Hipbone Studio

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.

*

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

A catch in the throat: the storyteller’s story

Lawrence Howard kicks off the 'Singlehandly!' festival splendidly. But the tale is far from over.

Howard, with unfamiliar apparatus. All photos: Scott Bump

Howard, with unfamiliar apparatus. All photos: Scott Bump

In an otherwise familiar scene last Friday night at inner Northeast Portland’s Hipbone Studio, something unusual happened. Veteran storyteller Lawrence Howard walked onstage wearing a little microphone clipped behind his ear. This was odd, because even in a whisper Howard’s easy baritone ordinarily reaches the farthest corners of a room. He fidgeted with the gadget a bit, clearly unaccustomed to the vagaries of artificial amplification. He’d had a little throat procedure, the crowd was told casually, and didn’t want to strain his voice.

Then he started talking, and any clumsiness faded away. “My mother’s name was Gloria Howard,” he said calmly but potently, “and she died in January, just a couple of months ago. She was 86 years old.”

With those simple words, Howard kicked off Portland’s fifth annual “Singlehandedly!” festival of long-form solo oral stories. A shaggy bear of a fellow who seduces listeners with his wry ramblings and then grips them with the incisive tension of his tales, Howard founded the festival’s producing company, Portland Story Theater, with his storytelling wife, Lynne Duddy. He’s one of the city’s most celebrated practitioners of this age-old craft, known in particular for “Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare” and other tales of endurance and deprivation on the southern fringes of the world.

On Friday night he was undergoing his own unfolding tale of endurance, a story beneath the story. And if he didn’t tell that story, it’s understandable, because he’s not sure yet how it comes out. But like so many good stories it’s an adventure, filled with obstacles and determination, and it’s dogged by a shadow of mortality.

Howard, 58, has a way of making his stories personal, even when they’re about a Shackleton or a John “Babbacombe” Lee, the Victorian manservant and possible murderer who astonishingly cheated the hangman’s noose three times. This new story he was telling began with his mother’s death and soon looped off into circles of family memory that rambled from a visit with his dad to a whaling museum on Long Island to a recitation of “Casey at the Bat” to camping trips in the Adirondacks and, quite hilariously, odes to the pleasures of unfettered flatulence and the manly art of dirty poems.

Lawrence2

“My dad was the limerick king of the Western Hemisphere,” Howard reminisced, and soon, astonishingly, he had Hipbone’s crowd of a hundred-plus laughing and clapping and reciting dirty rhymes along with him. The tale, “Legacy of Limericks,” was a rude and funny re-immersion into the liberating excesses of adolescence, tinged with the rueful shadings of age. His father had died 10 years ago, he noted, and that was a huge loss. His mother survived courageously for another decade, and when she died, the void was somehow different: Losing both parents, Howard noted, leaves you lonelier. Eventually he wound back to Brooklyn and his sister’s cramped apartment and the traditional community farewell to his mother, which ended up being not entirely traditional, after all. “It was pretty clear that no one had ever heard limericks sung at a shiva before,” Howard noted wryly. “But that’s the kind of family we are.”

A helluva story, all in all. And it had a poignant moment early on when Duddy walked through the crowd and gently readjusted Howard’s microphone – his voice was a little too boomy – then smiled and walked back to her seat. “Legacy of Limericks” lasts about an hour, which is an hour of being all alone onstage, speaking the entire time, and even if you’re speaking softly, which much of the time you’re not, it’s an exertion. Howard felt the exertion keenly, and no wonder: only four days before he’d been feeding through a long tube inserted in his nostril. And that’s where the backstory begins. Or rather, continues.

It began last summer, when Howard “started feeling a little burning, an itching in my throat whenever I ate anything sweet or spicy or acidic.” For Howard, who’s a fair hand in the kitchen and bottles his own hot sauce, this was an annoyance. He went to his doctor, who checked him out and didn’t see anything: no strep, no nothing. So he went home and pretty much forgot about it.

