Singlehandedly: the art of storytelling


“We did not believe in God,” Lawrence Howard recollects. “We believed in chicken soup and matzoh balls.”

As Mrs. Scatter has recently intimated, Mr. Scatter has embarked on a quest deep into the wilds of the exotic North American continent, hunting the elusive Snark. Today the Snark sleeps, and it is only sporting for Mr. Scatter to pause, too. Fortunately he’s discovered a forgotten hilltop with remarkably modern reception, so he’s decided to recount his recent adventure back in civilization, last Friday night at Hipbone Studio, at the opening of Portland Story Theater‘s Singlehandedly festival of solo shows.

Sharon Knorr meets her perfect partner. Photo: Lynne DuddyHoward is one of the founders of the story theater, and so it was fitting that his hour-long piece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Horowitz, kicked the festival off. Most everyone knows the mystical power of chicken soup, and most understand the pull of ritual and tradition in that thing we loosely call religion, so Howard’s audience, maybe 65 or 70 strong, rippled into laughter: the easy, familiar kind, the kind that says, “Yeah, we know what you mean.”

What transpired was a memory-tale,
a tale of growing up Jewish, sort of, but not in a particularly devoted sense. His father changed the family name from Horowitz to Howard because in the 1940s and 50s he couldn’t even get a job interview with a Jewish name, and the family celebrated the holidays with a Christmas tree, although not in a window where it could be seen. Still, being Jewish was somehow important, not only in the way Howard viewed the world, but also in the way the world viewed him. Which was not always in the kindest or most pleasant way.

This bothered him: “I wanted people to hate me for myself, not just for my name.”

It was a modest but sincere aspiration, and excellent raw material for the sort of hybrid beast that Portland Story Theater specializes in creating. It’s theater, comedy, confessional, short story, maybe even a little improv when the juices are flowing.

Lawrence Howard, on being Horowitz. Photo: Lynne DuddyA piece can ramble, flow, diverge, or be as precise as Felix Unger cleaning out ashtrays at a poker game. It can be exactly what it is, or just the start of something bigger — a fleshed-out one-person play, for instance, like Sharon Knorr’s It Takes Two To Tango. It might bob and weave. It probably does, taking the sort of seemingly arbitrary leaps that end up tying back together again. Somehow the pressure is both off (it’s not a play, after all; you’re just riffing) and on (you’re alone; there’s no place to hide).

In storytelling, little things can have big meanings. After intermission on Friday (beer, wine, cheese and cold cuts) veteran actor and producer Knorr took the stage to deliver the first look at Tango, her one-woman show in the making. It’s about an hour long now. By fall, she said, when it gets a regular run at Portland Story Theater, it might have grown by half again.

The story starts off with Knorr’s decision to take tango lessons – she loves to dance, and how hard could it be? – veers off into her misadventures with a dating service, gets all hot and bothered about the roots and history of tango, and doubles back again to bigger questions of independence, mutual attraction, and the unfortunate chasm between fantasy and reality: “So how can you learn how to follow if they don’t know how to lead?”

Like a singer-songwriter, a storyteller is both writer and performer. You can be good at one and not so good at the other. The trick is to get good at both. Sometimes, even when you’re good at both, the trick is to get the piece just right. It helps to have a regular audience that is both enthusiastic and eager for something new. The crowd here seems like family, and all you need to do to become part of it, it seems, is show up. “This is your first time here?” the woman in the next seat said in astonishment. “Oh, you have to come back. It’s always something different!”

One of the appeals of storytelling is that it’s unadorned. No set, no complex lighting plot, no period costumes, no soundtrack (usually), just a performer in the corner and a wedge of audience on risers, connecting directly. As simple, really, as a circle around a campfire and “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Hipbone itself, a warehouse art studio by day and performance space by night, is part of the attraction. Just off East Burnside and barely a whiff of garlic from Foti’s Greek Deli, it’s a stripped-down, intimate little space with a secret-spot appeal and a clutter of artwork hanging around.

“I can get up to a hundred people in here,” Howard said, “but usually it’s about 65 or 70.” He grinned and added: “All those nudes hanging on the walls don’t hurt, either.”

You could tell a story about that. Singlehandedly continues through May 14. Check the schedule and give it a whirl.

And now, if you’ll please excuse me, I think I’ve just spotted a Snark.


PHOTOS, from top:

— Sharon Knorr meets her perfect partner. Photo: Lynne Duddy

— Lawrence Howard, on being Horowitz. Photo: Lynne Duddy