble fighting breed of Samurai. Things are a bit different today, as an American, when his parents celebrate the purging of his stomach contents as a blessed family cleansing. A quick wit and strong personality, Katsuno uses humor to explore his identity as an Asian American married to a Brazilian in the land of opportunity. A frequent Portland the Moth performer, he’s known for his insightful laughs and warm touch as a storyteller.

Broken Promises, Olga Sanchez, Francisco Garcia; Milagro Theatre. Adriana is the new girl at school, and is hiding the truth about her broken family. Struggling in a world against her, she’s determined to find a way to get to college and make a life for herself. Sanches based her script on true stories from Portland about child sex trafficking on the West Coast. Adriana is swept up in a storm of prostitution, drugs, and abuse under the promise of quick money, but never sees a payday. This full production opened last weekend at Milagro, and will tour as part of the company’s community outreach. Guest speakers during Fertile Ground performances will provide context for the story.

"In Toxic" at the Clinton Street. Photo: Jack Wells

“In Toxic” at the Clinton Street. Photo: Jack Wells

In Toxic, Tara Hershberger; Clinton Street Theater. Written and directed by a playwright who’s also an environmental activist, this magical-realist story deals with, ah, heated and potentially explosive issues facing Portland now: the daily passage of coal trains (a/k/a “bomb trains”) through a small religious community. But it’s also about the relationship of two sisters who, like others in the town, disagree over what to do about it. And the play, enhanced by music and movement, draws parallels between individuals’ addiction to drugs and society’s addiction to fossil fuels.

Ethyl’s Pies: a comedy of deception in two acts, Tobin Gollihar & Ian Paul Sieren; Y Arts Little Theater. Shades of HotL Baltimore meets Greater Tuna. The writer-performer duo in this full-production premiere sets their latest comedy in a formerly famous, now decaying diner in a changing neighborhood. They play all the roles, including a mysterious owner, jaded employees, regular customers — and a health inspector who’s asking a lot of questions.

I Know Things, Don Teeters; Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre (HART).  Fans of Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin might cotton to this post-apocalyptic speculative fiction play from Masque Alfresco that addresses issues of genetic engineering, authoritarian government, science, and family dysfunction. Caution: replicants.

The New Vaudeville, by Elaborate Alibi Theater Company and The Affable Gentlemen; Clinton Street Theatre. These underground-storytellers are hell-bent on bringing the Roaring ’20s back to life. One gentleman sported a pinstriped three-piece suit and bottle of gin to speed-dating night; the other, in a Noël Coward silk dressing gown with ascot, told us of the hot pursuit of their dream: They imagine themselves in a bar, as old heavyweight producers of vaudeville, bringing the magic, music, and grand spectacle to the stage.

Playing with "Buried Fire" and the blues. Photo: Amanda Gresham

Playing with “Buried Fire” and the blues. Photo: Amanda Gresham

Buried Fire, Dave Fleschner, Wayne Harrel; O’Connor’s Vault and Michelle’s Pianos. This new blues musical, still in workshop, started life on a blues cruise, where Fleschner was playing keyboards with Curtis Salgado. He’d been going through one of those patches with love, and he started writing some tunes, which he eventually realized were sticking together. So he recorded them with a group of top blues players (The Blues Cabaret, Where Love Begins, Fleschtone Records). “Dave gave me his rough CD,” said Harrel, author of last year’s hit Fertile Ground play Remme’s Run. “Didn’t tell me anything about the backstory.” And a partnership was born.

Panel of Power: Fundamentals of Dramaturgy, Writing and Composition for Devisers, Many Hats Collaboration at Artists Rep. Get your Q&A on with a panel of high-powered theater collaborators, moderated by Many Hats’ Jessica Wallenfels. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Lue Douthit, Artsists Rep’s Luann Schooler, Mead Hunter of the New Harmony Project, and Portland Center Stage’s Ben Fainstein get down to the nuts and bolts of creating the fire. If you’re more of a solitary wolf typing away behind a desk, Many Hats has you covered with a dramaturgy and devising workshop with Douthit. Between the panel and lessons, this Fertile Ground presentation will open doors for discussion on the dramatic arts among veterans, new talent on the rise, and theater lovers.

A Mischief of Rats, Katherine Lloyd-Knox, Leslie Gale; Lakewood Theatre. This staged reading is something of a memorial for playwright Lloyd-Knox, who worked a year on the script and died before it could be performed. She created a world with an extended family are rats, squirrels and maybe a teacup chihuahua. In such a place, life could get pretty complicated. Fourteen actors will take the Lakewood stage to present Lloyd-Knox’s play, which looks at racism, gender, and choosing a new family under the classic literary device of animal stand-ins. Can the choices you make, make better relationships, even when your fur isn’t the same on the outside?

Lawrence Howard unveils "Shackleton: The Untold Story."

Lawrence Howard unveils “Shackleton, The Untold Story.”

