This past Saturday evening, I arrived in Portland, OR, shortly after 8PM.  Having just spent 11 hours driving up from San Francisco, my rideshare deposited me at the Hipbone Studio, bags and all, so I could attend the Urban Tellers showcase put on by Portland Story Theater.  Despite the fact that I had been traveling since 8:30AM and was pretty tired, I was whisked into the darkness of the theater and spent the next two hours listening intently to the true stories unfolding before me.

Portland Story Theater is like a local version of The Moth (whose podcast you should subscribe to if you don’t already).  Their focus is on true stories, both personal narrative as well as historical events.  Urban Tellers is a workshop series in which “ordinary people” learn to tell their own personal narratives, and the showcase is where they get to present the results of their work.  The founders of PST, Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, share my belief that through sharing our stories and connecting on that raw, human, level, we can break down barriers and build a better community.  They strive to do this in every work they present.

Lynne and Lawrence have also been my generous hosts in Portland, having spontaneously offered me a place to stay after I emailed them about PST last week.  The last few days have been full of wonderful conversation, lots of reflection, and excitement about my next steps.  I’m learning a lot about direct, simple storytelling, and have begun to think about my own stories.  Last night I got to sit in on the final post-performance reflection for the group of Urban Tellers that just performed, and tonight I will be sitting in on the weekly workshop of the group that will be performing in a few weeks.  I’ve connected with some wonderful people, and am looking forward to the rest of my week in Portland!

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, Oregon Coast

My store! They even spelled my name right!


Spotlight: Moviemiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana – San Jose, CA

It was just a handful of youth, but the words coming out of their mouths were powerful, funny, heart-breaking, inspiring. Gathered under the shade of a few trees in a small park bordered by city streets, these youth fought the noise of a nearby construction site to make their voices heard. They represent the multicultural population of San Jose, California, and they are part of MACLA – Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, an “inclusive contemporary arts space grounded in the Chicano/Latino experience that incubates new visual, literary and performance art in order to engage people in civic dialogue and community transformation.”

This past Saturday I attended Mi Palabra, a monthly youth-run open mic series that just recently got started at MACLA.  Though the group was small, it was very welcoming, and there was a variety of talent to be seen.  Most people shared spoken word pieces, and two youth collaborated on a song.  They even invited me to perform, though I hadn’t come prepared (that’s where cell phones and websites come in handy…).

After the event, as I sat in the office chatting with Rhiannon Beltran, Programs and Curatorial Assistant, one of the youth came in, and they started discussing the low attendance at the event.  She was concerned that no one was coming because it was the timing was bad, but Rhiannon was insistent that they just needed to strategize and do better outreach so people would know it was happening.  She told the girl (paraphrased), “Let’s work on this together. You and I and the Program Coordinator need to sit down and rethink our recruitment strategy. I’m going to make sure you have access to all the resources we have and that you have everything you need to make this a success.”  It amazed me how with just a few words she made the girl an equal partner in the process, gave her a large amount of responsibility, and also an offer of complete support.

MACLA is an organization that, like a few of the others I’ve visited, serves a variety of functions, and operates in many senses like an arts-focused community center.  In addition to their youth programs they have an art gallery, they have a black box theater that serves both as a presenting space for touring performers and community events as well as a performance venue for their own productions, and they run a variety of programs that do community development through the arts.

They have an interesting history, in that they were created in the late 80’s as “the result of a broad community mobilization in the City of San Jose and nationwide on behalf of multicultural arts” (MACLA’s website).  Around that time someone realized that, though a fair amount of money was being set aside for the arts in San Jose, the bulk of that money was going to for-profit, high end arts venues that 1. primarily served an elite population and 2. didn’t really need the money, as they had a strong foundation of private donors.  As a result, MACLA was created out of some of that excess money, to fill the need for a strong local arts organization focusing on the multicultural community.

So if you ever find yourself in the Bay Area, be sure to check them out!

Some overdue highlights from LA

Despite the fact that I have been in the Bay area for a week now, I just loaded my most recent photos onto the computer and realized how much I never wrote about LA!  So here are some highlights from my time there, for your viewing pleasure.

Also, please take a look at the (recently updated) Directory of Organizations page to learn more about all the wonderful organizations I’ve been coming across, as well as my new Photos page, where you can see the complete collection of photos from each city I’ve visited so far.  Enjoy!

Casa 0101 - a theatre company based in Boyle Heights, started by Josefina Lopez (of Real Women Have Curves)

The wonderful Boyle Heights farmer's market, complete with a young, hip group performing traditional Mexican music. That neighborhood is really undergoing a cultural revival!

ArtShare Los Angeles - another great youth-focused arts org. They offer classes in theatre, dance, and visual arts, focused on developing youth as professional artists.

Free movie by the Echo Park Film Cooperative's Film-Mobile! We saw a great movie (Hito Hata?) Filmed partially on that very spot 30 years ago.

Rizza, my new friend from couchsurfing, and I at the free movie in Little Tokyo (and enjoying our free Pocky snacks!)

Starstruck in LA…

It’s not what you think.

I’m not the kind of person who goes chasing after movie stars.  Heck – I’m in Los Angeles, and I haven’t even gone out of my way at ALL to spot famous people (well, ok, I was kind of hoping I might see someone when I went to the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, but I would have gone there anyway!).  So this may sound a bit silly to the un-initiated, but today – while visiting the Cornerstone Theater Company – I think I experienced quite possibly the closest thing I get to starstruck.

You have to understand a few things in order to get an inkling of what I was feeling when I walked up to this graffiti-tagged office door in the middle of the Arts District.

First of all, Cornerstone is one of the longest-running and most well-known community-based theater companies in the country.  When I started investigating this kind of work early in college, they were one of the first names I came across and I quickly became fascinated with their work.  I spent hours poring over the pages of their website, reading about their history and current projects. The names quickly became familiar to me, and I dreamt about working with them some day.  When I did my senior project, a research investigation of the history and practices of community-based theater, it was really an excuse to learn more about this company and others like it.

Cornerstone is a company that really pulls at my heart-strings – in many ways it’s like the City Year of theater.  It was started, like City Year, by a group of young idealists with an interest in service. They wanted to bring theater to communities that didn’t have access to the arts. It was an experiment to see if it would work. They spent their first five years traveling around to rural communities, initially creating productions of well-known plays.  Soon, however, they ran into a community that wasn’t interested in Hamlet, or Our Town: “What’s in it for us?” the community members asked. “What does this have to do with US? We can’t relate to this.”  So these young idealists stopped, and listened. They heard the voice of the community, listened to their stories… and decided to re-write A Midsummer Night’s Dream, using the stories of that town.  The community was empowered, and it was a huge success.

Posters for a few of Cornerstone’s past productions

After a while they decided it was time to put down roots, and the company relocated to Los Angeles to build a home there. They have continued to create new works with and about communities all over the city and across the state.  For many years now, they have worked in cycles, focusing on a particular theme and exploring that theme with the various communities they work with.  They are in the process of starting their next cycle, in which they will focus on hunger and food issues.  They will be partnering with organizations across the city such as Homeboy Industries and food banks.  At the end of each cycle, they do a “bridge show,” bringing together all the communities they have worked with to create a culminating piece.  In this way, they allow communities to explore their own stories, as well as providing a space for different communities to interact and learn from one another.

The Cornerstone Theater Company has been building community and producing innovative theater for 25 years.  Needless to say, they have sort of grown to rock star status in my eyes.

Cornerstone, you rock my world.

New Orleans: Overflowing with Art and Community!

I have been in New Orleans for all of three days now and I have already visited and/or stumbled upon a host of awesome community and/or youth-focused arts organizations.  (Note: please view the full list on my new “Directory of Organizations” page!)

I have to say, traveling in this manner (by planning my trip around visiting community-arts orgs) is by FAR the best method of tourism I’ve found.  You really get to see the heart of the community by the ways in which they invest in the arts, and you get to see the type of artwork that really shows you who these people are.

