Portland Playhouse’s Wonderland Festival Defrosts Old Ideas
Ah, wonderland: host to Alice, evocative descriptor of winter, home of that scary ancient neon sign on Belmont (to say nothing of bad Taylor Swift bonus tracks). And, starting this Friday, a brand-new Portland performance festival.
“I really wanted to provide an offering in this time that would allow people to stay engaged,” says Portland Playhouse associate producer Charles Grant. So, after the company’s artistic director approached him for ideas about COVID-era performance content, Grant developed Wonderland, a four-part festival of new 10-minute pieces to be streamed over the holidays.
Grant and Portland Playhouse put out an open call to local artists for submissions, and a panel of judges (including Grant, fellow Portland Playhouse staff, and various community members) selected the final slate. Mediums and subject matters vary considerably. Private Chat is a fully produced short film by local performer Ashley Mellinger that aims to demystify sex work; Francisco Garcia’s 545 is a play named for the number of migrant children who remain separated from their families per the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“We’re getting to hear these stories that we’ve talked about for so long, but we’re hearing [them] from a different perspective,” Grant says. “[545 is] from the perspective of two young sisters. In the media, we hear all this stuff about children in cages and things like that, but for this piece, we say, no, we’re actually going to hear from the children. What are they going through? What are their hopes and dreams? What are their fears?”
One piece, titled Catharsis, is a three-part mini-musical from Don’t Shoot Portland vice president Fyndi Jermany. Jermany has collaborated with Grant a handful of times in recent years, but when she got word of Wonderland’s open call, she didn’t think she was ready.
“I was a little apprehensive. I was like, eh, I’m not gonna do it, I don’t have time,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m solidified as an artist yet, I’m still working on my craft.… But then I was like, you know what? I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna put this together. And I ended up getting it.”
Catharsis is a solo piece (with masked cameos from Jermany’s children) that incorporates original music (composed by Jermany), dance, ASL, and clowning to explore capital-B Big concepts: religion, revolution, disillusionment. Parts of it nod to Jermany’s Shawnee ancestry; parts of it are indebted to Broadway.
“I’m excited. I know that people are going to receive it, I just want their minds to open up a bit,” she says. Grant does, too—hence the festival’s title. “I think all four of these pieces, from their proposals, really are getting to wonder and amazement and curiosity,” he says. “It’s not just beating you over the head. It’s people going on a journey and exploring and taking you on a journey as well.”
For Jermany, the exploratory spirit extended to the rehearsal process. She stresses Portland Playhouse's light hand as a producing company despite her lack of formal theater experience. "I was wondering, was there gonna be that aspect of the director micromanaging, but I appreciate that as the artist, it's like, no, this is your baby. Create your piece," she says. But when it came to filling knowledge gaps, their resources came to the rescue. "With the first act, I had this idea of being on a cross, and I thought I had to go get somebody to build a cross for me. But [the lighting designer] was like, 'No, you can just get a gobo.' And I didn't even know what that was!" (A gobo is a small screen in front of a spotlight to create an effect with shadow.)
"People have stories they want to tell, and so often, organizations and theaters can get in the way. Think about the We See You White American Theater demands," Grant says, referencing a document published in the wake of the summer's racial justice protests. “If people have a story they want to tell and a way they want to tell it, who am I to get in the way and say, 'No, that's wrong’?”
All four pieces were shot in advance (three of them at Portland Playhouse’s space on NE Prescott) and will be streamable for free with a suggested donation. Private Chat will kick off the festival on December 11, followed by 545 on December 12, a five-person piece from Kailey Rhodes called The Mythology of Blame on December 18, and Catharsis on December 19. Each piece has a corresponding watch party and live Q&A on its premiere date (you can reserve advance tickets here), and will be viewable for a full month after upload.
December 11–January 19, free with suggested donation, portlandplayhouse.org