Portland!

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!

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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!

Protection, or barrier?

This past Saturday, I visited a youth program run by Teatro ChUSMA in Los Angeles.  It was a group of young teenagers who are all connected to arthritis or cancer in some way – whether they are fighting the disease themselves or a relative of theirs is.  They have spent the past 10 Saturdays together, playing theatre games and practicing creativity, learning how to make their voices heard and how to make the best use of their bodies for expression.

And yet, there were still so many of them who could not perform in an improv game without giggling – if they got up the courage to join in, in the first place.  It reminded me of how self-conscious we all are at that stage of life, how fragile our egos, and how concerned we are with every step we take, for fear that someone will see us trip. We, in our efforts to appear “cool,” walk through life with our fists up, prepared to battle off any potential offenders, or at the very least to provide a shield to protect ourselves.

In doing so, how many opportunities for discovery and wonder do we prevent ourselves from seeing?  Spoken word poet Sarah Kay addresses this topic beautifully (among many others) in this TED talk I came across yesterday, which I highly recommend that you watch.  It is so important that we help our young people take their guards down, at least a little, both so they can see the beautiful things in this world but also so that they can develop healthy modes of expression. Many of us eventually grow out of this guarded, fists-up way of navigating the world, but I have met too many – particularly young, urban men – who never learn other ways of seeing things and remain unable to express themselves truly.

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.