Shackleton, The Untold Story, Lawrence Howard; Portland Story Theatre at Alberta Abbey. Howard, one of the city’s best-known storytellers, has made a specialty of stories about the ordeals of Antarctic adventurers, including an earlier tale about the explorer’s 1914 voyage, Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare. The new piece is darker. The big takeaway from that story, he said, “is that all 28 people survived. With these ones, not so much.” It’s the true story of a 10-man support crew sent in another ship to the Ross Sea, “to a place called Mt. Hope,” where they are stranded, and their own hope runs out. “I’ve always wanted to tell this story,” Howard said. “But it doesn’t have the humor” of the earlier one. We trust it’ll come by its shivers honestly.

Apple Season, E.M. Lewis, Michael Griggs; Artists Rep. Playwright Lewis, who grew up in the farm community of Monitor outside of Salem, and Griggs, her director, dropped by to talk about this reading. It’s an Oregon play with its roots in the soil and the past. For the first time in 20 years, a woman comes back to her home for her father’s funeral. She had run away when she was still in high school, and hadn’t looked back. Now a neighbor who grew up with her wants to buy her father’s farm. Why did she leave? Why is she back? What will she do?

Rimbaud’s Daughter in Louisiana (or The Drunken Pirogue), Steve Patterson; The Old Church, Cerimon House. “It’s kinda like a feminist Huck Finn on acid,” veteran playwright Patterson said of this winner of this year’s Portland Civic Theatre Guild New Play Award, which will be presented as a reading. “She’s convinced she’s Rimbaud’s daughter and he didn’t go to Africa, he came to America.” So she comes after him: “She’s a poet, Rimbaud’s a poet, so it’s kind of about poetry.” At one point, Patterson added, she’s captured by a tribe of Indians “who are totally into John Donne.” It’s a picaresque and a satire, he said, and we’re thinking it just might be one of the festival highlights.

Deception, Nancy Moss; Lincoln Hall, Portland State University. Last year’s Portland Civic Theatre Guild new-play winner is back for a staged reading after Moss has done rewrites. It’s an example of one of the festival’s values, offering a forum for new works at several steps in their development. “It’s about a young woman passing for white in 1880s Portland,” Moss said. Her half-brother, “a kind of a con man,” sets out to blackmail her if she doesn’t help him get into a high-stakes poker game. The stakes may be even higher for her. Dmae Roberts directs.

Portland Bellydance Guild and Gypsy Heart Tribal at Groovin' Greenhouse. Photo: Casey Campbell

Portland Bellydance Guild and Gypsy Heart Tribal at Groovin’ Greenhouse. Photo: Casey Campbell

Groovin’ Greenhouse, Mary Overman, M’liss Quinnly; Polaris Dance Theatre. Polaris regulars Quinnly and Overman were bubbly about this year’s Greenhouse, which once again will host several dance companies over eight nights. They were especially happy because Polaris, after being displaced from its former home by the city’s hot real-estate market, was settling into its new space nearby, at 1826 N.W. 18th Ave., and even as they spoke, other company members were putting up paint and making other last-minute touches at the studio. Each night will have a different program, with Polaris performing nightly and other groups including the Portland Belly Dance Guild, NW Fusion, A-WOL Dance Collective, r:ad, and Polaris’s own junior company also filling slots. Expect a few visual effects, too: In one of Polaris director Robert Guitron’s new pieces, Quinnly said, “the lights are all on our bodies.”

Ophelia in Oblivion, S. Renee Mitchell; Celebration Tabernacle. This staged reading is a “very, very layered and complex story” about family disfunction – “how things spin out of control,” said author Mitchell, the playwright, poet, and former columnist for The Oregonian. With performers Skeeter Greene, Damaris Webb, and Jacque Dixon, and direction by Bobby Bermea, it’s getting a high-profile first look. Mitchell began it as 10-minute play in a workshop at Portland Center Stage. Nurtured alog the way by playwright Rick Rubin, she’s expanded it to full length. Expect surprises, and maybe a switchback or two. “It’s not about sex at all,” Mitchell said, laughing, “but it’s about sex.”

Psychic Utopia, Jess Drake, Andrea Stolowitz; Hand2Mouth at Artists Rep. The odyssey to find the immortal keys of the universe has led humans on wild fantastic voyages. Some of those who took the spiritual path less travelled found space in the desert of Oregon. In this free workshop performance, Hand2Mouth takes an inquisitive look into what pulls people into the ascetic’s vision, where normal failing makes a home alongside the metaphysical quest and deflates. Hand2Mouth develops its shows over a long period, and this event will offer an early look into the adventurous company’s next production.

Into the woods: "Baba Yaga" at The Headwaters.

Into the woods: “Baba Yaga” at The Headwaters.

Baba Yaga, Sam Reiter; Headwaters Theater. Baba Yaga is one of mythology’s most ambiguous figures, a crone who’s by turns terrifying and beneficent, probably reflecting our culture’s attitudes toward older women. Playwright Reiter developed this one-person version of the Slavic porto-myth during studies at Moscow Art Theater, and this is a full, premiere production. Baba Yaga herself becomes the framing element for three tales that incorporate Russian dance, shadow puppets and various characters.

