For the theatergoer weary of endless revivals of The Odd Couple and To Kill a Mockingbird, it's a bonanza: In the next 10 days, Portland will see no fewer than 68 performances of new works of theater and dance, all of them created by local playwrights, performers and choreographers. The Fertile Ground festival, which began in 2009 as an umbrella for independent producers, has grown to bewildering size; with the purchase of one $50 pass, you could easily attend three performances per day until Jan. 30 without seeing even half of the festival's offerings. (Events are also individually ticketed.) Choosing which ones to attend is a bewildering task. Here are a few I find particularly compelling; for the rest, look to the Stage listings.
My Mind Is Like an Open Meadow
In 2001, Erin Leddy, having recently graduated from Emerson College with a degree in radio, spent a year living with her then-81-year-old grandmother, Sarah Braveman, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and recording her memoirs.
"I recorded over 20 hours of her voice," Leddy says. "It was an incredible mix of concrete stories and this strange stream of consciousness. She'd get caught up in memory and the stories would continue to open and open."
Leddy brought the recordings with her when she moved to Portland, where she became a member of Hand2Mouth Theatre. As years passed, the nagging feeling that she should make something from them grew.
"Sometimes I would bring her in during scene work, and she just kept appearing more and more," Leddy says.
After fellow Hand2Mouth member Faith Helma successfully toured her solo show, Undine, to New York, Leddy set about turning the recordings into a performance piece. A residency at the Yaddo artists' community in Saratoga Springs gave her time to refine the piece—and to get Braveman, herself a former actor, to record some new material. The show, which blends music, dance and monologue, "appears to be a live conversation," Leddy said. "It creates an intimate cave world, where she's coming out of all the walls." The Mouth, inside Zoomtopia, 810 SE Belmont St., hand2mouththeatre.org. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, Jan. 20-30. $12-$15.
Tonya Jone Miller isn't the sort to shy away from adventure. An "aural courtesan" (i.e., phone sex maven) by day, she's toured the Canadian fringe circuit showing off her whip scars as part of Inviting Desire, a show about women's sexual fantasies. But that's nothing compared to her mother, who traveled to Saigon in 1968, in the middle of the Vietnam War, to become a teacher.
Miller says she was inspired to turn her mother's story into a solo performance after seeing over 50 shows in the 2009 Calgary Fringe Festival. "I did 12 or 13 one-hour interviews, and ended up going down to the Bay Area to interview some of my father's surviving [Vietnamese] family to fill in the missing pieces," she adds.
Why did her mother risk life and limb to move to a place most Americans her age were desperate to avoid? "She fell in love with my dad, who was a Vietnamese student in the U.S.," Miller says. "She wanted to do something to show the people of Vietnam that there were Americans who didn't care about fighting, and wanted to support them."
Miller has distilled her mom's experience into a 90-minute performance, directed by Canadian actor Sean Bowie, that promises the sort of thrills only found in true stories. "The last day she was there was April 1975, she was 8½ months pregnant with me, trying to get her husband's father out," Miller says. "You couldn't come up with the things she saw if you tried." The Headwaters, 55 NE Farragut St., No. 9. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 pm Sundays Jan. 27-Feb. 12. $15.
The Missing Pieces
Nick Zagone isn't exactly a newbie when it comes to the Portland theater scene, but you probably don't remember him. "I had several [shows] produced in Portland a long, long time ago at Portland Women's Theater, which is where Laurelwood restaurant is now," he says. Zagone's career took him first to Seattle, where he was a founder of Open Circle Theater, then Las Vegas, Los Angeles and finally, in 2007, back to his hometown. These days he works at Powell's Books, which is where he met Brian Weaver, artistic director of Portland Playhouse, during the 2009 JAW playwriting festival, where Zagone's comedy The Missing Pieces had a reading.
"He was buying a copy of Radio Golf, and I said, 'Oh, The Piano Lesson is better,'" Zagone says. "He told me who he was, and I said, 'You should see my play.' It was kind of kismet how it all came about."
Weaver liked the show, which he is directing in a workshop production this week. Zagone calls the show, which takes place in the wake of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, a "selective memory play." "It's about a 12-year-old boy whose father has left. He decides he wants to live at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills. His Catholic mother has no plans of letting him leave. To get down there he tries to get the help of an ex-Playboy playmate from 1963, and then chaos ensues," he says. "It was a very weird time here, right when the mountain erupted." Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 205-0715. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, Jan. 20-30. $15.
THE FORGERY. IMAGE: Paul Colvin
Elsewhere: Short Plays In and Around the Afterlife
"We like to say that Ellen dies for nine months of the year," says the Forgery Theatre Collective's Beth Thompson of Ellen Margolis, the writer of the young company's new production, who teaches at Pacific University.
Death is, as it happens, the subject of the 11 pieces that compose Elsewhere, along with loss and limbo. It's a slight departure for the Forgery, a group of young performers that grew from a year spent "in the community room of the Belmont Dairy [apartments], making stuff up, drinking wine and talking about theater," Thompson says. To date, the company's performances have been created collaboratively and inspired by its members' shared obsession with objects—sleeping bags, messages in bottles and goggles.
This production, which the Forgery presented in a shorter form last summer, grew out of questions both whimsical and terrifying, Thompson says: "What would it be like if Fred Phelps met with God? How do you fall for six pages? Where do lost socks go?" Shaking the Tree, 1407 SE Stark St., fertilegroundpdx.org. 8 pm Fridays-Saturdays, 4 pm Sundays Jan. 28-Feb 5. $12.
The Fertile Ground Festival runs Jan. 20-30 at venues all over Portland. Full-festival passes are $50. Visit fertilegroundpdx.org for details.