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.
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.
For Portland Story Theater fans, the good news is that the company has found a new space to carry out its season – The Old Church Concert Hall downtown. (Penny’s Puppets also has some future shows booked there and at The Overlook House.) PST has always been an East Side company, and the move across the river makes founders Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard a little nervous: Will their audience cross the river with them? But The Old Church is a well-known, widely admired, attractive space, with good acoustics and a nice intimate capacity of about 200 – for the storytelling theater, seemingly a good fit.
So, too, is this company a good fit for immigrant stories. PST’s Urban Tellers series is built on a group process in which participants meet over a period of several weeks with Duddy and Howard, shaping their stories and figuring out how to tell, not recite, them. It’s a little more like controlled improv than a one-person scripted play, with a definite shape and momentum but the actual telling unfolding in the moment. Stories are about 15 minutes each, with six in a standard program, and it is Howard and Duddy’s task to help the storytellers find the tales they want to tell, and then shape them. A few storytellers are writers or performers. Most aren’t. They’re just people, telling their stories.
Last week’s Fremont finale included stories from Eva Rotter-Johnson, who came from Venezuela and has German family background; Aristanto Bayu Aji, from Indonesia; Rodrigo Aguirre, from Chile; Ruiyuan Gao, from China; Mohammed Nabil Usrof, from Palestine; and Marisol Batioja-Kreuzer, from Ecuador. The tales they have to tell are as various and similar as their situations and personalities. What brought them to the United States, and Portland, might have been love, or school, or economic possibility, or family, or any number of accidents or decisions. They feel variously at home and at a loss, longing for their old homes. Sometimes they travel back and forth. They describe struggles of language, intimidations and repressions, new challenges and new joys. Each has made a new life – coincidentally, four of the six are now teachers.
At a national moment in which immigration is a flashpoint, with the federal government cracking down on quotas and stirring up a rising tide of populist resentment, the telling of these simple, complex, personal tales is of more than usual importance. Last week’s was the second such gathering Portland Story Theater has produced this year. Another will happen at The Old Church in Spring 2018.
And this midseason shuffle underscores a growing crisis for affordable performing spaces in Portland, which are being squeezed in large part by a volatile real estate market. Don’t be surprised to see more movement along this disruptive financial tectonic plate.
PORTLAND’S STORYTELLING SCENE is bustling, and another episode is about to join the crowd. Sharon Knorr, a longtime Portland actor and producer who moved for several years to Bend, started a storytelling company there, and then moved back, opens a new monthly series this weekend in the Board Room Cabaret at Triangle Productions. Knorr’s Solo Speak series kicks off Friday and Saturday with Nevertheless, We Persist: Stories by Women – personal tales by Mary McDonald-Lewis, Pat Janowski, Kathryn McDougal-Radin, Valory J. Lawrence, Shannon McMilliman, and Jan Brehm. It’s 21 and over.
I LIKE TO DROP IN now and again on productions by Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals Company, and on Sunday afternoon I stopped by to catch the current show, Jasper in Deadland, which continues through Sunday, Nov. 12. Young Professionals shows aren’t downtown in the Newmark or Winningstad Theatre, like OCT’s main season shows – they’re in the little studio theater at OCT’s offices on Northeast Sandy Boulevard (just up the street from Triangle Theatre’s home, The Sanctuary, where Nevertheless, We Persist will be playing). The YP company is drawn from high schools throughout the metropolitan area, and the company members themselves choose what shows they want to produce. Often that means edgier material, a little more issues-driven, geared to the concerns and tastes of older teens and young adults.
Jasper in Deadland, with a book by Hunter Foster and Ryan Scott Oliver and music by Oliver, is a contemporary adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with a dash of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series of contemporary adventures of the demigods, and an overlay of YA-fiction angst. It’s a good choice for young (but not too young) audiences, and it has enough mythological in-jokes to hold the attention of a lot of adults who wander into the audience, too.
The tale is set in (surprise) the Underworld, which is very mythological but in an up-to-the-moment way, with sophisticated modern methods of persecution (someone down there’s graduated with an MBA) and the usual Ferryman, river of forgetfulness, and three-headed Hound of Hell. Brendan Long stars as Jasper, the goof-off but sensitive kid whose dare sends his maybe-girlfriend off the cliff and into the clutches of the Underworld, and Morgan Demetre is Gretchen, his party-girl guide through the pitfalls of the Pit. An appealing supporting cast of seven moves in and out of a variety of roles, from Persephone to Eurydice to Loki to Hel, and references to Dante and Beatrice and others abound. The music is pleasant pop, capably performed, and under Dani Baldwin’s direction the production flows as swiftly as the River Styx, with good sound design by Gordon Romei, lighting by Mark LaPierre, costumes by Sydney Dufka, and simple but effective set and props by Aran S. Graham. Jeffrey Childs is the capable musical director (singing’s live; accompaniments are recorded).
This is a good program, giving talented young performers and backstage workers a taste of the next step in their possible careers – a step forward. As Hades and Bob Dylan put it, Don’t look back.