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Interview: Fertile Ground Festival Managing Director Dré Slaman

Fertile Ground 2021 will run online Jan. 28 - Feb. 7.

Dre Slaman
Dré Slaman

Fertile Ground is a highlight of the Portland theatre calendar. This festival of new works gives independent artists a chance to put their work, whether it's a play in progress or a fully staged production, in front of an audience, often for the first time. It's all about adventure and discovery. Some of my most memorable nights at the theatre have been at Fertile Ground -- typically they've involved being blown away by an artist I wasn't familiar with in a performance space I didn't know existed.

The 2021 festival, which takes place Jan. 28 - Feb. 7, will be different from previous events. First, it will be virtual. It will also, for the first time, be curated. To learn more about the upcoming festival and what both artists and audiences can expect, I spoke with managing director Dré Slaman.

For readers who may be new to Fertile Ground, what is it and why is it so important to the Portland theatre scene?

DS: Fertile Ground is a new works festival. Essentially any local artist who has a new work is able to produce and present their project to the community. Fertile Ground gives independent artists, who aren't necessarily affiliated with an organization, a platform to show their work, a place where they can put something new out there and have people come see it. It also gives audiences an opportunity to see something they wouldn't normally see because it's not on their radar.

In the past, it has been non-curated, you just come as you are. This year, it's a curated festival for a couple of reasons. We knew it had to be virtual and, because of that, a limited number of slots would be available. We wanted to make sure that, in limiting the number of presentations, we were making space for our community of color and were inclusive of a variety of voices. We started this work several years ago, but thanks to an amazing grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC), we were able to commit to this work more fully.

What can people expect from Fertile Ground 2021?

The 2021 festival will be streamed on Facebook and YouTube. It will still take place over 11 days, but the difference is that there will be specific slots so only one show is streaming at a time.

Great! So you can see everything. That solves a big problem for me!

We also aren't selling festival passes this year. Instead, we're asking for donations -- donate what you can, if you can. I think it's really important right now to make art accessible and help artists' voices be heard.

How will curation change the festival?

What I think about the curation element is that it's forcing producers to get creative about how they're going to present the work -- what the work is, what it means, and how they're going to present it. In a non-curated festival, they'd give their idea, and then all of those other aspects, like how they're going to present it, would fall into place later.

Of course, we're looking for projects that are relevant, interesting, and engaging. We also want to lift up artists whose voices are typically underrepresented. What I'm finding is that producers are doing a great job of expressing their vision and their work. It's another level of thoughtfulness that is elevating the process.

And it will be pre-recorded, not live-streamed, correct?

Yes, it will all be pre-recorded video. I'm hoping it will still be an adventure, because that's the spirit of Fertile Ground. We're not changing the spirit -- we won't be doing any editing, and the artists' work will still be their work -- we're just asking for it in a finite little box. We will have a technical team to help make sure the videos are professionally done so hopefully there won't be any technical difficulties.

Who will do the curation?

The festival will be curated by the GROW PANEL, a group of 19 people whose identities encompass a spectrum of underrepresented voices. They're amazing!

As somebody who walks through this world as a person of color, I feel like the movement in our arts community and the support around making sure that voices are heard and everyone is represented is a big deal. It's important that people are becoming aware that our theatre presentations aren't usually representative of what our Portland community looks like. That's a big step, and one that's personal for me.

We've gone through one round of curation already for the GROW AWARDS, which we just announced last week. The awards provided $500 grants to artists to produce their Fertile Ground 2021 projects. We started with five awards from a RACC Arts Equity & Access grant, and thanks to two additional $1000 donations from anonymous donors, we were able to give away nine.

What's the biggest challenge you've encountered in reconfiguring the festival for these strange times?

How we're going to do it, especially the technical portion. I think producers are feeling the same way. We're having to relearn how to tell our stories, and really we're just taking a leap of faith. We had to reimagine the festival from beginning to end. Literally everything is new.

And the biggest opportunity?

Knowing that great art can be produced in a virtual format. There's a huge opportunity in making art and artist's voices accessible to more people. Especially voices that aren't typically heard or seen.

Maybe in the future, if I'm dreaming big, maybe we can produce some awesome theatre without somebody having to pay $75-100 to go to a theatre to watch it. Maybe we can invite communities of color and younger audiences to a world of theatre that they haven't felt welcome to in that past. As an actor, I am never going to say live theatre is replaceable, but just maybe we can keep theatre alive and relevant in a virtual format too. Can we help artists produce their work for less so it can reach more people? That's the experiment.

Fertile Ground 2021 starts on January 28 and runs through February 7. The lineup and schedule will be announced on December 1. Learn more about the festival and sign up for email updates here.

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