It's a big year for the annual Fertile Ground festival. The 11-day bender of locally produced new works of theater and dance turns 5 this year, and once again the lineup overwhelms. The number of events is down some from last year—from more than 100 to about 90—but the festival pass remains a bargain at $50 (individual tickets are also available). Presenters include heavy hitters as well as freshly hatched companies, and works range from bare-bones readings to fully staged productions. I've selected a few intriguing options here. For more, turn to the Performance listings.
Bruce Hostetler realizes that in writing a play about homelessness in Portland, some might assume he's pushing a political agenda. But Hostetler insists this isn't the case.
"Art has to have a point of view," he says. "But I'm not trying to end homelessness. I'm not trying to make everybody rush out and give $100 to their local homeless shelter. I want people to walk out and the next time they see somebody with a sign along the side of the road or pushing a shopping cart, I want them to see a person. They had parents. They had a life up to that point. They didn't spring fully formed in the moment just to piss me off and get in the way of my scenery."
It was such an experience that spurred Hostetler, a longtime theater director and occasional playwright, into penning Feral. While living in Ashland and working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he drove past a homeless man carrying a sign, and he got to thinking about that man's story. Several years later, he began interviewing homeless youth and adults at agencies across Portland. Hostetler estimates he interviewed 40 individuals, and he also drew from more than 500 interviews conducted by Sisters of the Road from 2001 to 2004. The resulting play, directed by Asae Dean, follows a newly homeless character named Alan over the course of a single night. In this time, he learns the logistics of survival and hears the stories of the play's seven homeless characters.
Hostetler met some resistance from staff at service agencies—he says one executive director worried he was making "poverty pornography"—so he was careful his characters didn't become caricatures. While the dialogue is composite, Hostetler says each character is based on a single individual, and Alan is a stand-in for himself. During the writing process, he held a handful of readings at the agencies where he'd conducted interviews. One homeless youth told him Feral wasn't funny enough.
"He was like, 'The homeless are funny,'" Hostetler says, "'We are really, really funny. Because if you can't laugh, this shit will drive you crazy.'"
Hostetler returned to his draft. In its current form, the play incorporates several moments of humor. "You have to convince them that being hungry and wet is a funny thing," says one character while discussing sign-writing strategy. "'I'm here 'cause I think this is cool. Give me some cash to continue my funny social experiment.'"
At the same time, Feral digs into dark and often harrowing stories: of mental illness, poverty, rape, crime and drug addiction. Hostetler's intent, rather than documenting the everyday routines and trials of homelessness, is to establish complex characters with distinct stories.
"All my interviews started with me saying, 'You are interesting as a human being,'" he says. "'You are not just interesting to me because you happen to be living on the streets right now.' We're quite willing to write the biographies and stories about the people who are famous, but the people who aren't famous are just as fascinating." The Bob White Theatre Warehouse, 6423 SE Foster Road, 800-494-8497. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 pm Sundays, Jan. 24-Feb. 3. $12-$15.
"I didn't know what to do with myself in acting, so it was just a little experiment," Ward says. "I quickly bailed on it when I saw how hard and long it was going to be to make a career of it."
Those challenges—the loneliness and dissatisfaction that often accompany the grind of being a midtier touring comedian—are the subject of Ward's new play, International Falls. Centering on a moderately successful but worn-down comedian named Tim (played by Isaac Lamb, perhaps best known for his elaborately staged wedding proposal set to Bruno Mars' "Marry Me" that went viral in 2012), the play cuts between Tim's standup act and his fling with a hotel desk clerk, Dee (Laura Faye Smith). Though Ward and his wife acted in the play's lauded workshop production in Dallas last March, he says Tim is not a stand-in for himself. He did indeed spend a couple of nights in International Falls, Minn., where the play is set, but says he spent the majority of that time being heckled by drunken Canadian businessmen. That's not what happens in his play.
"The play is really a test of that old idea that comedy comes from pain," Ward says. "It's two characters who are down and out who find a way to laugh for 90 minutes. At the same time, there's a very high-stakes, dramatic, moving story."
Ward is originally from Nashville and now lives in Minneapolis, but he spent six years teaching acting at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. There, he had a student named Brandon Woolley, who now works at Portland Center Stage. When Ward sought feedback on a draft of International Falls, he sent the script to Woolley, who leapt on it and is now serving as director.
"When he was a student and I was his professor, myself and all my colleagues were just as worried about what he thought about us and vice versa," Ward says with a laugh. "He's so talented. It's such a wonderful thing about being a teacher. You send your students out into the world, then they give you work. I love it." The CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St., 220-2646. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, Jan. 25-Feb. 16. $20-$25.
Something's Got Ahold of My Heart
"We're trying to tackle the theme of love, and specifically the contradiction between what pop culture tells us love is and what our own personal feelings tell us love is," Walters says. "Why are there these incredibly cheesy and inaccurate songs and bad romantic movies when we all know that they don't really have anything to do with our own personal love stories?"
To that end, the ensemble moves between what Walters describes as "simple, gentle stories," physical theater, dance and original rock ballads. Some vignettes celebrate the euphoria of love while others probe pain and heartbreak, and all seek to create an immersive experience for the audience. As the show begins, for example, audience members can make dedications to current or former lovers, and these later find their way into the performance.
"We really want audiences to become emotionally involved by thinking about their own lives," says Walters. "That's almost considered taboo for some theater artists."
Also unconventional is the way Somethingâs Got Ahold concludes-âwith a rock concert. Walter explains it simply: âWe really want to have a lovefest with the audience.â Studio 2, 810 SE Belmont St., 235-5284. 8 pm Thursdays-Sundays, Jan. 31-Feb. 17. $12-$20.
SEE IT: Fertile Ground is Jan. 24-Feb. 3 at venues across Portland. Full passes are $50. See fertilegroundpdx.org for details.