Back in April, Melissa Lion and Frayn Masters laid out to the Mercury what they vowed to do. The two founders of Back Fence PDX, Portland's answer to storytelling nights like New York City's The Moth and San Francisco's Porchlight, promised to keep it unique, aim for a broad audience, and to never stop changing. So, after a summer-long hiatus, Back Fence is back with something different, simply and aptly titled Entertainment for People, a new series kicking off this week with an all-star roster of stories and performances from guests that include The Moth fixture Dan Kennedy and Porchlight co-founder Beth Lisick. And yes, it marks an evolutionary step for Back Fence, which will also continue in its established form, recommencing at the Mission Theater on September 23.
"We want to produce events that shine the light on specific communities," explains Lion of the new venture. "Entertainment for People spotlights writers and comedy—two groups that, we feel, tend to preach to the choir. We want to change that. The writers at Entertainment for People are performing, storytelling, and connecting with the audience, instead of standing behind a podium."
In contrast with most of the contributors at a Back Fence event—who, while gregarious, are usually not professional public speakers—Kennedy and Lisick are seasoned performers. In addition to his work with The Moth and its spin-off, StorySLAM, Kennedy is well known for comedic memoirs, most notably Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, and Lisick for her yearlong documented self-help experiment Helping Me Help Myself. They are to be joined by award-winning beatboxer Fogatron and auGi, a veteran of Mortified and the creator and star of an in-development one-man show called SexyNurd, "an autobiographical exploration of a rock star trapped in a nurd's body—full of painful stories, original songs, and highly titillating PowerPoint slides." Rounding out the evening's entertainment will be the sketch comedy duo Eastland Academy, one half of which is Masters, joined by Shelley McLendon.
Whereas the Back Fence events retain the original everyman appeal of storytelling's folksy roots, where civilians are only lightly peppered with interspersed ringers, Entertainment's forthright professionalism is still tempered by a de-emphasis on rehearsal.
"I'll tell the same story at The Moth twice if the places are far enough apart. But really far apart—like Seattle and Australia is one example," explains Kennedy of maintaining a balance between polish and spontaneity. "I'm a writer and I guess I'm a performer but I hate that word... I'm not trying to act like I'm not complicit in doing this stuff and getting some attention for doing it. At the same time, if I'm ever rehearsing my stories over and over or trying to figure out how I should stand at the mic to look my best when photographers are at the gig, fucking shoot me. Just pay the 10 bucks and bring a gun."
As for what to expect at the inaugural night, audiences might well be in for a sneak peek at the subject matter of Lisick's next book, along with music by her husband Eli Crews, who as a recording and mixing engineer has worked with Deerhoof, Why?, and Mike Watt, among others. Kennedy, meanwhile, is undecided, mentioning both material from his books and contributions to McSweeney's online, as well as recent writing assignments for GQ that have had him defying death by way of a homemade submarine and spelunking with Indonesian pythons—now that's entertainment, people.