Urban Tellers

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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DramaWatch Weekly: home run

Bobby Bermea finds the key to "Fences." Plus: Lady Day at Emerson's, Tim Stapleton's art, bubble-bath theater, openings and closings.

Gabriel, blow your horn!

Portland’s theater makers are a supportive lot, so it was no surprise that several prominent actors were in the audience at Portland Playhouse on the night last week that I went to see the current production of Fences. But I didn’t expect, necessarily, to see Michelle Mariana, Brenda Hubbard and Jeff Gorman – who’d sat together in the front row – clustered on the sidewalk after the show, asking the same question I was asking: “Which door is Bobby going to come out of?”

For my part, I’d come to the show specifically to see what Bobby Bermea and director Lou Bellamy had done with a seemingly small yet, to my mind, crucial role in August Wilson’s most celebrated drama. But I wasn’t the only one to come away powerfully struck by his performance.

(Disclosure: Bermea, in addition to a busy career as an actor and director, is a contributing writer for Oregon ArtsWatch, and he and I served together a few years ago on the Drammy Awards committee.)

Bobby Bermea (left) as Gabriel and Lester Purry as Troy in “Fences.” Photo: Brud Giles

Fences was Wilson’s “I’ll show them” play, the one in which he departed from his usual discursive, multivalent approach and proved he could write a more conventionally structured drama with a singular focus, something more akin to the classic “well-made play.” The story is about the towering, often glowering figure at its center, a former Negro Leagues baseball star named Troy Maxson, and the other characters exist as bodies in his orbit, the narrative’s several lines of tension pulsing between each of them and him, the hub of the wheel. In terms of action, what’s going on is mostly between Troy and his son Cory, who wants to play college football, despite his father’s bitterness about how his own opportunities were limited.  Or between Troy and his wife, Rose, who eventually laments not making the big man leave room for her wants and needs. Or between Troy and his longtime friend Jim Bono, who slips from admiration to concern to sad resignation as his hero self-destructs. Or …

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Urban Tellers’ immigrant tales

A new life in words: Portland Story Theater's immigrant and refugee storytellers weave tales about leaving there and coming here

By ALIA STEARNS

The power of stories is undeniable. Every time period has had a popular form of storytelling at least from the time of Cro-Magnon man, his hands filthy with iron oxide and black manganese after smearing mineral pigments along cave walls to communicate a message, or sitting with his tribe, their faces illuminated by firelight as they traded information.

One night last month at The Old Church Concert Hall, Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers series hosted its third installment featuring immigrant and refugee storytellers. (A fourth installment is scheduled for fall 2018.) The evening was powerful and no doubt reshaped how some of the people in the audience view people who fall into those categories.

Preethi Srinivas performing “Pretty Young Thing” at Urban Tellers. Photo: Kelly Nissl

And for some, it might have been surprising. Popular media often frame immigrants and refugees through a generalized trope fraught with heartbreak, loneliness, and rejection. But at The Old Church, that wasn’t the case at all. “It’s just like a regular Urban Tellers show,” Portland Story Theater co-founder Lynne Duddy notes, “except the people happen to be self-identified as first-generation immigrant or refugee.”

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Sitting in the packed audience at the Fremont Theater last Thursday night for Portland Story Theater’s latest Urban Tellers show was both exhilarating and disheartening. Exhilarating because this was the latest chapter in Urban Tellers’ illuminating series of tales told by immigrants in and around Portland. Disheartening because this was the next-to-last Urban Tellers show ever in this little jewel of a space on Northeast Fremont Avenue in the Sabin/Alameda/Irvington overlap.

The following night’s repeat performance would be the end. Both houses were sold out. That made no difference: The Fremont is shutting down Nov. 12, and for Portland Story Theater, this was the abrupt end of a regular monthly gig. Matthew Singer wrote about the shutdown in Willamette Week, telling an all too familiar tale. “The basic circumstances are that we just ran out of money,” co-owner David Shur told him. Shur also noted that attempts to soundproof the space to appease other tenants of the building proved too costly.

Rodrigo Aguirre, Ruiyuan Gao (center) and Marisol Batioja-Kreuzer in the final Urban Tellers at the Fremont Theater. Photo: Kelly Nissl

The Fremont was used mainly as a music space, becoming one of several halls that helped fill the gap for jazz shows after the legendary Jimmy Mak’s shut down early this year. But it was home to Portland Story Theater and a few other more theatrical presenters, too, including puppeteer Penny Walter’s daytime Penny’s Puppets family shows and the old-time radio theatrics of Tesla City Stories, whose live shows are presented as if in a radio studio, sound effects included. Penny’s Puppets has its final show at the Fremont this Friday, Nov. 10. Tesla bids its adieu to the Fremont with a show the following evening, Nov. 11.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Random favors

Steven Dietz's "This Random World," Ronald K. Brown dance, Portland Photo Month, Brett Campbell's music picks of the week, Blitzen Trapper & more

Steven Dietz is one of the most famous American playwrights Broadway’s never heard of. Last year’s This Random World is his 34th produced play, and that’s not even counting his 11 adaptations – an astonishing number, approaching the total of that fellow from Stratford. Many of them have been hits on the regional theater circuit, from the Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (where This Random World got its start) to major companies coast to coast. Except New York, where his Fiction, to make a long story short, made it to Off-Broadway’s Roundabout in 2004.