Then, in January, he began to notice the burning again. And the timing could hardly have been more complex. He was about to open his new Babbacombe show. As he was giving his first Saturday performance, his sister texted from Brooklyn: Their mom was doing poorly, and might be near the end. Lawrence and his sister talked later, and he decided to stay to complete the next weekend’s run. On the following Saturday morning, his mother died. He did his final show that night, then flew to New York.

2013-4-19 Singlehandedly 164Meanwhile, Portland Story Theater had a busy schedule. An Urban Tellers performance, the showcase that follows several weeks of workshops on personal stories with a handful of often novice storytellers, was set for February 9. A special Valentines Day show was in the works at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Finally Howard got back to his doctor, who this time sent him to see ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Michael Flaming, who also had operated on Howard’s nose in 2008 to correct a deviated septum from a long-ago injury. Flaming pulled out a laryngoscope, a long tube with a microcamera on the end used to examine a patient’s glottis – the vocal cords and the space between them – from the inside. He inserted the tube down Howard’s nasal passage. “And he says, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s something really ugly down there. Really gnarly. We have to do a biopsy.’”

The result: cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma of the throat. More specifically, the cancer was centered at the base of the tongue, where it attaches to the throat, and very close to the voice box, an essential biological instrument for a storyteller.

On March 28 Howard was wheeled in for surgery at Providence, where Dr. R. Bryan Bell, chief of the hospital’s head, neck and throat cancer clinic, undertook the complicated procedure. “The surgery was very long,” Howard said. “Like nine hours.” And it involved a procedure that not so very long ago might have seemed like science fiction. Bell operated using a Da Vinci Surgical Robot, an expensive apparatus – each machine costs about $2.5 million, in addition to steep maintenance costs – that has up to five arms, each with a separate instrument at the end, and which is capable of doing very tiny and delicate work while the surgeon directs it from a distance via computer screen and controls.

“It’s a crazy machine,” Howard said. But despite some criticism, in cases like Howard’s it has real advantages. The Da Vinci system allows for minimal invasion compared to traditional surgery: “In the old days, to get to the tumor, they would have to fillet your face. So of course nobody did that. They would go straight to radiation, and it’s not as effective.”

Still, Howard’s neck was slit from ear to ear: you can see the scar now, which looks like a thick welt running just below his beard. In a traditional part of the surgery not involving the Da Vinci system, Dr. Bell took out 65 lymph nodes. Three were cancerous. Howard spent four days in ICU, and another four days in a hospital room. He had “a million tubes,” for breathing and for feeding, and because his throat was raw, they had to be inserted through his nose. Nerve pain in his ears, neck, and upper chest was intense, and the drugs had him feeling “so loopy. So crazy.” In ICU he woke up disoriented and pulled out his feeding tube: “The nurses were very upset about that.” The surgery had cut into the connecting muscle of his tongue, which is what pushes food down the throat. “Of course I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t swallow. The whole geometry of my throat changed.”

On the ninth day after surgery, Howard came home, still trailing tubes. “Everything I ate or drank had to go through that nose tube. Medicine, we had to crush. It was terrible.” Salt water, at least, was soothing. Finally, he had a little close-to-solid food. “I made a pot of chicken soup and matzo balls,” he said. “The Jewish soul food.” He made sure, he added wryly, to make the matzos light and fluffy.

Post-surgical therapy has concentrated mainly on retraining his muscles for swallowing: His therapists were surprised that his speech seemed barely affected. Howard can tell small differences: “I’m still having a little trouble with my l’s and my r’s.” But to other ears he sounds normal. That’s important, because Howard needs his voice. His car carries a bumper sticker: STORYTELLERS DO IT ORALLY. And he’s not quite sure what he’d do if it stopped. “I love this. I live for this. This is my favorite thing.”

On Monday, April 15 – seventeen days after his surgery, and four days before his scheduled performance of “Legacy of Limericks” – he had a post-surgical checkup. “I all but begged them to take the nose tube out,” he said. “And they did.” Good thing. Otherwise, he’d have canceled his show: “There’s no way I could’ve subjected the audience to that nose tube.” It was, in more ways than one, a healing moment: “The doctors left the room, and Lynne and I were alone there, and we did the happy dance.”

Duddy and Howard made a little joke about the neck scar, which reminded them of the jaw bolts below the ears in movie depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. “My tumor’s name is Frankie,” Howard said, “and Frankie has left the building.”

2013-4-19 Singlehandedly 191If you’re looking for an immediate happy ending, you’re running ahead of the story. Because the cancer had spread to Howard’s lymph nodes, he still has to undergo radiation therapy. And that’s an intense, sometimes debilitating process: six weeks of treatments, five days a week, and sometimes it makes people too sick to get through the whole thing. “This is a little window,” Howard said. “Right now I feel good, and I can eat, and I’m talking well.”

Howard also works as a legal researcher and writer for the law firm of Gaylord Eyerman Bradley PC, which has been, he said, immensely supportive. Hospital costs alone have been $148,000 so far, with much more in related costs to come, and “my percentage of it is zero. Thank you, thank you, thank you for health insurance.” He’ll begin radiation treatment in a couple of weeks, and as anyone knows who’s gone through it or knows someone who has, it’s a nasty procedure.

“The radiation basically burns the inside of your throat,” Howard said. “People describe it as getting a very bad sunburn inside your throat on that tender flesh.” It also messes with your salivary glands. And if the radiation goes slightly astray, it can cause damage to the voice box. His chart will note prominently that he tells stories for a living, and he needs to keep his vocal cords unscathed. The danger’s still there. But the potential payoff is worth the risk. If he succeeds in finishing the six-week radiation program, he’ll join the group of people who have a 90 percent chance of living cancer-free long term. “I’m going to endure,” he said. “We’re made of good Russian peasant stock, and that’s what we do.”

All of this was on Howard’s mind last Friday as he prepared to tell a bunch of dirty limericks to a roomful of friends and strangers. “An hour before the show I thought, ‘Oh God, what am I doing? What was I thinking? I just want to go home and take my pain pills and go to bed,’” he said the following morning, after a long night’s sleep. “But then my friends started to show up.”

His friends, in fact, started to pack the place. “The whole time I was up there I was just high on the energy of the crowd. It was great.” Then came the standing ovation, mostly from people who didn’t know the backstory at all.

It’s been a long, perilous journey, and there’s a lot of slogging still to come. Keep listening, because the story isn’t over. But Lawrence Howard is home.

*

NOTES:

 

The Singlehandedly! Festival continues this weekend with performances Friday and Saturday nights.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

  •  Last Friday, Howard’s “Legacy of Limericks” was followed by “A Taste for the Abyss,” Kriya Kaping’s exuberant, funny, and sometimes harrowing tale of her misadventures in South America as an 18-year-old would-be do-gooder who learned much more from her hosts than she could begin to impart. Keep an eye out for Kaping: she’s worth following.
  •  Last Saturday, Duddy told her tale “Twice Born: A Story of Adoption,” and comedian Brad Fortier told “Improv Junkie,” his tale of “how a mild-mannered, gay, gaming geek learned how to live ‘out loud’ after becoming addicted to improv theater and performing internationally.”

And here’s what’s coming up:

  •  Friday, April 26: Musician/clown/yoga teacher Annie Rosen tells her story “Cosmic Friend,” and Eric Stern – leader of Portland’s Vagabond Opera – tells “To Catch a Thief,” about some less savory aspects of his pre-vaudevillian life.
  •  Saturday, April 27: Annie La Ganga tells “The Major Arcana,” a tale about her “long and sometimes troubling relationship with tarot cards”; and storytelling veteran Penny Walter tells “Con Mucho Gusto, With Pleasure,” about her life as a puppeteer.

Performances are at Hipbone Studio, Northeast 18th Avenue and East Burnside Street in Portland. Ticket information is here.

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