YOU CAN'T WAVE A SCRIPT in this town without hitting a performance artist, and if you ask any of them what they're working on this month, it's a safe bet that they're in the throes of a new project for Fertile Ground (full disclosure: I'm in one of the productions).
If you haven't heard of Fertile Ground yet, you haven't been paying attention. In just three years, the citywide festival of new works has become a crucial cog in the machine that churns Portland's arts scene. Before its founding in 2009 by the Portland Area Theatre Alliance and publicity maven Trisha Mead, we weren't starving for arts festivals: Portland Institute for Contemporary Art has brought in artists and performers from around the world since the Time-Based Arts fest began in 2003, and Portland Center Stage's JAW: a Playwrights Festival has been debuting new scripts for over 10 years. But as the first un-curated arts festival Portland has seen, Fertile Ground may be the most inclusive; it seeks to highlight both process and product equally. As long as the work is new and Portland-made, anything goes.
Focusing mainly on theater performance at its inception, the festival has since grown to include a wide array of comedy and dance. This year's biggest addition is Polaris Dance Theatre's Groovin' Greenhouse dance showcase series. Participants include Legacy Dance, NW Fusion Dance, Portland Festival Ballet, Dance Coalition of Oregon, and up-and-coming individual choreographers presenting dance in a range of styles. Theater and music tend to get a lot more attention in this town than dance does, so it's great to see local choreographers and dancers in the spotlight. Outside of the Groovin' Greenhouse, White Bird and members of Oregon Ballet Theatre are also presenting exciting new works.
The heart of Fertile Ground, however, remains theatrical, and this year sees 19 fully staged world premieres. A few of these titles may sound familiar, as they've been culled from recent JAW festival submissions—Kimberly Rosenstock's dark, time-traveling romcom 99 Ways to Fuck a Swan at Theatre Vertigo, Drammy winner Jordan Harrison's Orwellian Futura at Portland Center Stage, and Nick Zagone's The Missing Pieces at Portland Playhouse among them. And Triskaidekaphilia (Just My Luck), by local queer journalist Jimmy Radosta, has been revamped for the Curious Comedy stage after a successful staged reading at Fertile Ground 2010.
The most important thing Fertile Ground does for Portland artists is generate attention and interest for new work at all stages. Almost every local theater company is participating, many offering behind-the-scenes peeks at works in progress (Working Theatre Collective's peter pan project, for one) or classes in how to create new work (Hand2Mouth's New Work Workshops).
With almost 70 events in the festival, there is honestly something for everyone. Kids will appreciate Northwest Childrens Theater's new Robin Hood adventure and Oregon Children's Theatre's musical adaptation of Doreen Cronin's anthropomorphic insect tales, Diary of a Worm, a Spider, and a Fly. And of course, plenty of adult subject matter is represented: Pulp Stage returns with a series of lurid pulp readings, and Third Eye Theatre's Porn Shop!!! promises "superhero sexuality, lesbians, blow-up dolls, promiscuous drunken sex," and more.
Each year, Fertile Ground continues to pick up momentum, even gaining mention this month in American Theatre magazine. As its scope expands, who knows what's next? Fertile Ground Film Festival? Fertile Ground Art Walk? Whatever happens, Portland's artistic landscape is proving to be more fruitful than ever.