The conventional wisdom goes something like this: Portland isn't much of a theater town. The many underfunded, myopic companies in the city turn out constant revivals of Shakespeare and Neil Simon, producing little in the way of interesting new work, and audiences won't turn out for shows they haven't seen before. Nobody cares.
It's a convenient myth, giving producers of shoddy work an excuse and haranguing critics a bludgeon. But, these days, it just isn't true. Of the shows open last week, new and recent works outnumbered the chestnuts almost 2-to1—and that's before the Fertile Ground festival, Portland's first celebration of new plays, launches some 40 world premieres, including nine full stage productions, over 10 days, starting Friday, Jan. 23.
The event is a major step for the city, not just in terms of exposure for our growing population of playwrights, but in the rare level of collaboration between companies that it has inspired. Portland Center Stage scheduled the premiere of Apollo, its major new work for the season, to coincide with the festival, and is hosting many of the festival's events. Artists Repertory Theatre moved Tracy Letts' new adaptation of Three Sisters to May after Letts won a Tony, but the company has a hand in two of the shows at the festival, co-presenting with other groups.
The festival, funded and organized by the members of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance, was conceived two years ago as PATA looked for ways to get the city's often disorganized theater community to work together on a common project. "People wanted to have a fringe festival in Portland, but fringe festivals aren't generally good for local theater companies," said Trisha Pancio, PR and publications manager for Portland Center Stage and the festival's director, who at the time was PATA's president. "They're great for touring companies that come and get people to see their work and make money, but they don't generate new audiences for the local companies, who often end up losing money."
So Pancio organized a committee, who decided a festival of Portland-generated new work would be a real boon to the city's artists. "There was a lot of energy for a festival of work by Portlanders. I tried to find someone to lead it several different times, and decided if it was going to happen, I would have to do it," she says.
There's no shortage of new work being conceived and performed here, but much of it keeps a pretty low profile. Sojourn, Hand2Mouth and Fever Theater constantly produce new ensemble work; Miracle Theatre quietly produces a few shows each season; and even Classical Greek Theatre of Oregon has produced a world premiere. "There are lots of playwrights in town," says Pancio. "We've gotten used to that as a theater culture, but we haven't done anything to acknowledge or celebrate that. The mechanism for local playwrights to be seen nationally is abysmal. If you don't live in New York or L.A., forget about it."
With Fertile Ground, Pancio hopes to attract national directors to Portland (several are attending this year) and elevate the profile of the nation's theater artists, and eventually expand the festival's scope beyond just the stage to encompass dance and visual arts.
And how's the work? For the first year, not bad. Many of the companies in Portland that specialize in new work, like Sojourn, aren't participating, but Mead Hunter, PCS's director of literary programs, thinks they'll be won over: "I believe we'll see a big jump in year two [of Fertile Ground] of people who say, 'Now I get it.'"
FIVE SHOWS WORTH SEEING AT THIS YEAR'S FESTIVAL:
The festival's biggest draw by far, this three-part project by Los Angeles playwright Nancy Keystone about the surprising intersections of the space race, the civil-rights moment, Walt Disney and Nazis has been in the works since 2003. See review.
Eleanor O'Brien and an ensemble of six other women set out to turn My Secret Garden, a collection of women's sexual fantasies published in 1973, into a show, but wound up writing their own fantasies instead. "I've been an actor for a long time, and very rarely have I seen a show in which there was a positive portrayal of sexual desire," says O'Brien. You know what you're in for.
Vitriol and Violets
A musical revision of a very successful Cygnet production from 2002 about the infamously witty regulars of the Algonquin Round Table. Director Louanne Moldovan partnered with composer Dave Frishberg (of "I'm Just a Bill" fame) to write song to accompany the play, to be performed at the Algonquin Hotel. The hotel's management changed, so we get to see it first.
The playwrights of the Portland Center Stage Playgroup each picked a place in Portland and a cast size out of a hat, and created a show with what they were given. The resulting pieces may be a little rough, but they should be fun. Plus, the performance is free.
Alice in Wonderland
Director Sarah Jane Hardy partnered with another jazz composer, PSU prof Ezra Weiss, for this new take on Lewis Carroll's novel that's equal parts trippy mushroom story and jazz-history primer. "We thought we might have to do some real manipulation to the text, but the absurdity of the book lent itself very well to the music," Hardy said. "In the script, there's no reference to the jazz music," Weiss said, but "there are some obscure references that only two people in the audience will get, but they'll be laughing their butts off." Toss in a killer band and a pair of seasoned jazz singers as the queens, and it sounds like a great time.
The Fertile Ground festival begins Friday, Jan. 23, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 1. Various times and locations, see
or fertilegroundpdx.org for details. Full festival passes cost $150, individual tickets for shows range from free to $65, though most are $10 or less.