Portland's 9th Fertile Ground Festival: Part 3

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 2, 2017

The last batch of shows I saw at Portland's 9th Fertile Ground Festival reveal the heart of what the festival is all about: providing a space where new creative projects from local writers and performers can blossom. With the basic idea of beckoning new work to the forefront in a two-week celebration, Fertile Ground makes room for big voices and small.

Two programs taking the stage late in the festival show off the green shoots of creative expression; "Stories from MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility" and "Word. Voice." These shows are the products of workshops in which young people in difficult situations learn playwriting. Whether they write to explore themselves or escape reality, these new writers bring themselves to the page, and, lucky for us, to the stage.

"Stories from MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility", is a reading of plays by youth in custody of Oregon Youth Authority. A production of "Rogue Pack: Young Portland Speaks," this is a program facilitated by Francesca Piantadosi, who works with a group of gentlemen within MacLaren.

In the eight-week class, they learn character creation, plot, dialogue, and creative problem solving. In the Fertile Ground performance, professional actors read the plays. Jason's play, "Tree," about an older tree warning a young tree about the approaching lumberjack, was sweet and sad.

Billy Ray gave us "Al's House," a dark invitation into a world of drugs and despair that was unflinching and raw. "Hillbilly Tragedy" was a surprise, playing on the superficial sweetness of Southern charm while the characters murder one another for inconvenience. The breadth of creative thought from these playwrights was impressive, and it's exciting to see the result of people finding a voice.

Produced by a program called "Play Write," "Word. Voice" takes a similar path, showcasing the work of high school kids "on the edge" in staged readings by professional actors. From the story of a turquoise marble trying to remove its chipped paint so it could see better, to a discussion between a sunflower and a snake, these plays reveal emotional wounds and a halting but unrelenting effort to connect.

"Word. Voice" used actors familiar to the stages of Portland, some of my all-time favorites (to my great excitement). Darius Pierce, whose uncanny delivery is irresistibly sardonic, gave a water bottle a surprising intensity. Jen Rowe showed off her physical skill as a sunflower following the warmth of the sun.

Seth Rue was the frustrated marble hoping for clarity, and the ineffable Victor Mack the gentle grizzly. Adding to familiar faces was one I didn't know, the dynamic Mitra Avani as a flower who wanted to join her fellow blossoms in the meadow. I'll look for her name again.

One of the pieces performed was a song instead of a play, and it was lovely and memorable. Performed by Brooke Dabalos with Tom Chiappari on guitar, this sophisticated melody hinted at a depth of talent from which I'd like to hear more.

The organizer of the Play Write program, Bruce Livingston -- a hip Danny Kaye in Birkenstocks -- introduced the show with moving remarks about the necessity of reaching toward each other in these divisive times. Getting to end Fertile Ground with his work and that of the MacLaren writers was a comfort after a disruptive week.

These are talented young people whose work deserves to be heard. I am grateful to Rogue Pack, Play Write and Fertile Ground for bringing these voices to a bigger audience and giving these young people space to create and dream and write and perform. Your work is a reminder of the good in people.

Portland's 9th Fertile Ground Festival ran through January 29 at assorted venues across Portland. For more information, visit http://fertilegroundpdx.org/

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.