“This Random World” opens this week at Portland Actors Conservatory.

There’s little explaining a situation like this. Dietz’s plays are smart, well-shaped, actor-friendly, and on interesting topics, although they tend not to include things like falling chandeliers or singing cats. No matter. Regional audiences like them. A lot. Many of his plays have helped shape the contemporary American theater, and they move from city to city with ease: More Fun Than Bowling, Foolin’ Around with Infinity, Ten November, God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Becky’s New Car, Rancho Mirage, and more.

This weekend, This Random Life gets its West Coast premiere at Portland Actors Conservatory, and there’s reason to believe it’ll be worth a visit. This year’s class at the professional acting school has some very good talent, and it’s coming off a knockout production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood. PAC’s talented Beth Harper is directing, and the fine veteran actor Kathleen Worley is a guest artist. Plus, it’s a secret you can keep from the Great White Way while it’s busy reliving Groundhog Day.

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And suddenly it’s October. Among other things – pumpkin patches, Yom Kippur, the World Series, Halloween – that means we’re two days from First Thursday, Portland’s monthly gallery hop of new shows. This week’s visual art calendar is a doozy, from open studios to Warhol with lots between.

A few of the highlights:

James Lavadour Ruby II, 2016 oil on panel 32" x 48"

James Lavadour, “Ruby II,” 2016, oil on panel, 32″ x 48.” PDX Contemporary.

James Lavadour at PDX Contemporary. It’s always a good day when new work by Lavadour, the veteran landscape expressionist from Pendleton, comes to town. This show, called Ledger of Days, furthers his exploration of the land and its mysteries. “A painting is a structure for the extraordinary and informative events of nature that are otherwise invisible,” he writes. “A painting is a model for infinity.” Lavadour is also one of the moving forces behind Pendleton’s innovative and essential Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Watch for what’s coming up.

The new Russo Lee Gallery: 30 years. What you’ve known for years as Laura Russo Gallery is celebrating three decades with a showing of new work by its distinguished stable of artists – and with a new name. The name is a fusion of the gallery’s long tradition and current reality. After founder Laura Russo died in 2010, her longtime employee Martha Lee bought the business and continues to operate it. This show promises to be a statement of sorts, and will have a catalog available.

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Telling tales in the Naked City

Portland Story Theater's "Urban Tellers" spin stories of the life beneath their lives

Urban Tellers: a happy curtain call. Photo: Mike Bodine

Urban Tellers: a happy curtain call. Photo: Mike Bodine

“There are eight million stories in the naked city,” Jules Dassin’s 1948 police-procedural movie “The Naked City” and its long-running television spinoff famously declared. “This has been one of them.”

Portland Story Theater’s “Urban Tellers” series might say the same – in the case of last Saturday’s show, right down to the naked part.

It’s not that the tales are about crime and punishment, although a (mostly) comic brush with the law pops up now and again when Urban Tellers get together. No, it’s the fascinating anonymity of it all: just ordinary people living ordinary lives in an ordinary city, getting together to swap their sometimes extraordinary personal tales. We’re all interesting. Our stories just need to be unlocked.

And people love to watch and listen to the unlocking. If defining culture is a matter of locating hot spots – where do people congregate in swarms, not because they have to but because they want to? – the Geiger counter starts clicking at  18th and Burnside on Portland’s east side. Hipbone Studio, a busy art studio by day, transforms into a performance space at night, especially for the age-old but under-the-radar art of storytelling. And every time I’ve been there for one of Portland Story Theater’s shows, the place has been packed and the energy level sizzling.

Maybe Hipbone isn’t the biggest theater space in town, and maybe it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. But all that storytelling needs, really, is a place for the storyteller to stand and a place for the audience to sit and listen. In the old days an open fire was nice, too, but modern building codes frown on such inflammatory frills.

As Portland Story Theater approaches things, stripped-down is the place to be. Most of the performers don’t even use a microphone, although the option’s there: just a teller and a tale and a couple of hundred ears to hear.

Beth Rogers. Photo: Mike Bodine

Beth Rogers. Photo: Mike Bodine

What those ears hear varies. Sometimes it’s an evening-long piece – one of co-founder Lawrence Howard’s “Armchair Adventurer” tales about polar explorers, for instance. Once a year it’s “Singlehandedly!,” a festival of longer stories. More often it’s a night of “Urban Tellers” tales: short stories by a variety of people – some professional performers, many not – who take a workshop with Howard and his partner, Lynne Duddy, and develop a personal story. Duddy and Howard believe that everyone has a story to tell, and almost anybody can learn to tell it in a public space. More often than not, something electric happens between storyteller and audience. A bond of encouragement and complicity forms, and an element of uncertainty heightens the tension and the stakes. Unlike traditional theater, the story isn’t scripted and memorized: it’s learned and told, so that in a way it’s being re-formed and rediscovered every time it’s performed.

