AT THE BACK OF A BRIGHT, SUNLIT CAFÉ in Northeast Portland, Melissa Lion and Frayn Masters are fervently plotting their next social experiment.
They are the self-proclaimed "babes" behind Back Fence PDX, which since last autumn has called the Mission Theater home. Every other month, Lion and Masters assemble a group of the most charismatic people they know for a night of storytelling. On most evenings, this means a not-always broad mix of creative types, the majority of whom are local. When it premiered last summer at a cramped coffee shop, they had two basic goals: to provide a platform for the unwieldy art of the unrehearsed personal story and to be as entertaining as possible. As if to emphasize this last point, Lion is adamant about Back Fence not being a literary event and Masters quickly backs her up.
Lion and Masters have a lot of other things in common, too. They're both multi-disciplined (Lion pens young adult novels and teaches classes on social media, while Masters is a freelance writer and comedian). Masters arrived in Portland from California in 2003; Lion made the move north in 2007. But more than their biographical details, Lion and Masters share a chemistry that's engrossing to observe.
During their first meeting, in the winter of 2008, Lion said they adjourned with several basic principles: Thou shalt "showcase a unique breed of event" and thou shalt "reach the broadest audience possible" were at the top of the list. They figured a decent measure of success would come if, within a year, they managed to book the Cleaners at the Ace Hotel, which holds a capacity of 98 people. But by only their third show last October, they were playing the Mission Theater, which houses three times that number.
In the year since Lion and Masters set up Back Fence's website, Lion has come to think of the events as a highly evolved form of "social media 1.0," as she likes to say. "What we do is like social networking, but through stories." Lion pauses, then adds emphatically. "But it's not a reading."
"What we do doesn't have a category," Masters says. She pauses to read my glazed-over eyes, which unsuccessfully mask a brain working several beats behind the conversation. Then Masters takes me back to square one: "Did I mention we're not a literary event?"
The picture eventually comes into focus several days later at the Mission when I take in Back Fence's sixth installment. Right up to curtain, Lion and Masters mingle with everyone in sight, which mostly means those in the beer queue. When showtime arrives, the chatter doesn't stop, it just relocates to the stage, where six people take turns telling one story each. Just like in the beer line, there are rules to obey and decorum to uphold. The only difference? Stage etiquette is explicit. First, the stories must be unrehearsed; second, they can't go any longer than 10 minutes; last and most importantly, they must be true. It only takes the opening storyteller—who recalls her surreal first kiss, among the large containers of jam which decorate Knott's Berry Farm theme park—to see why Lion and Masters were at pains to tell me what they do is not a literary event: Back Fence is much more engrossing than what that cursed term implies.
Doggedly self-aware storytelling performances like those Lion and Masters coordinate have a lineage going back, at least, to 1997. That's when New York writer George Dawes Green started The Moth, a storytelling night that has since expanded into a nonprofit organization. Green's idea was to take the defining element of his Southern upbringing—the well-spun tale—and put it on the stages of his adopted city.
Several years after The Moth began, Los Angeles natives Dave Nadelberg and Neil Katcher started a series of similar events, in which performers casually showed off the detritus of their adolescence (love letters, bad artwork, photos—the more incriminating the evidence, the better). They called their show Mortified and their mission statement was "personal redemption through public humiliation." Their audiences, and some performers, were quickly hooked.
One fan of both The Moth and Mortified is Kate Sokoloff, the producer of Portland's long-running variety radio show Live Wire! Sokoloff noticed the similarities among Portland's storytelling events. She wondered what it would look like to bring them together for a single show. "I contacted each of the event producers and asked if they saw any value to this," Sokoloff said via email.
This was the beginning of Word to Your Mother, a Mother's Day-themed night of storytelling—or as Courtenay Hameister, the host of Live Wire!, has dubbed it, "a memoir and music show." At Word to Your Mother, Back Fence will join with True Stories (Sokoloff's group, which includes Hameister), Wordstock (Portland's annual literary festival), and the Portland chapter of Mortified. The storytellers will include Hameister; local fashion designer Adam Arnold; Metro Council President David Bragdon; author Chelsea Cain; and Mortified regulars Sarah Hoopes and Greg Gasperin. Author Derrick Brown—who lists among his performing credits The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and La Sorbonne—will host. In addition, Portland twee-folk favorites Loch Lomond will play a short set of music, and St. Cupcake will give away treats.
The cupcakes and indie rock are the kind of extra touches Lion says she'd like to include more of at future Back Fence shows. Which brings us to the third commandment Lion and Masters established at their first Back Fence meeting, over a year ago: Thou shalt "never stop changing." Lion sees this as a necessity for a show that's built around imperfections.
"In the first few shows, we were scared of enforcing the bell," Lion says of the system they use to keep storytellers from running long. "But then we realized the bell not only saves the audience from boredom, it saves the performer from themselves."
It's little lessons like this, accumulated since the emergence of The Moth and Mortified, that suggest the deceptively simple art of live storytelling is moving out of its own awkward adolescence into something more refined and ready for prime time. If anything, this is what's feeding Lion and Masters' infectious giddiness—the belief that, with Word to Your Mother and their partnership with True Stories, Wordstock, and Mortified, their experiment in social media 1.0 is about to go viral.