I Want to Destroy You, Rob Handel; Theater Vertigo at Shoebox Theatre. Despite a lifetime of creative artmaking, California artist Chris Burden (who died last year) will likely always be best known for his 1971 performance piece Shoot, which called for an assistant to shoot him in the arm. Years later, he resigned from a teaching job at UCLA due to disagreement with the university over a student performance project that also involved a gun. That incident provided the inspiration for Handel’s play, directed by Matthew B. Zrebski, which explores questions ranging from guns in schools to middle-age-artist life crises.

Mustache Party! The Dali Show, Anna Sell; Box of Clowns at The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven. Box of Clowns’ new workshop show, Sell said, is kind of like what you’d get “if Carol Burnett and the Three Stooges had kids, and they were raised by Mister Bean.” Mustache Party! imagines itself at a 1941 party thrown by Salvador Dali to raise money for refugee artists. “What we hope to do is to bring surrealism into the modern world,” said Sell, who like her fellow performers is an alumna of the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in the wildwoods of northern California. They’ll tweak the piece here, then take it on the road, because, well, clowns travel in cars. “We do a lot of the fringe festivals,” Sell said. “Last year, four months, 6,000 miles. Portland to Portland.” That’s Maine to Oregon.

Getting down to the nitty gritty with Bob.

Getting down to the nitty gritty with Bob.

Bob #middleschool #tweensandteensmiddle school students at Rogue Pack/Jason Lee Elementary SUN School and girls at Boys & Girls Aid, Nelda Reyes; Sellwood Playhouse. We had a fun time learning about who Bob is, and it’s probably not the Bob you know. It’s the new slang for anybody, anyone, and the center of Rogue Pack’s presentation. The group works with kids who have had something closer to a hard adult life. They’ll be bringing their experiences to us about healing and overcoming abuse, addiction and exploitation through the power of storytelling.

Burning Basil, Cheryl E. Grant; Lakewood Theatre. Grant’s romantic comedy has been sitting in a drawer for a long time, back to her days in the Big Apple, and she’s taken it out, given it a fresh look, and done some revisions, but kept it essentially the same. “I wrote this place in the ’90s, and it’s still set in the ’90s in New York City,” she said. A poet, near the end of his career, starts seeing a ghost. Her name is Bea, and she’s a bit of a downer. Then there’s Wendy, the poet’s great love, a former ballet dancer who’s now wrapped up in her real estate career and her upcoming engagement to someone else. Does our poor haunted poet stand a ghost of a chance?

Family Hardware, Gary Corbin, Dorinda Toner; Hipbone Studio. Katherine and Willy are together, but their biology is at odds. Katherine is 40-something and her clock is attached to sticks of dynamite, wanting to send sparks flying at any and all minutes of the day. Her husband is 50-something, and his sexual prowess has ground to a cuddling halt. Can they be friends with a romantic past or is sex what drives their marriage? Playwright Corbin wore a denim work apron with all the right DeWalt tools in his belt the night we met him. He’s a big fan of Neil Simon and Tina Fey, and told us he wanted to put the “fun back in sexual dysfunction.” But, he’s got some serious material to work with. While scripts for male menopause have been filling up the doctor’s notepad for a while now, and adding to the art of creative advertising, Corbin wants us to take a look at the other side of the pillow and maybe see if life should just run its course.

Bonnie Ratner (left) and Skeeter Greene, "Hazardous Beauty."

Bonnie Ratner (left) and Skeeter Greene, “Hazardous Beauty.”

Hazardous Beauty, Bonnie Ratner; Portland Abbey Arts. Skeeter Greene and playwright Ratner, former executive director of the August Wilson Red Door Project, star in this staged reading about race and personal relations. Two women – one black, one white – meet in a writing class, and are assigned to be writing partners. Because they’re writing memoirs, their writing critiques become very personal. “It’s personal and political,” Ratner said.

Forethought: four short plays by Brad Bolchunos; PDX Playwrights at Hipbone Studio. Ranging from five minutes to half an hour in length, and from absurdist humor to romantic bewilderment, this quartet of unrelated plays cover a wide spectrum of social encounters, human comedy, and drama.

HOMEBREW: A PDX Animation Showcase, various PDX Animators, Project Directed by Sophya Vidal; 5th Avenue Cinema. Portland’s burgeoning animation scene has developed to the critical mass needed for this inaugural showcase of works by local independent animators, followed by a panel discussion with several of the creators. It’s a great opportunity to catch up with what may be the city’s next big artistic flowering.

One Response.

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    Great recap of what’s coming up at this year’s Fertile Ground Festival. Thanks for the preview of SHACKLETON, THE UNTOLD STORY. So many great opportunities to see, hear, and experience new work. Appreciate the coverage that Oregon Arts Watch gives.

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