RATHER THAN HIT YOU with a crazy itinerary of shows we haven't vetted (yet), we decided to focus the Mercury's guide to this year's Fertile Ground festival of homegrown theater on two best bets: Faith Helma's weirdo-validating I HATE POSITIVE THINKING, and the socially engaged work of Portland's own documentary theater outfit, Boom Arts. Also worthy of your time and attention: SubRosa Dance Collective's Displaced, which puts into (physical) movement Portland's ongoing struggles over no-cause evictions and affordable housing, and Ophelia in Oblivion, a family drama from Portland actor S. Renee Mitchell (who, at last year's Fertile Ground, was a major highlight in Rich Rubin's play about the Vanport Flood, Cottonwood in the Flood). For everything else, you'll have to fill in the blanks, which is easy to do with Fertile Ground's relatively affordable festival pass ($50 for as much theater as you can see) and individual performances and workshops (some of them free). That's the beauty of an uncurated, radically open theater festival: It's 11 days of the unexpected. Start here, and then go forth.
Trial By Failure
Longtime Hand2Mouth Theatre performer Faith Helma's ode to personal failure, I HATE POSITIVE THINKING, was an unexpected delight at last summer's Risk/Reward festival of new performance. Helma's infectious, tongue-in-cheek effervescence is best embodied by what she calls the show's "icon," a turquoise jumpsuit worn with pride as she shares her disillusionment with the woo-woo self-help industry—even as she identifies a route to personal growth in the act of fully embracing failure.
The performance originated with the birth of Helma's son, which she says caused her to reevaluate the more grueling, physically risky performance art she'd been making up to that point (e.g., standing inside a ring of actual fire), and to consider approaches to making work that still had high stakes—but in an emotional rather than shock value-oriented sense. The possibility of failing is, of course, a huge fear for anyone who makes anything for an audience. But it's often a necessary first step if you want to make anything of value.
"I don't think you can make the fear of failure go away," said Helma when we met over coffee to talk about how something so frightening to the type-A artists of the world could be reimagined as a kind of gift. Nonetheless, Helma says she's interested in embracing failure for what it is: one way of learning. As demonstrated in her Risk/Reward performance, this is a weirdly inspiring sentiment—think Samuel Beckett meets Mr. Rogers meets Dear Sugar, with a dash of Martha Rosler. And really, it's a fascinating question: What would the world look like if instead of feeling ashamed, we could be perversely proud of the dumbest shit we've ever done?
"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better," Beckett once said. It may be that Faith Helma fails best of all. MEGAN BURBANK
Shout House, 210 SE Madison, Ste. 11, Fridays-Sundays, 7:30 pm, through Feb 7, $15-20, faithhelma.com
Boom Arts' Noise in the Waters is an "opportunity for Portlanders who are both concerned about international issues and passionate about the arts to go beyond the headlines and delve deeper into a crucial current issue," says producer Ruth Wikler-Luker. The play, which examines the Mediterranean refugee crisis, is translated from Italian and accompanied by original music composed for the performance by Ryan Anthony Francis.
For shows that have an overtly social message—especially about a large and complex issue that's still developing and that people are still experiencing—there's often a risk of seeming preachy, or worse, sensationalizing people's suffering. Boom Arts confronts this risk head-on, though: The performance will be paired with a pre-show lecture on the refugee crisis from Portland State University doctoral candidate Jamie Surface, whose work focuses on refugees and migration, followed by a discussion with Mercy Corps staffers who have recently returned from Greece.
Wikler-Luker invites audience members to attend "if you have felt both moved and overwhelmed by the Mediterranean refugee crisis as it has been depicted in the news," and promises "context; a poetic, philosophical, and personal perspective; and news from the field." AMELIA AYRELAN IUVINO
Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta, Sun Jan 24, 3 pm lecture, 4 pm performance, $12-30, boomarts.org