The Big Question

What's the value of theater?

Last year, a debate over that issue broke out on theater blogs across the country. Put another way—what can theater provide that your television, movie theater, or internet connection can't?

Here's an answer: In Sojourn Theatre's summer production of Built, audience members were challenged to explore their own ideas about living in Portland, and to identify the contradictions inherent therein—to acknowledge the environmental consequences of preferring a drafty old Victorian house to a charmlessly energy-efficient condo, for example, or to consider the effect that increasing density ("building up") will have on the street-level character of the city. Built was developed in Portland, about living in Portland—it was relevant and provocative in a way that spoke directly to local concerns.

This is not to say that local application is a direct measure of quality—only that live theater is capable of offering experiences that other mediums can't.

At its best, theater can be challenging, vital, and relevant. That it all too often is none of the above is the fault of companies who insist on producing tired, unambitious work, and audiences who fail to demand better—who shrug off boring or ill-conceived work as just part of the "theatah" experience.

For every labored reimagining of Shakespeare, though, there's something correspondingly exciting and new: a pop-culture onslaught from Hand2Mouth; the sophisticated performances and complex themes that Third Rail Repertory consistently delivers; a surprisingly professional upstart company, Lucky Apple Productions, reaching across artistic boundaries to include music from local musician Super XX Man in their show Fat Pig. These artists and more offer experiences that simply can't be found in any other medium.

The Festival

The economy might currently be holed up in its bedroom crying and listening to Disintegration on repeat (23rd Avenue Books and photography gallery Quality Pictures are the most recent art-world casualties of the recession), but for those who value live performance, the fact remains: The only way for audiences to ensure that the theater remains a vital and viable art form is to make an effort to seek out and support new work.

An opportunity to do just that arises this weekend, courtesy of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance's Fertile Ground festival, a 10-day, citywide festival devoted exclusively to showcasing new works. Participating companies include Portland Center Stage, Action/Adventure Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, and Fuse Theatre Ensemble (in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Craft, for a show about the nature of craft). With eight fully staged productions, 11 staged readings, plus workshop readings, town hall discussions, and a few parties, it's a sweeping invitation for audiences to explore and support the development of new theater in Portland.

Evolve or Die

Think of Fertile Ground as an umbrella—any company can participate, and participants are responsible for their own production costs. As Trisha Pancio, the director of Fertile Ground (and current PR manager of Portland Center Stage) explains it, the festival grew out of an interest in hosting a fringe festival—but it was ultimately decided that while a fringe festival is a great way to bring touring acts to a city, it does nothing to support the local theater community. A need was identified for a festival that would support theater artists living and working in Portland while providing audiences access to brand-new work.

Pancio sees Fertile Ground as an opportunity for theater in Portland to develop the region-specific reputation already enjoyed by music and food. "Success breeds success," Pancio tells me. "Develop a reputation and people will move here to produce work. We'll start to develop an aesthetic that appeals to our generation." She hopes that the festival will be the first step in raising Portland's profile. "If Portland wants to see themselves on national stages, they have to start by cultivating artists with a Portland point of view," she says. "That's why it's interesting to cultivate these local playwrights who have been toiling in obscurity—because they have a uniquely local perspective."

A perfect example of that perspective comes from Action/Adventure Theatre, the young company behind the serialized, soap opera-like Fall of the House, which follows the lives of a group of twentysomethings, doing the things that twentysomethings do. The show is nimble, relatable, and cheap, making it one of the few shows in town that can compete with live music as both an affordable entertainment option and a social happening—the newest episode will premiere at Fertile Ground. Action/Adventure's Miranda King ardently echoed Pancio's points about the importance of fostering new ways of approaching theater.

"Theater needs to develop or it's going to die," King says bluntly. "Theater artists need to push themselves out of their comfort zones. I understand that a lot of people studied Shakespeare—and don't get me wrong, I love Shakespeare—but does it really challenge anyone? I think that's one of the most exciting things about Fertile Ground. The Portland theater community came together around the idea of creating new work."

The Bottom Line

There are challenges, of course, to producing new work. Sojourn Theatre's founding Artistic Director Michael Rohd—currently a resident artist at Northwestern University, and who will be at Fertile Ground for a panel discussion of the state of new play development—noted in a phone interview that Oregon artists suffer from a comparative lack of state and local funding, which can make it difficult to keep up with the technological innovations that are redefining theater both nationally and abroad.

"Live performance is being taken apart and remade completely, with interactivity and digital media," Rohd says. "It's become a completely different event. Arts funding here puts artists behind the curve in terms of being able to experiment with technology in the same ways that pop culture can."

While Fertile Ground doesn't alleviate the financial burden of producing innovative work, it does generate momentum around the idea of such work—which ultimately, hopefully, will result in more interest in and support for technological and artistic risks.

Not every show in the festival promises to shake up the very foundations of performance, of course—but even the Northwest Children Theater's original adaptation of Alice in Wonderland gets creative with a jazz-inspired musical score. And with other works, like Portland Center Stage's multimedia montage Apollo, or Dance Naked Productions' Inviting Desire, a "theatrical exploration of the erotic imagination," it's safe to assume they offer the type of experience that only live performance can provide.

So, should you go? Yes, if you have any interest in fostering the development of new work in Portland. Or you could content yourself with ignoring local theater as usual, hope that the TBA festival continues to bring innovative theater and performance art to town for eight days a year, and forget supporting the development of such work in your own community. It's up to you.

Fertile Ground kicks off Friday, January 23, with a dance party at Backspace, 115 NW 5th, 9 pm, $5, all ages. Festival runs January 23-February 1, festival passes $150, individual ticket prices vary; see for complete schedule and ticket prices