Theatre, arts, culture, politics, and snark from a practicing playwright and recovering journalist.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Walking Through Fertile Grounds
So. Fertile Ground. Yes.
For those outside Portland, the Fertile Ground Festival presents all-new work over a two-week period, written and produced in Portland. Damn, there a lot of good writers, directors, and actors in this town. In all, 68 pieces were featured in Fertile Ground, and it received national coverage from American Theatre Magazine. You're going to be hearing a lot about Fertile Ground in years to come. Tricia Pancio Mead especially deserves credit for helping the ball get rolling.
I managed to see Sue Mach’s The Shadow Testament, Nick Zagone’s The Missing Pieces, Ellen Margolis’ Elsewhere, and Andrea Stolowitz’s Antartikos. They were all good, all richly imagined, and all completely different. All deserve further production, you producer types out there.
I probably would have seen other shows--there were at least three or more I would have liked to have caught--but I was in an accelerated rehearsal schedule for my own play, Immaterial Matters, which won CoHo Productions’ New by Northwest New Works Contest, with part of the prize being a staged reading of the play during Fertile Ground. My director, Brenda Hubbard, was sharp as hell, made great decisions, and was ruthlessly funny--which helps when you’re staging a play. And my cast was definitely the A-team: Torrey Cornwell, Jim Davis, Adrienne Flagg, Ritah Parrish, Andrew Shanks, and Ebbe Roe Smith. I list them alphabetically because they were all equal in strength and served the work so selflessly.
And the play, Immaterial Matters. I’ve written a bunch of plays at this point. Around 25 full-lengths, I think. I have to say this one has kind of a weird, golden quality about it. Writing it was a delight; every time I put my pen to paper, the words were there. (And to answer possible questions, yeah, I write first drafts in longhand, then type them up into a word processing program, usually editing as I go.)
The play came a deep, personal place, which I think I can talk about now that the play has been through its paces. In 2007, my mom died after a protracted illness. For some time afterward, not surprisingly, I was deep in a dimly lighted tunnel called grief. For both my parents, actually: my father died in 1994, but now I was facing life as a sort of orphan. Every day was like waking up underwater: everything seemed normal until you took your first breath, and then it was a struggle to the surface, and you’d spend the rest of the day treading water, trying not to sink down.
Finally, I said I’d deal with this death monster by looking directly at it, feelings be damned. So I did: my main character was an orphan who, by happenstance, falls into making post-mortem portraiture in the 1880s (it was a vogue at the time). I’ve been a photographer; so I know how the camera serves as a framing device, somehow placing one outside the picture at the same you’re focusing closely. It seemed like an apt metaphor for way one compartmentalizes one’s feelings; so they can be dealt with piece by piece. (If you try to deal with them altogether, it just crushes you.)
I thought it was a strong, unique play, but I wasn’t prepared by the avalanche of praise it received. I mean, if there were folks who didn’t like it, I wasn’t hearing from them. Entirely possible, but people will usually let you know…whether you want to hear it or not. I didn’t receive the usual “I didn’t understand the part” or “I thought may you should change….“ What I did receive was a lot of knowing looks, smiles, and nods, especially from professionals. If you could bottle and sell that feeling, you’d put smack out of business tomorrow.
The piece has such a weird, nighttime texture. It’s a discovery play that builds slowly, the longer the character keeps making the pictures, with each assignment another step in this weird journey until the weight of grief and inevitability of death overwhelm him, including his own loss of his parents. And, at the same time, it’s funny…audiences were definitely laughing. Which seems as it should be: that life is serious as a heart attack and still stupidly hilarious. Maybe especially when you’re having a heart attack.
Anyway, I ended up as pleased as I could be, and a couple theatres are already considering the piece, with a couple more agreeing to look at it. (And, just to prove it’s not invulnerable, one has shot it down already.) I hope all my plays get produced, of course. (Why else would I write them?) But this one I especially look forward to seeing realized, because I think it’s original and says something without preaching. And that’s not an easy trick. And I just want to go see it--which is why I got into writing plays in the first place.
Not long ago, my mom showed up in a dream--a rare guest appearance. She was her rascally self--complaining and full of problems, but funny and endearing, a way I hadn’t seen for a number of years, due to her illness. And I lay in bed for a long while upon waking, not doing anything, but feeling like some kind of debt had been paid, and some kind of separate peace had been achieved. It felt good and complex. Very Zen. Some kind of gift I’d given myself or received from elsewhere.
This has been Fertile Ground’s third year. I’ve participated in both previous years, and had a hell of a lot of fun. But this one, for me, have definitely been the best.
Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian.