SOLO FEST: e pluribus unum

Bag & Baggage Productions’ new festival shines a spotlight on storytelling by excluded voices

It’s easier than ever for us to hear people who have long been marginalized. From vlogs to podcasts to YouTube and the rest, the proliferation of expressive avenues has revealed a tremendous demand to hear personal stories from once-stifled voices. “The rise of shows like The Moth shows that storytelling is becoming super-trendy,” says Bag & Baggage Productions’ artistic director Scott Palmer. “Whether on a podcast or a TED Talk, there’s a movement featuring the singular voice of the storyteller.”

As solo storytelling has spread, theater has followed. Theater artists like Anna Deavere Smith and others have used solo storytelling to widen the lens to include stories of America’s diverse cultures and experiences. “We’ve been noting over last few years an increased awareness and interest in solo performers across the country,” Palmer says, “especially when those pieces are tied directly into issues of equity and social justice.” For example, “there are significant implications of the #metoo movement — people listening to and respecting individual stories. They’re a touchstone of how we move through the world.”

Damaris Webb performs in SOLO FEST this weekend.

Result: while in the past, inexpensive-to-produce storytelling was sometimes dismissed as “poor man’s theater” more suited to fringe festivals than mainstream venues, Palmer says, “the values of artistic excellence, commitment, and preparation have risen, and those barriers between theater and storytelling are coming down.”

That’s why, when the company moved into its intimate new venue The Vault last year, Palmer created Solofest, which he hopes will be an annual showcase for solo performers, especially those telling stories that reflect the company’s values of equity and diversity. Curated by Palmer and B&B associate artistic director Cassie Greer, this year’s debut installment features four different performers telling personal stories in a theatrical setting. Two stories will run each night in night different combinations from Feb. 1-4 at The Vault.

The company reached out to area theater artists and institutions, seeking solo pieces that ran less than an hour, preferably involving issues of social justice and equity or involving traditionally excluded voices.

Bag&Baggage Productions artistic director Scott Palmer at the company’s former home, Hillsboro’s Venetian Theater.

Out of the pool of submissions, Greer and Palmer chose two fully produced pieces developed in the traditional theatrical realm, and two others from performers from the solo storytelling tradition. The performances are arranged in combos that amount to a “full-scale theatrical work and a storytelling after-dinner mint,” Palmer says — and all for an extremely affordable $10.

Damaris Webb’s The Box Marked Black: Tales from a Halfrican American growing up Mulatto explores the Portland-based theater artist’s relationship to her racial identity in a culture that leaves little room for those who may be fall between arbitrary racial categories. “It’s a fascinating exploration of Portland’s own history with racism, and a theater maker’s relationship to what other people think of as black,” Palmer says. “It’s a perfect opportunity for those of us in this community to have a conversation about racial identity.”

Brianna Barrett

True Love And Other Noncommunicable Diseases by Brianna Barrett, voted Portland’s best storyteller the last two years, is a true story about a young woman “who deals with chronic health issues that have direct implications on every part of her life — career, search for a partner, even walking straight,” Palmer says. Her story also raises issues beyond the teller’s own. “What are the implications of our lack of funding for people who deal with chronic health issues?”

Rob Katsuno

Those performances employ theatrical elements including sound and lighting cues, blocking, projections et al. The other two performers “stand forth and tell us a story,” Palmer explains. Award-winning Portland author Rob Katsuno’s American Spirit is about “how commercialism and American culture affected his understanding of how to be a Japanese American,” Palmer explains. “His story’s a really powerful reminder that people come to America from other places and become valuable to society.”

Palmer describes Paul Iarrobino’s MOP Deconstructed as “a pretty straightforward coming of age and coming out story. I love LGBTQ artists who are a little older and non conforming to gay stereotypes. It’s very funny, very approachable to a wide range of audiences.”

Paul Iarrobino

Barrett thinks the Vault is an ideal place to share stories like hers. ”This feels like a really perfect venue for my show, which is a very intimate piece. I’m excited to be sharing the stage with a group of performers who are not just incredibly talented but who are also sharing important, thoughtful messages. When a person is willing to bare their soul to a group of strangers, and those strangers are willing to listen, the world changes. Every time. It’s a very special thing to be a part of and I’m excited to see what connections we’ll find together.”