Lawrence Howard

Speed-dating at Fertile Ground

As the new-works festival gets ready for its tenth annual run, a horde of writers and performers check out the media (and vice versa)

And lo, on the third day of the New Year, a great clamor fell upon the multitude, and the dread Pealing of the Four Minutes rang out, and the people scurried from line to line, taking their spots in the sun, pitching their pitches, eager to be heard. And a mighty clatter and confusion arose, accompanied by press releases and business cards, and then the next wave burst, and the pieces shuffled yet again. And the creator of it all smiled, and said, “That’s good!”

It’s true. On January 3, in the upstairs lobby of Artists Repertory Theatre, producers, performers, directors, and writers of shows in Portland’s 10th annual Fertile Ground festival of new works met with members of the press, pressing them, as it were, with quick-hit details on their shows and why the media members should really, truly see and publicize them. Once again Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane was stage-managing this frenzy of what she calls “media speed-dating,” cracking the whip – or, more accurately, blowing a harmonica – to keep things moving swiftly along. What sometimes seemed like bedlam actually had a drill-sergeant efficiency: Line up in front of a press member sitting at a table. Take your turn. Make your pitch. You get four minutes. The mouth harp shrieks. You move on to another line, and someone takes your place.

The Fertile Ground speed-dating crowd. ArtsWatch’s contingent is tucked discreetly toward the back, hidden behind more dashing daters. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

This year, ArtsWatch’s contingency in the hot seats consisted of me and Marty Hughley, our theater editor and chief theater columnist. We made a deal beforehand. Marty would get the lay of the land, find out what’s out there, use his brief talks to help strategize our coverage, including which full productions to review. I would do my best to simply report the evening as it occurred from my table. And Bobby Bermea, who wasn’t at date night (sensible man), would tackle the festival from the inside, talking about the stages of some of the shows, and talking with artists about the process of creation. 

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Peril on ice: an Antarctic tragedy

Lawrence Howard's "Polar Opposites: Amundsen, Scott, and the Race for the South Pole" spins a tale of adventure and deadly ambition

As the pre-show jazz band finished up a generous hour-long set at The Old Church on Saturday night and began packing up, Lawrence Howard sidled downstage, took a look at the big prop perched on a stand behind him, and turned to the audience conspiratorially. “I hate it when the map’s upside down,” he observed, and manhandled the thing – a giant representation of Antarctica and its surrounding waters – into proper position. Even way down under, it appears, what’s up is up and what’s down is down.

Lawrence Howard tells a tale of Antarctica. Photo: Kimmie Fadem

Then Howard, the co-founder of Portland Story Theater who is known as “The Armchair Adventurer” for his own long yarns of historical derring-do, pitched right into his tale, Polar Opposites: Amundsen, Scott, and the Race for the South Pole. Most but not all of Howard’s adventure tales are set against the challenges of the Arctic or Antarctic (he’s also recounted the stories of the Victorian Englishman John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and lived to tell the tale; and of the 1820 sinking of the whaler The Essex, a disaster that inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick), and Polar Opposites takes him back to familiar formidable southern territory. A tale Howard first told in 2011, on the centennial of the events it recounts, it’s the story of the competing expeditions in late 1911 and early 1912 of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and the British expeditionary leader Robert Falcon Scott to be the first humans to set foot on the geographic South Pole.

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Fridtjof Nansen’s polar express

Lawrence Howard's Armchair Adventurer series heads toward the North Pole with the tale of the great Norwegian explorer and statesman

East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. But Rudyard Kipling didn’t say anything about north and south, and as Lawrence Howard points out, when you’re living on a globe, eventually they do meet: It’s inevitable.

Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater and spinner of a string of Armchair Adventures, has chronicled in several tales the travails, disasters, endurance and occasional triumphs of the men who attempted to conquer the South Pole in the early years of the 20th century: Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, and their crews.

Lawrence Howard reimagines the icy north. Photo: Scott Bump

With his new solo show, Nansen of the North, Howard for the first time in his polar adventures heads north instead of south. And he travels backward into the 19th century, a place he’s taken us before with his Armchair tales about The Essex, a Nantucket whaler that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, thus inspiring Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; and John “Babacombe” Lee, a Victorian thief and laborer who survived three hangings after being convicted on slim evidence of slitting a seaside spinster’s throat in 1884.

