To Mom, who isn’t here: Why Fertile Ground matters

The festival is wide open, messy, and unpredictable. And for writers, that's exactly why it works.

“Fertile Ground didn’t MAKE me a playwright. It reminded me I was one all along.” On Saturday, the 60th anniversary of her mother’s birth, Portland playwright Claire Willett posted a short essay on her Facebook page that both honored her mother’s memory and talked about why the Fertile Ground festival of new works, in all of its glorious and untamed sprawl, is important. Here at ArtsWatch we liked her essay so much that we asked if we could reprint it, and Claire graciously agreed. Below, she talks about how the festival began, and why she links it with her mother’s death, and how important it is that Fertile Ground is wide open. A reading of her newest play, “Carter Hall,” will be onstage Tuesday evening at Artists Rep as part of the festival.


My mother would have turned sixty today. But she didn’t, because she died six years ago, after a three-year battle with ALS. Losing one of my spectacularly magnificent parents was the worst thing I could have imagined happening to me. But it’s also how I became a writer. Up until then, I was a grant writer who had fallen in love with playwriting in college (thank you, Professor Chuck Evered) but had thrown in the towel in my early 20s because writing plays professionally didn’t seem like a thing that boring normal people like me got to do. I wasn’t anyone special, nothing particularly exceptional had ever happened to me, and I spent my days sitting in an office next door to where theater was happening. I was keenly aware of that door. It was the line between everyone doing what I secretly, desperately wished I was doing – making art – and me sitting at my desk updating the grants calendar. Then the two most important things in my life happened at almost the same time: my mother died, leaving me with a cavernous empty space in my life; and Trisha Pancio Mead took me out to a downtown dive bar for whiskey sours with a group of theater people and said, “Guys, lets start a new play festival. And let’s make it open to everybody.” 

Chris Porter, Adrienne Flagg, and David Bodin in Claire Willett's "Dear Galileo" at Artists Repertory Theatre. Fertile Ground 2012

Chris Porter, Adrienne Flagg, and David Bodin in Claire Willett’s “Dear Galileo” at Artists Repertory Theatre. Fertile Ground 2012. Photo: Michelle Rajotte

This is why it matters that the Fertile Ground Festival is uncurated. Because the city was full of people like me who had stories to tell and the drive to create work, and we just needed someone to open a door. I had a month of bereavement leave, a half-finished play from college about grief, and the desperate need to DO SOMETHING or I would go crazy. I always did the work myself – writing and casting and making the program and renting the space and setting up and taking down the folding chairs and tearing my own tickets at the door of warehouses and coffeeshops and paying for everything out of my own pocket. What Fertile Ground gave me was permission. A deadline. Legitimacy. A way to get in front of an audience besides just my dad. The chance to hear my work out loud and learn how to get better. It also gave me something so, so much bigger than that. It made me whole again.

My mother will never not be dead. I can’t make The Terrible Thing not have happened. But I can do the second-best thing: I can MAKE. ART. I can tell stories about my mother, about the person she was, about the things she loved, about the way she loved us. And because of the festival, I can share them.

Every year since 2009 I’ve had a different play in the festival. And every year the festival falls on my mom’s birthday. I spent today preparing for tomorrow’s first rehearsal for Carter Hall, which belongs to her more than anything I’ve ever written – a story about mothers and daughters and fairy tales and Scotland and the music of Steeleye Span. Tuesday night I will be standing on the Morrison Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre (where I sat next to my mom at so many shows, back when I was a grantwriter, and she’d stage-whisper “Someday that will be YOUR play up there” and I’d be all “SHUT UP MOM THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS.”) I will be standing up there with my dad and his guitar, singing my mom’s favorite music. I get to do this because of all the people – like Trisha, like Artists Rep, like the Oregon Arts Commission and Literary Arts and all the amazing actors who have shared their gifts with me over the years, for little or no money – who took a chance on me when I wasn’t anybody. Nobody did my work for me. They just said: SHOW UP. Show up with a story, and we will give you room to tell it. You’re allowed. You get to be here. Do you write? Then you’re a writer.

Sometimes I hear people grousing about how inconvenient it is that the festival is uncurated – it’s so big, there are so many shows, it’s all new work, there’s no way to tell whether something is going to be good or not, what if I pay money for something that sucks. Well. You might. But a better question might be: How many artists in Portland would not have the careers they have if the first Fertile Ground Festival had carded them at the door and demanded proof of legitimate artist cred before they were allowed in?

Fertile Ground didn’t MAKE me a playwright. It reminded me I was one all along. And not one thing that I have achieved as a writer would ever have happened without it. So every year on my mom’s festival-coinciding birthday, I give thanks that I get to do what I do. That I get to share my stories. That my family’s support has never faltered. That I get the chance to work hard at what I love. That I became the writer she always knew I would be.

Happy birthday, Mom.

3 Responses.

  1. Gavin Larsen says:

    Beautifully said, Claire, and so true. It’s easy to forget what a gift it is to merely provide artists something so simple as a deadline and a community. Fertile Ground did just that for me, too, thanks largely to you and Trisha! And I thank you.

  2. I love you Clair. What a beautifully written tribute to your wonderful mother. You’re gonna soar, girl!

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