Professional storytellers such as the gifted Will Hornyak sometimes make guest appearances on the Story Theatre stage, and the company has a few regulars. But a significant amount of its attraction is that it’s for and by everyman and everywoman: a small and intimate unveiling of the selves. In a small but significant way, a kind of family forms.

Maura Conlon-McIvor. Photo: Mike Bodine

Maura Conlon-McIvor. Photo: Mike Bodine

Last Saturday evening at Hipbone, the Urban Tellers program “Home on the Edge” was a little unusual, though far from unheard-of: it was an invitational. The Story Theater invited six tellers who’d taken the company stage before to develop new tales. Their stories were diverse and appealing: often funny, often heartfelt, frequently confessional, sometimes just a little churning in the gut. Duddy and Howard, the warm and embracing mama and papa of the place, were on hand as usual to introduce the storytellers. Often they also perform, but not on this night. A lot of the crowd was happy to see Howard in his familiar spot. In April of this year we told the tale of his performance of a new piece, “Legacy of Limericks,” less than a month after undergoing surgery for throat cancer. He’s been through long sessions of radiation therapy since, and reemerged, if not entirely on the other side, then much, much closer to it, with a cautiously optimistic prognosis.

Aaron Hartling. Photo: Mike Bodine

Aaron Hartling. Photo: Mike Bodine

The naked city kicked in right from the start. Aaron Hartling opened the evening with “Naked Guy,” his story about how a shy and gangly teenager turned into a devoted nudist, partly to shed his discomfort over being taller than everyone else in his class. Rather than hide it, he decided to flaunt it. His tale involved a teen-aged trip with his family to Hawaii, where he made an awkward pilgrimage to a nude beach. Now (in addition to being Portland Story Theater’s videographer the past three years) he’s a life model, often posing – naked, natch – for drawing classes at Hipbone.

It was a night for tall guys. “Tall Matt” Haynes, who’s artistic director of The Pulp Stage theater (his latest “Pocket Pulp” show, a three-playlet “CRIMEdy Night,” plays tonight, September 19, at the Jack London Bar in the basement of the Rialto Poolroom downtown) told a tale he called “Are Ya’ Suuuuure?,” dragged out through a full five “u”s. It was a bit about growing up amid high achievement and high expectations, and then settling into a life that, while happy, does not involve wearing a superhero cape, after all. And he talked about why he thinks it’s actually a good idea that, as he’s about to turn 35, both his mother and mother-in-law are about to move in with him and his wife. Home sweet home.

Lawrence Howard (left) and Matt Haynes. Photo: Mike Bodine

Lawrence Howard (left) and Matt Haynes. Photo: Mike Bodine

On the other hand, writer Maura Conlon-McIvor (“She’s All Eyes: Memoirs of an Irish-American Daughter”; “FBI Girl: How I Learned To Crack My Father’s Code”) told a bittersweet tale of trying to figure out the meaning and location of “home.” The daughter of an FBI special agent, she grew up part of the time near Disneyland but moved often, both before and after she married, never really being able to set down roots. Was home Ireland, where the family had come from? Was it wherever her younger brother, who has Down syndrome, is? Where her husband’s found a residency or a job? Might it be Portland?

Angela Hahn. Photo: Mike Bodine

Angela Hahn. Photo: Mike Bodine

Angela Hahn’s “Acceptance” was the story of a daughter whose mother drank, and then after many years didn’t drink, and who for all of those drinking years was mostly emotionally absent, and who after she stopped drinking never really explained the why of the thing and never really apologized; and it’s the story of how, after close to 50 years, the daughter realizes that she doesn’t have the relationship with her mom that she wanted, she has the one she has, and that’s when things start moving forward.

Jack Schwab, executive director of Good Neighbor Center, a homeless shelter and community center in Tigard (and, for a brief stretch, mayor of Tigard) told a tale of wanting to run away from home – and actually doing it a couple of times. It was about the tension between duty and the desire to do something for yourself, and how sometimes the two can help each other out. And it’s about the adventures of maybe the most polite and orderly young hippie of all time.

Jack Schwab. Photo: Mike Bodine

Jack Schwab. Photo: Mike Bodine

The evening ended with Beth Rogers’ desperately funny (and sometimes comically desperate) tale “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Rogers has albinism, which means, among other things, that her eyes are unusually sensitive to light, which means that, although she can get around, she’s legally blind – and yet, not blind enough, apparently, for certain kinds of aid that might be extremely helpful. She talked, with irony and exasperation and a good deal of down-to-the-bone humor, about getting a lecture on eugenics from the relative of a deaf person. And she talked, with sweet acerbic toughness, about how “normal” wears a lot of faces.

That’s the naked truth. There are a couple of million stories out here in the sort-of-progressive Northwest regional American city. This has been six of them.

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Portland Story Theater’s next Urban Tellers program will be October 12. The company is also embarking on a new series, “Bridges: Personal Stories About Race,” that will debut at Hipbone on October 26.

The crowd, rapt. Photo: Mike Bodine

The crowd, rapt. Photo: Mike Bodine