LANGUAGE ARTS

Solofest preview: e pluribus unum

Bag & Baggage Productions' new festival shines a spotlight on storytelling by excluded voices

It’s easier than ever for us to hear people who have long been marginalized. From vlogs to podcasts to YouTube and the rest, the proliferation of expressive avenues has revealed a tremendous demand to hear personal stories from once-stifled voices. “The rise of shows like The Moth shows that storytelling is becoming super-trendy,” says Bag & Baggage Productions’ artistic director Scott Palmer. “Whether on a podcast or a TED Talk, there’s a movement featuring the singular voice of the storyteller.”

As solo storytelling has spread, theater has followed. Theater artists like Anna Deavere Smith and others have used solo storytelling to widen the lens to include stories of America’s diverse cultures and experiences. “We’ve been noting over last few years an increased awareness and interest in solo performers across the country,” Palmer says, “especially when those pieces are tied directly into issues of equity and social justice.” For example, “there are significant implications of the #metoo movement — people listening to and respecting individual stories. They’re a touchstone of how we move through the world.”

Damaris Webb performs in Solofest this weekend.

Result: while in the past, inexpensive-to-produce storytelling was sometimes dismissed as “poor man’s theater” more suited to fringe festivals than mainstream venues, Palmer says, “the values of artistic excellence, commitment, and preparation have risen, and those barriers between theater and storytelling are coming down.”

That’s why, when the company moved into its intimate new venue The Vault last year, Palmer created Solofest, which he hopes will be an annual showcase for solo performers, especially those telling stories that reflect the company’s values of equity and diversity. Curated by Palmer and B&B associate artistic director Cassie Greer, this year’s debut installment features four different performers telling personal stories in a theatrical setting. Two stories will run at each performance in different combinations from Feb. 1-4 at The Vault. 

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Audio drama PDX: Curated nostalgia

In the first of two parts – and before a Tolkien birthday bash on Saturday – a look at the old-time radio roots of a modern media movement

For most of my life I’ve been chronologically out of step. I was born in 1965, and my favorite clothes were out of fashion by 1930, my favorite authors were all dead by 1945, and one of my favorite artistic mediums, audio drama, culturally peaked in about 1950 and was until recently virtually extinct.

As a kid in the isolation of small-town Alaska, I would stay up late to hear, via the hit-and-miss bouncing signals of AM, re-broadcasts of the radio dramas from the 1930s and 40s, shows like The Shadow and Inner Sanctum. For a while anyway in the ’70s there was also the five-a-night broadcast of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a project helmed by grizzled radio veterans that featured fun performances though generally mediocre scripts.

Promotional photograph from November 1930 for the CBS Radio series “The Detective Story Hour,” the program that introduced The Shadow to radio audiences. The character was initially played by James La Curto. Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of the general hokiness of many of the shows, new and old, for reasons that were clearly thought peculiar to my friends and family I was hooked. How did they do so much with nothing more than a script, a few actors, and some carefully placed sound effects? (The answer, of course, is that the listener’s imagination does the work. As radio pioneer and general funny guy Stan Freberg once said, “the monitor of our head is limitless.”)

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Wordstock 2: The new comics, the unwanted book, donuts & dystopias

After Lit Crawl, the main event: Literary Arts' annual festival of writers and writing packs the Park Blocks with ideas and words

Despite a late night (for me) at Lit Crawl the night before, I managed to arrive at the Portland Art Museum last Saturday right as this year’s Wordstock literary festival opened. I had spent hours crafting my schedule for the day, weighing various panels and readings against each other, and realized the morning would be the only time I’d have to check out the Book Fair.

Yes, you can buy books there, but you can also: Get information on MFA programs, learn how to self-publish a book, buy literary-themed gifts, discover literary magazines, find writing retreats, join literary organizations, and sign up to volunteer in the community. It’s an amazing reminder of how vibrant the literary scene is in Portland and the Northwest. There’s also a lot of free pens there.

Sometimes you listen. Sometimes you look. And Wordstock offers plenty to browse through. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

A note on Lit Crawl: If you haven’t been to this pre-Wordstock event it’s a great way to get to know local writers. I went to readings organized by Incite, Perfect Day Publishing, and Pie & Whiskey.

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Wordstock 1: stuffed grandmothers, E.B. White, and collective desires

This year, Portland's literary extravaganza has the fervor of an evangelical revival. In fractious times, maybe that's a good thing.

In a Paris Review interview in 1969, when asked about the role of the writer, E.B. White famously answered: “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.” Despite his use of the male-centric pronoun, Mr. White’s sentiment seems to hit on something vital and true, and might also explain the 10,000 or so people lined up at various venues around the Park Blocks last Saturday for Portland’s annual book festival, Wordstock. This turnout, larger than in years past, felt hopeful somehow. Our collective desire to enter into those conversations between reader and writer, particularly on Veterans Day, to examine the role of narrative and history and words— that our curiosity is so intact— went a little way toward fortifying against what recently feels like a never-ending assault of troubling news.