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Way down under, trapped on ice

Fertile Ground: Lawrence Howard spins a tale of bravery, isolation, and endurance in Antarctica in "Shackleton, the Untold Story"

Lawrence Howard, Portland’s best-known armchair adventurer and one of the city’s most engaging raconteurs, returned to the stage at Alberta Abbey on Saturday night with another tale of gritty endurance and testing of mettle at the ends of the world. Shackleton, the Untold Story unfolds the adventure of the other, less glamorous, and in certain ways more calamitous arm of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, his failed but valiant attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, a brutal trek of 1,800 miles through the most forbidding climate on Earth. (The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had made it to the South Pole and back three years before, but not across the entire continent.)

Lawrence Howard, onstage with a map of Antarctica. Photo: Mike Bodine

Lawrence Howard, onstage with a map of Antarctica. Photo: Mike Bodine

The Untold Story, a fresh piece from Portland Story Theater that is part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works, expands on a tale Howard first told in 2012, Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare: The True Story of the 1914 Voyage of the Endurance. This time around, Howard concentrates on the disaster that beset the expedition’s support crew, whose task was to approach the continent from Hobart, Tasmania, sail into the relatively well-known Ross Sea, and establish a series of supply camps from the ice floes to the Beardsmore Glacier that the main expedition could use for rest and sustenance on its way across the continent after reaching the South Pole. But, while Shackleton’s Endurance got caught in the ice floes during foul weather and set adrift with the crew aboard during its approach from the South American side, the 10 members of the support crew suffered a far more perilous disaster: their ship, the Aurora, broke loose in a gale and drifted back across the ocean, finally landing, unmanned, on the southern shore of New Zealand, thus alerting the public for the first time that the largely inexperienced crew was marooned on the ice.

It was not until January 1917 that the Aurora, having been repaired and refitted, returned to rescue the survivors. In between lay a tale of disaster, extreme fortitude, mistakes, bad decisions, near-misses, and the stresses of life at the extreme. Dogs, those essential workers and companions, perished. Terrifying storms set in. Isolation dampened men’s souls. Rash decisions and brave actions became grueling commonplaces. Scurvy ravaged the crew, bending and weakening men already tested to the physical limit. Death arrived, sometimes inevitably, sometimes foolishly.

As a teller, Howard takes his time, without letting things drag. This is about a two and a half hour journey, including intermission, which is of course a snap of the finger compared to the excruciatingly frozen ticking of the Antarctic clock for these men, who had no distractions from the elements and the moment-to-moment need to survive. But Howard is an excellent guide, an amiable and quietly compelling companion, and it’s worth the time. He’s a bit of a storytelling engineer, or mechanic: he builds his tale on a careful construction of details that suggest the intense tedium of these men’s lives on the edge, and yet keep us constantly enthralled by the large picture of human challenge and adventure. At key points he cuts back to the story of the main Shackleton expedition, so that we know more about what was happening than anyone in either party knew at the time. In the end, he does what storytelling does best: he sits us down beside a virtual fire and tells a tale of adventurous deeds. We get to shudder, and marvel, and then go safely home.

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Shackleton, the Untold Story repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 30, at Alberta Abbey as part of the Fertile Ground festival. It’s also scheduled to play at The Pavilion in Cascade Locks on March 26, and at the Cascades Theater in Bend on April 16.

 

 

 

Once upon a time: true stories

Portland Story Theater brings it home to Alberta Abbey with a season-opening six-pack of true and intimate tales

By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE

The relatively recently opened Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland is a warm and comfortable venue, reminiscent of Southeast’s Aladdin Theatre, but with 1950s movie theater chairs. It exudes a glow that only older stages carry. A star-shaped microphone is placed on the left-hand side of the stage, the sort of mic, you might imagine, that Buddy Holly would have used. A small jazz band, carrying the large name of Bamberger, Engel, Hines and Eave, greets the guests, and, to set a trend for the evening, the keyboardist is barefoot. The audience is personable, engaged in conversation that isn’t loud or raucous, slightly above a hum: the pleasant sort of sound heard at dinner parties.

It’s Saturday night at the Abbey, September 12, and the opening of a new season for Portland Story Theatre – its 11th season, and second at the Abbey. Company founders Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, who are also wife and husband, take the stage and announce the evening in a way that only a couple who have been in love for decades can: with an appealing intimacy and soul-sharing capacity that inform the storytelling theater they founded. Portland Story Theatre specializes in the telling of personal stories – real, intimately revealed things that happen to real people.

