By Laura Grimes
“I thought you’d like to write about it because storytelling is your thing.”
My thing is very occasionally, if properly goaded, spinning a knotted-up yarn after a beer or two.
Mr. Scatter was trying to encourage me — nay, uncharacteristically apply pressure on me — to write about Love Jones, which we were seeing that night. He stood above me, strongly silent. He raised his eyebrows.
I scrunched mine and looked back at my non-pressing paperwork as if to say, I’m busy. Go away.
Mr. Scatter instinctively writes and comments about events. He’s got the serious news nose and the critical edge. He does it reflexively, and the blog is a natural outlet for him. For me, however, it’s pure playground. I’m going to write about what I want, when I want, and I’m going to have fun doing it. I don’t get paid enough otherwise, so those eyebrows can move along.
But then there’s that little matter of give and take …
When we showed up at Hipbone Studio on Friday night for Portland Story Theater‘s opening performance of Love Jones, we got in the back of a long line. The doors had just opened at 7:30 p.m., a half hour before the show, and the jovial crowd was already buzzing. Mr. Scatter’s eyebrow pressure was still in the back of my mind, but I was trying to ignore it.
Then I noticed the signs near the door: Jazzercise, drawing classes, a chair company and a comic book store. That did it. A combo like that is candy to me. I pulled out my notepad.
It was Old Home Night for Mr. Scatter. Everyone was happy to see him. Some people he had known for decades. Hugs, handshakes, back slaps, air kisses (mwaa, mwaa). I was politely introduced.
“Have you met my (tag-along wife)?”
“This is my (tag-along wife).”
With every shake of Mr. Scatter’s hand, I thought, Great. The good people of Portland Story Theater are so excited to have the estimable Mr. Hicks in the house, the guy with the longtime criticism cred. They’re so happy to think he might write about them. Won’t they be disappointed to discover it’s (the tag-along wife) instead.
The chairs filled quickly, a full house of about 75, in a cozy space with walls covered with drawings for sale. While Mr. Scatter was in line to buy wine, I looked through my notepad. I hadn’t had it out since early January when I was at the Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. I had written down only two things about the show, and both later proved pretty apt for the evening’s performance.
Regarding “Guitar and Bottle of Bass” (1913), I wrote that the explainer card said when the piece was first shown, the “public couldn’t understand multi-media construction.”
Critic Andre Salmon had replied:
Now we are delivered from the imbecile tyranny of genres. It’s neither one thing nor another. It’s nothing. It’s a guitar! Art will at last be fused with life, now that we have at last ceased to try to make life fuse with art.
The one other thing I wrote?
Guy in a baseball cap pushing a woman in a wheelchair: “He was into boobs, huh?”
While I was trying to take this in, the friendly guy next to me asked if it was my first time (it was) and then, as if to properly indoctrinate me, told me about how the foam cushions on the seats they had last time weren’t big enough for their behinds and, without prompting, explained in detail where the bathrooms were located.
The lights dimmed. Lawrence Howard, a co-founder of Portland Story Theater, immediately set the tone for a warm, welcoming atmosphere: “Please join me in the ritual killing of the cell phones. Die! Die!”
Lynne Duddy, the other co-founder of Portland Story Theater, was the first up of eight storytellers.
“Welcome to the Church of Sexual Healing.”
The evening unfolded from there. Undressed and laid bare.
Storytelling is such an elegantly simple art form. It’s lean and spare. It’s not someone else’s script that relies on other performers. It’s not fiction. It’s deeply personal stories, turned inside out, with nothing to hide behind. There’s no adornment. No instruments or special effects. There’s only the storyteller and a stool in a spotlight.
But storytelling isn’t simple, is it? It takes tension and drama. It requires essential timing with a good sense of rhythm and pacing. It requires the panache of a good performer who knows how to play to an audience and develop a rapport, someone who is mindful of the careful balance between polish and spontaneity. It takes charm. It takes good writing. And it takes guts.
The good moments come with daring, when intimate details spill out, revealing layers of vulnerability.
Duddy, dressed in a red full-length robe fitting for a reverend, opened both halves of the show. It quickly became clear why Mr. Scatter urged me to take this one. Duddy claimed that the road to heaven required only three words: Sex, sex and sex. Sex on the washing machine. Sex in the bathroom of a train to Vancouver, B.C. Sex in the driver’s seat of a car while the Broadway Bridge was up. (She said she didn’t know if any of the other drivers could see them. All I could think of was Hullo! Headlights!)
She made a case that sex is the path to heaven. “Amen!” hollered the crowd in unison.
Howard was next up: “Having sex with a female best friend — not so good. Having sex with a female best friend’s roommate — great idea!”
He told about young love, bad love, and rediscovering an old love when they were both much older, not so physically fit, but still able to savor a tie that remains endearing and sweet.
Nicole Accuardi fessed up about her embarrassing phase worshiping Aphrodite and the strange idea that love came out of … wait for it … castration.
Brad Fortier, in one of the most polished pieces of the evening, talked about the slow, confusing realization that he was gay while living in a society that didn’t acknowledge it. He wove events in gay history with his own personal experiences, sharing the pain of being the target of a slur and the triumph of standing his ground and demanding respect, all while being affectingly funny.
Sharon Knorr looked vainly for love year after year. “I have wasted so much life energy over men I could have saved a lot of starving children.”
She finally gave up men in a hilarious woo-woo phase. She piled all her notes on a paper boat, set it adrift and lit it on fire. At twilight. She was determined to love herself. A rousing medley of songs had the audience snapping and clapping along. The finale? I Did It My Way.
Ryan Wolf Stroud knew all about the dangers of having sex in the woods: slivers, ants and poison oak in all the wrong places. But then his girlfriend got a jones for romance in the great outdoors. Not only was it great, it was magical.
Ozzie Gonzalez believed in only seasonal love during the 90s when he was part of the rave scene in Los Angeles. He was all books during the school year, but every summer he had a familiar pattern of courtship: catch and release. He knew just what to say to whatever girlfriend in late summer: “Thank you very much. Have a great life. Good bye.” Then he discovered saying goodbye was getting tricky.
The evening ended with Domeka Parker’s side-splitting performance, one of the best. She showed her improvisational chops by surprising the other storytellers and throwing in bits from their stories. The transitions between stories were short, so at times it was hard to finish processing one story and adjust to the next one. But by the time Parker said, “Viagra,” she had my full attention (so to speak). And when she got to the clown-car bathroom with her entire family crammed together while she was trying to pick a jelly bean out of her toddler’s nose, I melted into couldn’t-breathe laughter and smacked my head against Mr. Scatter’s shoulder. He knew exactly why. That’s our household, all crammed into the bathroom at the same time. I once even had to try to pry beans out of our boys’ ears, just weeks apart. Both incidents required trips to the doctor’s office, and the second time, the doctor came into the room, threw up her hands and hollered, “All the kids out of the kitchen!”
That’s the beauty of storytelling. We see ourselves in it. Sometimes it’s the stuff we’re not brave enough to say ourselves, and we’re grateful that other people have the nerve to do it for us. It’s entertaining and cathartic at the same time. It’s a shared experience in one evening, but in many ways, the events dared to be told make up who we are as individuals, the stories we collect over a lifetime — art fusing with life.
For the record, though, Mr. Scatter and I have never had sex in the driver’s seat of a car while stuck in traffic. At least, not with each other.
“Love Jones“ continues today with shows at 2 and 7 p.m.