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.

Me Knees is Getting Wobbly…

…but in a good way.

My play “Immaterial Matters” plays Sunday and Monday night at 7:30. Forget me…please come see it for the incredible cast and director.

The problem is that grief blinds. People think different when the burying’s over. A soul’s just leaving, you do anything to keep hold of them. Once they’re done with ashes to ashes and paying off the doctor and the undertaker and the grave diggers and the preacher, the last thing they want to remember is the dying.-Reilly O’Rourke, Immaterial Matters

Immaterial Matters by Steve Patterson

And Then There’s Crazy

Play readings are very seldom reviewed–they usually only happen once, so there’s no “consumer reporting” to be had (“go,” “don’t go,” “I don’t care if you go ’cause I had a few drinks before I saw this and I can’t remember what happens”). Which is good because you’re generally presenting a reading to test what works and what doesn’t. But “The Rewrite Man”– presented by Pulp Diction on Tuesday as part of the Portland Fertile Ground New Works Festival–actually snagged a mini-review by the Willamette Week. They dubbed it “occasionally mystifying”–which, given that it’s meant to be occasionally mystifying, I’ll keep…whether they meant it the way I intended or not.

And if I haven’t said it already, many thanks to Matt Haynes, Brian Allard, the splendid cast, and all the crew at the Pulp Diction. You guys did a great job.

Pulp Diction Presents: The Rewrite Man
Everyone has something to hide in this occasionally mystifying reading of a new spy thriller, written by Oregon Book Award winner Steve Patterson and delivered with a splash of neo-noir. “There’s cloak and dagger, and then there’s crazy,” announces WWII vet Frank Anderson (Brian Allard, director) to the intelligence officer tailing him (played by Andrew Bray), accurately summarizing the essence of this piece, in which Anderson attempts to grapple with his loss of wartime memory and wariness of all fellow characters. The trusty bartender Leo (Beau Brousseau) suddenly seems not so trustworthy, therapist Dr. Miles (Megan Murphy Ruckman) appears to have some shady advice, and mystery woman Wanda (Erin Shannon) couldn’t possibly be up to any good in a drama that ends with a flustered Frank accusing each character of ulterior motives in a doubt-filled, gun-pointing frenzy. Before and after the reading, alluring drag queen Phaedra Knight graced the stage, delivering witty quips and lip-synching Ani Difranco’s “Overlap”. This was one of a handful of unique particulars, the intimate nature of the Brody Theater (and the fact that it has a bar) being another, that serve as additional incentive to return for the subsequent showings of this week’s Pulp Diction late night series. Matt Haynes’ “The Night I Died,” an adventurous piece directed by Paul Angelo, will be showing Wednesday. “The Go-Girls,” written by Anna Sahlstrom and directed by Micki Selvitella, will be performed in anticipated hilarity on Thursday. The Brody Theater, 16 NW Broadway., 224-2227. 10:30 pm Wednesday-Thursday, Jan. 27-28. $15.


The Rewrite Man

written by Steve Patterson
directed by Brian Allard

Frank Anderson is a rewrite editor for a wire service in 1953 San Francisco. A former WWII vet who worked as an armorer, he has nearly a two-year gap in his memory that haunts him. A trail of intrigue, spying, and the difficulty of discerning the real from the imagined, all churned together in 1950s paranoia, is set in motion when a femme fatale enlists Frank’s help finding her cousin, and an “army buddy” of Frank’s shows up—of whom Frank has no recollection. Is anyone, including Frank’s bartender or his shrink, who they say they are? Is Frank who he thinks he is? When people start get tailed and guns start showing up, who can Frank trust? Ian Fleming meets Phillip K. Dick in this thriller that is sure to leave you checking over your shoulder on the way home.

Time Waits for No One, Not on My Side

Where’s the “off” button on this thing, anyway?

Sorry it’s been so long between postings, but, some time during early October, life accidentally bumped the hyperdrive switch, and I’ve been violently sucked into an uber-accelerated time vortex, and it’s been all I can do just to clutch the safety bar while my rattling little cart has climbed, dived, slid, and shuddered into the curves.

Hyperbole? Well, yes. But it has been busy. In addition to working 50+ hour weeks at my day job as a mild-mannered technical editor, I finished the working draft of Immaterial Matters–a new full-length drama I’ve very pleased with.

I’m helping Playwrights West, a new Portland theatre company, get off the ground (including building and launching a last-minute Web site to serve as a placeholder until we can build a better site).

I shot, framed, and hung a photo project for a production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and served on a public panel discussing Sam’s work.

I reconnected with one of my oldest friends (then promptly dropped the ball when the schedule overwhelmed me–sorry, Scott), and I got together with Jack Boulware, a college/journalist buddy, in town to promote his terrific new book Gimme’ Someting Better (and more to come on that).

Deb and I managed to go see Bob Dylan and B.B. King, both beyond wonderful but Tuesday-night concerts which left me wasted the rest of the week.

I shot a portrait of a charming transvestite for Pulp Diction, a January new works reading series and part of Portland’s Fertile Ground New Works Festival, which includes my newish full-length play The Rewrite Man–which, of course, I had to rewrite.