Tellers and band take a post-show bow. Photo: Mike Bodine

Tellers and band take a post-show bow. Photo: Mike Bodine

Tonight’s show, a one-night stand like most of Portland Story Theater’s, is called Founders, Friends and Faves. Its performers are a special invited group of three women tellers before intermission, three men after; and while the title is catchy, the evening’s real focus is connection, and especially family bonds.

Leigh Hancock, a petite brunette with a gentleness in her motions and an earnestness that also will continue in waves through the evening, starts the show with Peaches. Leigh is a Reedie, and tells the story of returning to the Voorheis Peach Farm, where she found a second home after moving from her small town to academic life in Portland. Her tale bounces between the journey with her family and the hopes she had of sharing her young adulthood with rose-colored heavy-hanging fruit falling from trees; of canning in an old farmer’s kitchen and recreating the intimacy with her son and husband. Memory often elaborates the smaller experiences we have, when we’re looking for a home, a place to sit. It connects to movement; travel that becomes a thread all of the evening’s storytellers weave. As the saying goes, “You can never go home,” but Leigh reminds us that sometimes home is not a physical place, but one of personal history.

Leigh Hancock, telling tales. Photo: Mike Bodine

Leigh Hancock, telling tales. Photo: Mike Bodine

Duddy follows with the story of her Forever Friend, Maureen. It’s the wayback time when Lynne, age 14, goes to a rock festival with her friend, Maureen, age 16. Lynne drinks “electric wine” and gets to see Wishbone Ash perform live, the pinnacle of her short days. But, as at so many festivals of the time (cue the Woodstock soundtrack), there are rain, mud, and two or three people who don’t handle “electric wine” so well, including the stark-naked man with an erection and a hatchet. Maureen, the “woman” of the two and far more relaxed with mores and responsibility, leaves Lynn at the festival, hundreds of miles from home with only her sleeping bag and wits. Lynne soon realizes she’s just a little girl who had depended on the sadder, but wiser girl, Maureen. Lynne reminds us that in the end, we have disappointments in the people closest to us, but by overcoming them and seeing the longer and bigger picture, we maintain and enriches our bonds. History, as historians continually try to persuade us, is ledgers of people and wars. But the more important histories are the ones we build with the people who share our lives.

Next, the fiery redhead (aren’t they all?) Penny Walter takes the stage to tell a story called Never Alone. Many in the audience and outside have come to know and love her as the lively, boisterously singing star of her one-woman puppet theater, Penny’s Puppets. Tonight, though, we’re seeing a different side of Penny. She weaves in and out of memories, all the way back to school days and her teacher Mrs. Eden, who wears a long pink polyester suit and dons a long apron with deep pockets. Inside are finger puppets. Mrs. Eden invites the children in the extra ed class to get a reward each time they do well, and Penny is hooked. Her story circles to her imaginary friend, Motz, who runs marathons with her on the outskirts of the defunct farm where she grows up. They banter, fight, and make up in the sort of relationship that a true friend gives you: the challenge to believe in yourself.

A few tears fall at the end of Penny’s performance as she recounts losing the real and physical supports in her life the last few years: her parents. This is where the true nature of Portland Story Theater’s approach to storytelling comes into play. In our time of social media ad infintum, a lot of lonely people overshare, and then turn back into their shells once the catharsis has hit. The story theater is a different place to be – one that nurtures experience, dignity, and the up-down staircase of being alive. The stories are about the person telling them, but more than that, they’re about the thread that unites us and takes us all to an even ground through the telling. We all have one or two great storytellers in our lives, people who can take a simple motion like buying a lemon at the grocery store and turn it into a real saga, giving it gravity, purpose, or laughter. It’s important to realize the struggles and victories, small and big, that we all share. This is the premise of Portland Story Theater: one person, one story, and our listening.

Lawrence Howard, arms wide open. Photo: Mike Bodine

Lawrence Howard, arms wide open. Photo: Mike Bodine

Time seems to go by very quickly with each storyteller. I feel engaged with the differing personality and vulnerability of each. After intermission Duddy introduces Lawrence, the first of the men storytellers, and it’s sweet to see her give him a kiss and a good-luck sentiment: it makes the community around Portland Story Theater seem more authentic.

