San Francisco Mime Troupe

Drama Watch: A clown’s tale

"Going Down in Flames" traces a great clown's fall. Plus: critical changes at The New Yorker, what's up on Oregon stages in June.

One of the things about Joan Mankin was, she was always a surprise: always in the moment, rarely the same thing twice, an improvisational spirit whose free-form antics could throw her fellow performers for a loop, delight her audiences, and send her shows spinning into another dimension. So when the sound of a train rumbling down the tracks behind The Headwaters Theatre during a performance of Going Down in Flames on Saturday night broke the action and prompted Joan Schirle, who was playing the late, great American clown Mankin, to break into an ad-lib wisecrack, it was like a side-splitting visitation from beyond: Queenie Moon, upending expectations and stealing the scene again. And the audience cracked up.

Jeff Desautels (left), Joan Schirle as Joan Mankin, and Michael O’Neill in Danny Mankin’s Going Down in Flames at The Headwaters.

Mankin, or Queenie Moon, as her famous clown persona was called, was a shining light of the West Coast new vaudeville/agitprop theater scene that thrived from the 1960s forward, employing old-fashioned theatrical styles for new and often culturally subversive purposes. She worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the physical-theater stalwarts the Dell’Arte Players, as well as a lot of mainstream companies. I remember her best, and most fondly, as a star of the Pickle Family Circus, the wonderful San Francisco-based acrobatic and clowning company whose traveling shows I would seek out whenever they were in rational range, from Grant Park in Northeast Portland to the Southwest Oregon timber town of Coquille.

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Barbara LaMorticella: a woman of her words

From her Mime Troupe days to "Talking Earth," the Portland poet has been a potent force for writers. Now Soapstone gives her Bread & Roses.

On a recent Monday night a familiar voice returned to the airwaves of Talking Earth, KBOO community radio’s long-running interview show about poets and other writers and reading aloud. The voice was soft and conversational, confiding, helpful, gently guiding the talk into topics not usually considered on modern American radio: the structure of a poem, the ways that words and lives braid together, the themes that define a poet’s career. Five years after her last turn in the interviewing booth, Barbara LaMorticella was talking with her friend and fellow poet Judith Barrington about life and loss and language and Barrington’s newest book of poetry, Long Love.

LaMorticella, who has interviewed hundreds of writers on KBOO beginning in the 1980s, had taken a break from the studio for personal reasons. She was caring for her husband of 56 years, Robert (Roberto), who died last year, and the Talking Earth interview was something of a reemergence into public life. That fact was delivered with an exclamation point a few mornings later when I met in a Southeast Portland bakery with Ruth Gundle of Soapstone, the women’s literary organization, which has named LaMorticella the first recipient of its biannual Soapstone Bread and Roses Award. Meant to honor a woman writer who has created opportunities for other writers and helped sustain the writing culture in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, the award, which includes a $500 check, will be presented at a private luncheon on March 8, which not coincidentally is International Women’s Day. “We wanted to honor women who’d been here over the long haul, who’d been mainstays of the literary community,” Gundle said. “Barbara was the obvious choice.”

Two days after talking with Gundle I met with LaMorticella in a Northeast Portland coffee shop near her daughter’s house, and there was that voice again: warm, earnest, smart, almost always with a touch of humor near the surface. It reminded me that although we usually read poetry and therefore think of it as a literary art, it is also oral and musical, and so ideally attuned to live performance or the radio dial. “Poetry is an audible art. Or should be,” LaMorticella commented. “When I finish a poem I always read it out loud. And if it doesn’t work out loud, I change it.”

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Barbara LaMoricella, up close.

In the KBOO studio LaMorticella took the long view of a life in words, going back to Barrington’s childhood in Brighton-on-the-Sea, England, and surprising her audience with stark revelations delivered in the most congenial of tones, underlining without having to say so directly that personal history shapes a writer’s art. Barrington was born in wartime, she informed her listeners, “… into a bombing raid, and … you were born into a world which in one poem you said, ‘This is the world I came in, and I have to learn to love it.’”

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