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending an end-of-year showcase put on by several different school groups that operate under the umbrella of the Young Audiences program.  Young Audiences does a number of things, but this particular program pays teaching artists living wages to go into schools and educate kids in their art form.

The event was held at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center (where I will be attending a women’s health class tonight – I have to go put on my workout clothes in a minute!) and it was AWESOME!  There were easily 70-100 youth performing last night in all manner of performing arts, and the room was surrounded by their visual artwork as well.  It was a true community event.  I don’t have time to write more now, but please take a few minutes to view the video I made of the performances last night!  Apologies for the sound quality – there were a LOT of people there.

Goodbye Tennessee, Hello New Orleans!

As I prepare for my flight to New Orleans later today, it has just occurred to me that I will be making my first time zone change of the trip.  I’m not sure if this has any real significance, apart from the fact that I will be gaining an hour of my day today, but I feel that it is something to be celebrated.  A Next Step! A New Beginning!

This move also makes me nostalgic for the place I am about to leave. Tennessee has been good to me, in many ways, and I will miss it.  The community of Jonesborough welcomed me with open arms – they fed me, hugged me, loaned me bikes, gave me rides and free chiropractic adjustments, and generally made me feel at home.  Within days of being here I could walk down Main Street and recognize people.  I have also enjoyed the rolling hills of eastern Tennessee, and the general feeling of being in the country – though I can tell you I will NOT miss the sound of the donkeys heehawing in the middle of the night!

An Ode to Jonesborough:

This town,
deceptively quiet
rolling hills and countryside,
is invaded 5, 6, 7 times a day
by trains.
Hurtling hulks of metal
barreling across the land,
blowing whistles incessantly: wooooot wooooot!

The silence of my oversized bedroom
in this extra large country house
is interrupted by loud hee-haws and moos
at all hours of the day and night.

And here I am,
stranger in this noisy/quiet community,
welcomed in as part of the village.

Forest Gump’s momma may have said that
life is like a box of chocolates
but I think it can equally be said that
life is like a treasure hunt:
You never know what you’re gonna get.

Pots of gold come disguised as ordinary people –
when we enter the theatre we become alchemists,
bringing out the gold in one another
through honoring our stories.
This is no bland small town America:
Jonesborough, proud home of pioneers,
Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett,
the gateway to the Frontier.
Holding strong against the tides of change,
holding fast to the stuff they’re made of.
Proud to call this place home.

Big Old Victorian House

Cool statue thing

Ancient Ford Truck

Cows! They were kind of angry.


Front Porch

Breaking and mending…

Part of an old oak struck down by strong winds

I recently had the opportunity to sit with Janna and Jules of EPIC to review the final list of stories that the kids will be turning into performances for the school-based project.  We discussed all the story lines, and started to look for themes, connections, etc.  It was a very enlightening discussion!

The primary theme that seemed to emerge from these stories was a pattern of breaking things and then mending them: breaking bones, breaking relationships, breaking trust, breaking windows, ripping pants…. the list goes on.  But in the end, those things generally get mended, and the stories that we tell need to include that part.

Which brings me to my big learning for the day: difficult stories.  When is it ok to tell them? And when we do, how should we tell them?  There were a few stories that came from these kids (some were the kid’s stories directly, some were stories told to them by their parents or other relatives) that are full of cold, hard facts.  One child’s mother died of cancer, only to be followed exactly two years later by his grandfather passing away.  There was another story of a girl growing up about thirty years ago with an abusive mother who locked her in a closet as punishment.  Eventually, her family was able to escape the abusive mother and find a home of their own where they could be together, but to this day that girl is still afraid of small, dark spaces.

Do you see the difference between these two stories? Both stories are full of cold, hard facts, but in the first story the child telling it is still too young and too close to the experience to recognize or understand how it has affected him.  It has no redeeming ending that we can gain something from – only sadness.  The second story, on the other hand, is very difficult to hear but ends on a note of strength (in her family escaping together), as well as sharing how there are parts of the experience that still hurt her to this day.  She has had time to process the events.

All stories are important, but they all have their time.  When working with a community it is important to focus on those stories that are ready to be told.