Like Duddy, Howard easily has you in the palm of his hands. I’m delighted that he makes reference to the old television Western hero Paladin in the title of his story, Have Ladder, Will Travel. Storyteller by night, paralegal by day, Howard gives us a glimpse into the struggles of contemporary Portland. He was a hippie cabinetmaker at one time, but fell into a white-collar job to pay the bills. Being a craftsman, he took his job seriously and invested all of his work ethic into it. One day at the law firm, he was handed two bankers boxes full of files for a wrongful death suit involving a man named Bob Sharp, who was atop a 40-foot metal ladder near a power line when he died. Howard came to have a connection with Bob Sharp’s mom, and an understanding of a down-on-his-luck guy who took an under-the-table construction job to try to set his life straight. At the end, we feel a sorrow for Bob Sharp’s short life and death, but come to realize the parallels in the two men’s lives. Portland’s economic crunch and housing crisis fall on many people. Howard has no plans to climb a 40-foot ladder, but his law firm is closing, and he, like many contributors to the city’s cultural landscape, has lost his all-important day job. As with the women storytellers, Howard takes us to a visual space through geography and time: what would take a cinematographer and film editor hours to accomplish, a good storyteller can do in minutes.

An all-out playfulness surrounds each storyteller, but by far Warren McPherson seems the most gregarious in nature and tale. His loss is the aching of not having a parent. In an odd switch of gender roles, the male storytellers all have untraditional incomes. Warren is a stay-at-home dad with two children, ages 3 and 5. He’s a muscular guy, and a former wrestler, but he lets us know his two kids are the toughest match he’s ever had: The Funk and the Fatherhood. He doesn’t want to fail them; he has an Olympian list of all the things he’ll do with them and give them. But the reality of the every moment, he declares, is kicking his ass. Tiny people have more energy than any athlete can aspire to: “Parenting is a mad rollercoaster through a twister with puppies.” He wants, like any good parent, to be a better parent than his own absent father. Warren has me an the rest of the audience enraptured: his focus and attention to words came through like a hurricane.

Warren McPherson: of funk & fatherhood. Photo: Mike Bodine

Warren McPherson: of funk & fatherhood. Photo: Mike Bodine

John Mink’s My Portland Girl closes this fascinating and intimate evening on a high note. He knows and is comfortable with his wild and heartful nature, which complements Warren’s kinetic fire and calls back to the earnestness of Hancock’s tale. Mink’s story fits together the evening’s common themes: belonging, travel, chosen transformation, and loss. He’s introduced as a philosopher, and he is that, but not the sort you might expect. He appears onstage with a beer and a leather-brimmed hat, then delivers the quiet sort of cowboy reading you’d expect in the dead of winter in Elko, Nevada – but not, probably, in 2015. He tells of traveling to Alaska, where he takes up a butcher job, just as he’d had in his last town. Every time he ends his shift, he sees the mountains, and knows he has a different choice. Caught between earning a paycheck and following his heart, he spends years looking for someone, instead of the trees, mountains, rivers to tell him, “Yes.” That is how this evening ends, with a “Yes” from his Portland Girl. Sometimes, it seems, love can take a man from a goldmine onto a motorcycle and across a continent.

In a time where our daily digest arrives in snippets of information from friends, our interests, and news around the world, Portland Story Theater asks us simply to sit and believe. No story is the same, and none is memorized: through a story-building workshop, the group in the company’s signature Urban Tellers series supports and brings out the best of each narrative. The point is to not make the best story, but to bring out the best in the storyteller. I hope that as the season continues Portland Story Theater will bring in more of our histories, in a diversity of voices. I believe it will: the magic is already there.

Portland Story Theater’s next performance is Spellbound, a Halloween show hosted by Sam A. Mowry, on October 24. Ticket information is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FG review: a whale of a tale

Lawrence Howard's 'The Essex' recounts the adventure of the 1820 oceangoing disaster that inspired 'Moby-Dick'

The Essex

Premiere production; Portland Story Theater at The Alberta Abbey; performed Jan. 2-24

When the Essex set sail from Nantucket on August 12, 1819, it was considered a lucky ship. At about 88 feet it was smallish for a whaleship, but it had had many profitable voyages, and there was no reason to believe this one would be otherwise.

