Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard want to make it clear that they tell stories not just for entertainment, but to foster deeper human connections as well. The goal of Portland Story Theater is, in Duddy’s words, to “give people an opportunity to break down barriers and be completely real with each other.”
“We have a saying that we use the personal to illuminate the universal. Strangely enough, the more personal it gets, the more universal it gets,” Howard reflected as we sat in comfortable brown Naugahyde chairs in the couple’s living room, which also happens to be their rehearsal and creative collaboration space.
It was in these chairs that the notion for PST’s latest production, Kiss & Tell, was born. The show features Duddy and Howard, Penny Walter of Penny’s Puppet Productions, Slash Coleman of The Neon Man and Me and Big Plastic Heroes fame and the Vagabond Opera’s Eric Stern. The process is collaborative but personal: Everyone tells his or her own stories. And there is Irish whiskey involved.
Duddy, a dynamo of artistic production and the driving force behind PST, wryly quips that she is “the chief instigator” of the whole endeavor. She is, in fact, responsible for nearly every facet of the organization: press, marketing, web design, artistic direction and photography. She writes both technical and creative copy, does graphic design, ceramic sculpture, public speaking, plays marimbas and, of course, tells stories. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Portland State in 2010, graduating magna cum laude in two years.
Surprisingly, Duddy hails from a corporate background.
“I’ve gone on this spiritual journey of discovering my life’s work,” she said. “I was a hard fit [in the corporate world] because I’m really intense, and I’m very emotional, and this art form allows me to be all those things and just be myself, and people love it.”
She and her husband Howard started PST in 2004. Penny Walter, also a Portland State alumnus, started working with them in 2007. According to the three of them, their collaboration was sweet serendipity.
“I had this dream that we could have this space where we could tell these stories and really connect people and have it be like a story house,” Duddy said, “And [Walter] was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s my vision too.’”
For Walter, whose puppet shows are largely geared toward children, it was a welcome opportunity to put on shows for adults.
“I needed a balance,” she said. “I’m telling these sweet little stories in the daytime, and at night I needed something else.”
In Kiss & Tell, Walter will tell a story about arriving at her prom with one guy and leaving with her first love. “And then my dad came,” she said. Whether Walter will bring her puppets to the show remains a mystery.
Stern, a wunderkind of traditional Eastern European and Roma (Gypsy) music, emcees the show and weaves his story about a one-night encounter in a club throughout the production. He’s best known for his accordion work and his operatic tenor voice. Besides his work with Vagabond Opera, he’s worked with some of the biggest musical names in town, such as Pink Martini and the Decemberists, as well as Denver, Colo.’s DeVotchKa.
Coleman’s story about his first kiss will likely be told in his trademark kinetic style. His work blends comedy and drama and is almost bizarre in its physicality. He switches tone and rhythm with the grace of a bird of prey. It is more akin to performance art than Howard’s laid-back style of straight narrative delivery and may also include a guitar.
Howard and Duddy are deeply philosophical in their approach to storytelling. They eschew props and exaggerated mannerisms. Preferring to let the story unravel naturally, they don’t memorize lines and, in keeping with oral tradition, they write out almost nothing. They refer to their craft as “intentional storytelling.”
Oral narrative, like the written word, must have an arc: a beginning, a middle and an end, even while the performer strives to imbue the story being told with all the potential immediacy of spoken language.
“Intentional storytelling keeps the fresh and spontaneous quality of kitchen table storytelling, but we do want to have some structure in it,” Howard explained.
“We want to take people on a journey in which they see themselves as well as the person telling the story,” Duddy said.
Their style and objective have evolved over the years, from telling traditional oral stories, such as fairytales and myths, to telling personal narratives. One technique that they’ve developed is what they refer to as the “butt-in-ski” style of storytelling, which arose from a shared frustration with traditional tandem recitation.
“We used to tell in tandem, in this very orchestrated, choreographed style,” Howard said. “I would say a line, and she would say a line, and that was really fucking hard.”
“It was fucking dreadful,” Duddy added. “It was like acting.”
Then, before a Folk Life performance in Seattle in which they tell the story of their wedding and its attendant drama, Duddy and Howard made a momentous decision.
“It’s the day of the show, and I’m hyperventilating,” Howard recalled. “Anyway, it was two hours before the show, and I’m like, ‘Well, let’s just wing it. We’ll just get up there, and if there’s a part you don’t know, I’ll jump in. If there’s a part I don’t know, you’ll jump in, and we’ll just interrupt each other.’”
That they’ve been married 30 years is evident in the smoothness with which Duddy and Howard alternate in telling the same story.
“It was super cool, and the audience kept laughing,” Howard said.
Kiss & Tell
Tuesday, Feb. 14, 8 p.m.
Alberta Rose Theater (3000 NE Alberta St.)
$18 advance (recommended);
$20 at the door;
$36 VIP (includes champagne and chocolate)