E.B. White, with his dog Minnie: a spirit, hovering over Wordstock. Photo: Tilbury House Publishers

And, really, there’s no denying that times are troubling. This came up repeatedly in discussions throughout the day. What also came up is that times have always been troubling for somebody, depending on the happenstance of your birth. Given the peril of our planet, the unearthing in recent days of the uglier sides of human nature, and the anxiety that still lingers after last year’s election, maybe we can just agree that times are even more troubling for more people. Perhaps this can account for the size of the crowd and the quite-audible fervor that emanated from it as people stood in line for one of the headlining events, Ta-Nehisi Coates in conversation with Jenna Worthman of the New York Times Magazine at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

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Atticus, tried and all too true

Lakewood's sharp and moving "To Kill a Mockingbird" does justice to an American classic that reverberates in a curious time capsule

To Kill a Mockingbird is a cherished time capsule of American literature and culture, a concise and moving statement about childhood, innocence, courage, and race. Its main characters – feisty tomboy Scout Finch, her brother Jem and friend Dill, the mysterious and frightening Boo Radley (much talked about but rarely seen), and above all that towering figure of decency and strength, Atticus Finch – are genuine American icons, up there within shouting distance of Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab and poor besmirched Hester Prynne. Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo and Atticus, of course, are all white Southerners, and it’s telling that the novel’s major black characters – Scout’s substitute-mother cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia, and Tom Robinson, the honest laborer who is falsely but fatally accused of rape – are not nearly so well-etched in the public consciousness.

Mockingbird doubles, maybe triples, in time. Harper Lee’s novel was published to acclaim in 1960, in the midst of the civil rights movement, after Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks’ bus rebellion and the Little Rock desegregation crisis, before the Selma marches and the rise of the Black Panther Party and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was both a repressive and an exciting time, when liberal hopes and expectations, in spite and perhaps in part because of the naked resistance they faced, ran high.

Kate McLellan as Scout, Monica Fleetwood as Calpurnia, Bram Allahdadi as Jem in “Mockingbird.” Lakewood Theatre photo

The novel is set, however, in an earlier time – the early to middle 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, in small-town Alabama, a seat of rigid segregation and no small amount of mob violence. From that viewpoint the actions of Atticus and the lessons Scout learns are truly heroic: resolute stands against the corruption of the place and culture they knew and loved. Tom Robinson loses his life. Scout loses her innocence, but gains something much larger: an understanding of the moral universe, and an emerging ability to cope with its demands.

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Portland’s Grand Central Station

Everybody comes to Powell's, and photographer K.B. Dixon's new exhibition and book find volumes in the mix of people and place

Photographs by K.B. DIXON

Powell’s City of Books is Portland’s Grand Central Station, the teeming crossroads of the city’s cultural life: not just one of the nation’s great commercial repositories of literature and language, but a busy transit center of people and ideas. Kids, teens, singles, doubles, parents, grandparents. Locals who drop in for an hour and spend the day. Serious scholars doing research. Tourists who treat it like a shrine. Foreign visitors looking for something in their native language, or something to help them brush up on their English skills. People on their way to someplace else. People on their way back from someplace else. Browsers, buyers, passersby. Like Rick’s, it seems, eventually everybody comes to Powell’s.

 

Entering the temple: the south entrance on Burnside.

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IT IS ALSO, LIKE THE MULTNOMAH County Central Library just a few blocks away, one of Portland’s best people-watching places, an almost endless fascination of faces, connections, and enthusiasms. Something about a great bookstore encourages people to be very public and very private at once – lost, publicly, in the obsessions and curiosities of their own minds. Portland photographer and writer K.B. Dixon believed Powell’s was an ideal spot to pursue his own obsession for creating interesting and culturally telling black and white images. He gained permission to spend hours and hours in the aisles, following his eye where it led. The results of his project are now on view in a sort of meta-exhibition: images of Powell’s at Powell’s, in the bookstore’s Basil Hallward Gallery, upstairs in the Pearl Room, through October. Images here are from the exhibition or the larger selection of photographs in Dixon’s accompanying book, titled simply The Bookstore.

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Tess Gallagher on Raymond Carver

The celebrated poet, who'll be in Portland for Imago's Carver stage adaptation "Human Noise," talks about life with and after Carver

It’s difficult to imagine a question that has not been asked of the poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright and teacher Tess Gallagher. As one-half of the legendary literary partnership with the revered, Oregon-born poet and short story writer, Raymond Carver, there was a time when Gallagher, well-published on her own, was one of the world’s most interviewed artists. If you’re familiar with her writing, you are not surprised.

Gallagher’s been generating poetry and prose for decades that shocks and moves with its vast range of expression. All of her work, even the most emotionally raw, seems to be guided by a steadfast intelligence and relentlessly penetrating vision.

Tess Gallagher: writing a life.

She’s published and taught extensively while also being the devoted steward of Carver’s work since he died in 1988. After reading Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge and seeing the invaluable Carver collections that Gallagher shepherded to posthumous publication, one gets a sense that the communication between the two never really stopped.

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