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of "Whaling Voyage Round the World," ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of “Whaling Voyage Round the World,” ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Nor was there reason to anticipate that, on November 20, 1820, two thousand nautical miles west of the edge of South America in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, a sperm whale almost as long as the Essex itself would turn on the ship, speed toward it, and ram it, then ram it again, until the Essex splintered, tottered, keeled over, and eventually sank. So much for luck.

The ship carried a crew of 20. After 93 days adrift on the ocean in three small whaleboats that survived the attack, five emaciated men reached safety (three other men elected to stay on a small desert island, and were eventually rescued). They had endured starvation, extreme thirst, fevers, and a descent into cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead and, in one case, drawing lots to see who would be shot so his body could feed the others.

The tale of the Essex became legend in whaling circles, eventually reaching the ears of young Herman Melville, who heard it aboard a whaler from the son of one of the Essex disaster’s survivors. The fantastic story became the seed that sprouted Moby-Dick.

It’s also the fifth and latest in storyteller Lawrence Howard’s Armchair Adventurer series, which has retold the exploits of the Antarctic explorers Shackleton, Amundson, Scott, and Mawson, as well as the tale of John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and survived each attempted execution.

Howard

Howard

Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater, is at home in the world of extremes, and he tells the story of the Essex true and well. His style, interestingly, isn’t overly dramatic, although he can amp up the tension when it’s called for. He recounts his tales in an easy, familiar, colloquial style, mixing in a few wry observations, pinpointing moments of valor and foolhardiness and desperation, and drilling down on the essence of character among these historical adventurers when they are faced with the most dire of circumstances. And he links them, casually but carefully, to details of his own life: how he gained his enthusiasm for adventure stories from his father; how learning about the endurance of the sailors on the Essex helped him deal with his own weakness from cancer radiation treatment. It all seems matter-of-fact, the way Howard tells things, and then you realize you’ve been sitting there listening to him for two solid hours, and he’s held you every step of the way.

As Howard tells it, the story of the Essex is more than the story of a disaster. It’s also a story about leadership, and the lack of it, and the tension between a young captain and a younger first mate who continually challenged his authority. And it’s about varying kinds of courage, and the mettle that men find, or don’t find, in their souls. Howard also tells a lot about the economics and practicalities of the whaling trade (whale oil lit city streets and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution), including the arduous and filthy business of actually killing the whales and rendering them. Like Moby-Dick, which takes long side trips from its adventure story to talk about the practicalities of the sailing life and venture into philosophical speculations, Howard’s version of the story carefully places the adventure within its economic, historic, and cultural context, a particularly important decision considering the 21st century’s radically different moral and environmental views on hunting whales. Yes, it slows the story down a bit. The payoff is a deeper understanding of what was at stake, and, eventually, of how the survivors were greeted and treated once they reached home again.

The Essex, directed by Howard’s wife and partner in Portland Story Theater, Lynne Duddy, had its premiere as part of the Fertile Ground festival with performances Friday and Saturday at the Alberta Abbey. Howard’s next scheduled performance of it is at 7:30 p.m. April 17 in the Solo Speak series at the Cascades Theatre in Bend – a landlocked town, but surely one primed for a good old-fashioned oceangoing adventure.

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East Side Storytellers

Portland Story Theater's impending move to the Alberta Abbey shifts the city's eastward-leaning cultural map

“It’s kind of a big risk,” Lawrence Howard says. “We’re excited and a bit nervous about it.”

Howard isn’t talking about 33 and ⅓, the dual storytelling program about their third-of-a-century life together that he and his wife, Lynne Duddy, are performing this Friday and Saturday night at Hipbone Studio, although any storytelling performance, and especially one that gets two people tangled into the act, is a risk.

He’s talking about Portland Story Theater’s big move, come September, from the funky and intimate Hipbone space on East Burnside Street to the funky and much bigger Alberta Abbey, on Northeast Alberta and Mallory, a couple of blocks around the corner from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

A Portland Story Theater crowd at Hipbone. Photo: Mike Bodin

A Portland Story Theater crowd at Hipbone. Photo: Mike Bodin

Howard and Duddy are the story theater’s founders and driving forces, and the move north is a carefully considered gamble. It immediately expands the story theater’s capacity from an overstuffed 110 or 115 at Hipbone to 400 in the old church building on Alberta – 300 in the main auditorium and 100 in the balcony.

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