I’ve made huge leaps forward with my guitar playing (I think), bought Deb a new Ibanez acoustic as an anniversary present (we’ve been jamming together, which has been wonderful), bought and broke in a new Vox amp (because Deb’s new guitar has an electronic pick-up, and I happily returned the great Roland amp she’d been loaning me), and, this week, completely lost my mind and bought an Epiphone Sheraton II semi-hollow body electric (more on that to come as well).

Plus the car blew up and needed major repairs, we had a small dinner party for my yearly winter dish, Beef Bourguignon, and, after writing three full-length plays in two years, I decided to take a break from playwriting…to write a non-fiction book (and stil more on that down the road, naturally). In my spare time, I managed to begin writing a song. Because, you know, I didn’t have enough to do.

Finally, three vetebras in my neck went out (stress, perhaps?), and I’ve pretty much been in constant pain for weeks, but I’ve been so busy that I couldn’t get to my doctor until this past week. (Getting better, thanks.)

Things, pleasantly, look to slow down in a little while–right after the PR I have to do for Playwrights West (also part of Fertile Ground), rehearsals for The Rewrite Man (and possible rewrite), two grants I should hear yea or nay on this month, a new round of play submissions, some work as a regional Dramatists Guild representative, photos I owe some friends, revamps of Playwrights West’s and my own Web sites, research on the new writing project, and then this upcoming “Christmas” event…whatever that is. Plus another couple play rewrites with looming deadlines.

So my apologies for the posts I haven’t written, phone calls and e-mails I haven’t returned, or any other balls I’ve managed to drop. I’ve been lucky to hang on to the pair I was issued years ago.

At some point, the fatigue morphs from agony to giddiness. At least that’s what they tell me: I’m still waiting.

In short, if I owe any of you stuff–scripts, pictures, calls, or new blog posts–please bear with me. I’ll get to it right after…. Well, it’s on my mind, okay?

My to-do list includes: “update to-do list.”


Okay, so eight playwrights walk into a city…

…and what happens?

Actually what happens is Open City, a project dreamed up by PlayGroup, Portland Center Stage’s ongoing playwriting workshop. In short, we all nominated eight locations in Portland, wrote them on paper, tossed the paper into a hat (or a mayonnaise jar…I can’t remember), drew our locations, then drew our number of players. And wrote. And it’s freakin’ cool. (Except my piece.)

The playwrights are: Althea Hukari, Shelly Lipkin, Ellen Margolis, Steve Patterson (I just wandered in from the street, looking for beer), Andrea Stolowitz, Patrick Wohlmut, Nick Zagone, and Matthew B. Zrebski. Matt’s directing. The cast is: Deirdre Atkinson, Ben Buckley, Timothy M. Hill, and Lara Kobrin.

It’s Monday, February 2, 2009, at 7:30pm at The Gerding Theater, Portland Center Stage at The Armory (that’s the big stage, folks). Admission is free. Plus it’s the cherry on top of the fabulous Fertile Ground City-Wide Festival of New Works, which means there’s a party afterwards. With beer. So wander in.

Let’s Get Plowed

Warning: serious fun ahead.

Portland is about to launch an inaugration of its own: the Fertile Ground City-Wide Festival of New Work. From January 23rd to February 1st, theatres all over Portland have committed to staging new plays, from full productions to concert readings. It’s kind of like a South-by-Southwest music festival but for theatre, where you can buy a pass and theatre-hop for a couple weeks. Or you can by a button and get into shows at a discount. (You can also just buy tickets regularly, of course.) It’s a grand experiment, and the Portland theatre community, especially playwrights, hope it’s a smashing success that becomes an ongoing, annual event. No matter how it turns out, it’s great to see theatre companies take a chance on something new. For more info, go to Fertile Ground. Special thanks to Tricia Pancio (there’s imp herself, above right) for being the little-engine-that-could get this thing going. She’s worked her ass off, and Portland theatre community (and the whole city) owe her a big round of applause.

And…yes: I’ll have something in the festival. PlayGroup, the writers group I belong to at Portland Center Stage will present….

Open City by Althea Hukari, Shelly Lipkin, Ellen Margolis, Steve Patterson, Andrea Stolowitz, Patrick Wohlmut, Nick Zagone, and Matthew B. Zrebski
Portland Center Stage Playgroup

Festival Dates: Feb 2 at 7:30 pm

For this group show created by PlayGroup (whose previous escapades include The Clearing, Frenching the Bones and Ten Tiny Playlets) and directed by Matt Zrebski, each playwright pulled a Portland location and a cast size out of hat, then went to work on a short play inspired by those circumstances. The result, presented in rehearsed concert form, is a kaleidoscopic vision of the Rose City that adds up to a town we all recognize.

Venue: Main Stage, Gerding Theater at the Armory (128 NW 11th Ave)

And the fabulous Gary Garrison, Executive Director of Creative Affairs for the Dramatists Guild, will be visiting our fair city on Saturday 31, 2008, speaking at at Portland Center Stage’s Ellen Bye Studio Theater from 1:30-3:00 PM about all things playwright, followed by a town hall discussion about playwriting in Portland and Oregon in general.

More to come on that as well, but it’s a sign that (a) the Fertile Ground Festival is going to be one hell of a special event; and (b) Portland’s playwriting community is beginning to be recognized beyond the borders of Multnomah County.

As Hunter Thompson would say: good craziness.