FOR ARTISTS WHO ARE SERIOUS about creative work—work being the operative word—deadlines are essential.
In the six years since it was founded, the Fertile Ground Festival has come to serve as a deadline for the entire performance community: In January, New Work Will Be Made. So It Has Been Written.
Fertile Ground is an uncurated performance festival open to any artist with $150 and a venue. The only requirement is that the work produced must be new—meaning, the script can't have received a full production in its current form.
When Fertile Ground began in 2009, January was the slowest month on the theater calendar, a long lull after December's cash-grubbing frenzy of holiday shows. Compare that to this year: Fertile Ground boasts dozens of entries, from staged readings and workshops to fully produced shows. If we use creative output as a measure, Fertile Ground has been wildly successful in ushering in a citywide paradigm shift. Big companies schedule their world-premiere shows to coincide with the festival; playwrights and producers hustle to have that script-in-progress finished by January. When speaking to festival producers, I heard time and time again that the Fertile Ground deadline had pushed them to finish work that might otherwise not have made it onstage. (Another advantage for participants: Fertile Ground offers free workshops on marketing, box office training, and other aspects of putting together a show.)
Sometimes those projects go on to bigger things—playwright Claire Willett, whose work has been produced both in Portland and at the Pasadena Playhouse, credits her career to the festival, while Aleks Merilo's script Exit 27, which debuted at Fertile Ground in 2012, went on to run at New York's Sanguine Theater. Those are the success stories—other festival shows disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.
The festival's official position is that all of this creativity is a good thing. "This 11-day sampling illuminates the verdant and abundant acts of creation that bubble and catalyze year-long in Portland," the fest's website effuses. "Peel open your heart, leap into new awareness, laugh in unison, uncover new understandings: GROW."
I'm going to keep my heart safely tucked away in its peel, but point taken: The festival represents a tremendous outpouring of creative energy, from traditional theater to comedy, dance, musical theater, and anything else that can fit on a stage.
From an audience's point of view, this can be overwhelming—and distinctly hit or miss. Some audience members love seeing a project in its early stages, relish the chance to provide feedback to producers, and enjoy having a front seat to the creative process. Others have less patience for work that's unpolished or raw, or for untested producers who haven't yet earned their stripes.
If you like risks, buy a $50 festival pass—an insanely good deal considering the number of shows you can cram into 11 days—and head boldly into the great unknown.
If you're of a more cautious constitution, here are some of our picks. See portlandmercury.com for more picks, as well as reviews once the festival gets started.
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts
If you've never seen a Hand2Mouth show, I hereby revoke your right to consider yourself a culturally savvy Portlander. In a single performance, Hand2Mouth does more to justify the ongoing relevance of live theater as an art form than most second-tier companies do in an entire season. The ensemble has a knack for balancing high-energy, high-concept theatricality with aching sincerity; in a brilliant collision of theater and pop culture, their new show Pep Talk was inspired by Friday Night Lights and the enduring tough love of Coach Eric Taylor. "The idea is that it's a pep talk to the audience," explains Hand2Mouth's Faith Helma. "It starts out straightforward, and then things get weird."
Peninsula Park Community Center, West Gym, 700 N Rosa Parks, Jan 23, 10 pm, Jan 24-26, 31, Feb 1 & 2, 8 pm, Jan 26 & Feb 2, 3 pm, $15-20, hand2mouththeatre.org
In 2008, Portland Playhouse took up residence in an old church in Northeast Portland—and to their immense credit, they've done due diligence as white interlopers in a historically black neighborhood, reaching out to African American community members and spotlighting the work of black playwrights. For Fertile Ground, they've joined forces with the August Wilson Red Door Project to present My Walk Has Never Been Average, a multimedia show based on interviews with women of color who work in the construction field.
Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott, Feb 1, 7:30 pm, $5 or pay what you can
Eleanor O'Brien has spent the past few years turning sex into theater. With Inviting Desire, she created a steamy, compelling series of live shows based on women's actual sexual experiences—her work is thought provoking without getting too Vagina Monologues about the whole thing. With Lust & Marriage, O'Brien turns her attention to the question of how to keep sex fun (and happening) after marriage. An investigation of monogamy, polyamory, lust, and more, it poses the question asked by so many of us in moments of doubt: What Would Dan Savage Do?
The Catalyst Art & Culture Space, 4810 NE Garfield, Jan 23 & 30, 8 pm, Jan 24, 25, 31, Feb 1, 10 pm, plus Feb 6, 7, 9, 8 pm, $10
Local collective PDX Playwrights has a whopping 17 shows in Fertile Ground, staged readings that range in content from Gary Corbin's Kleptofamilia—about a woman who copes with her divorce by turning to petty theft—to Kevin Muir's Zombiella, a post-mortem detective story.
Most shows at Hipbone Studio, 1847 E Burnside, see pdxplaywrights.org for dates and showtimes
A newcomer to Portland, playwright DC Copeland is already sufficiently plugged into the Portland theater scene that she knows who to cast: Her two one-acts are anchored by Vana O'Brien, who stars in The Truth According to Rose, and the up-and-coming Andy Lee-Hillstrom, who co-stars in Merrily Down the Stream with the equally promising Danielle Purdy. (Copeland describes Merrily Down the Stream as "Waiting for Godot with two teenagers who are basically stranded in an existential sphere of two lockers," which is an excellent premise as far as I'm concerned.)
IPRC, 1001 SE Division, Feb 1, 4:30 pm, $5 suggested donation
As Portlanders argue over the fate of the Portland Building, Pulitzer finalist Amy Freed's new play The Monster-Builder seems well timed: It's a high-stakes show about architecture, architects, and the secrets that buildings keep. Freed's world-premiere script is a coup for Artists Rep; this is one of the more intriguing shows of the season.
Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, Jan 28-March 2, $25-50, see artistsrep.org for details
You're either a musical theater person, or you're not. I'm not going to try to persuade you either way [*turns down Book of Mormon soundtrack*], but if you enjoy the singing and the dancing, you'll like 4x4=Musicals, a showcase that presents seven short musicals on a four-by-four-foot stage.
The Sanctuary, 1785 NE Sandy, Jan 23-25, 7:30 pm, $15-20
A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff is an ambitious song cycle by artist and performer Alicia Jo Rabins—and, yes, it really is about Bernie Madoff, based on research and interviews and featuring a healthy dose of mysticism. The show's director, Maureen Towey, has worked with the top-notch Portland/Chicago ensemble Sojourn Theatre, as well as designing live shows for Arcade Fire.Consider us intrigued.
Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott, work in progress showing Feb 1, 5 pm, pay what you can; full run Feb 6-9, 7:30 pm, $20, portlandplayhouse.org
Theatre Vertigo gets downright explicit with The End of Sex, a world premiere from local playwright Craig Jessen, about a scientist who invents a magic orgasm salve that can instantly erogenize any part of the body—rub it on your elbow, your knee, or your knuckle, and presto, instant sexytimes. The story is overcomplicated by lab politics—including a journalism-related subplot that reveals a basic misunderstanding of how news reporting works—but the basic premise is funny enough, and grounded by a good-faith attempt to investigate some of sexuality's more complex manifestations.
Shoebox Theatre, 2110 SE 10th, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Feb 15, $20, theatrevertigo.org
Even if you don't get out to a single show—if you never leave the house again—here's what you should take away from this article, and this festival: Portland's theater scene is thriving. The ecosystem of venues, producers, new companies, and established institutions is as vibrant as I've seen it in nearly a decade of covering theater in Portland. In the last year alone, Badass Theatre Company made an inspired debut with Invasion! The Headwaters, a ramshackle venue by the train tracks in Northeast Portland, proved a hub for offbeat shows like the recent lesbian-rock-musical Aika & Rose, and Liminal's ambitious riff on Our Town; across town, near a different set of train tracks, both the Funhouse Lounge and Action/Adventure Theatre have developed into reliable hubs for comedic and scripted work. (Full disclosure: My boyfriend is a company member at Action/Adventure.) Out on 82nd, Post 5 Theatre transformed a chapel in the Milepost 5 artists' community into a vibrant blackbox theater. Artists Rep snagged a hotshot new artistic director, and has moved to transform its two-theater venue in Southwest into a legitimate theater destination. Third Rail did some of the best work of their company's history with Bright New Boise and The Aliens.
Point is, it's a very good time to be a theater fan in Portland. Fertile Ground represents an entire performance community throwing their art at the wall to see what sticks. Some of it won't—but plenty of it will, and I'm excited to be there when it happens.