When Back Fence PDX hosted its first live storytelling shows in 2008, the idea of standing up in front of your friends and neighbors to tell your most intimate and personal stories was a novelty to most Portlanders.
"When we started, we got numerous emails from people asking if they could bring their kids," says Back Fence host and executive producer Frayn Masters. "I had to explain that it was 21 and over and there was going to be subject matter that they wouldn't want to expose their kids to," she says, laughing.
But thanks to the acclaimed New York-based storytelling series The Moth, which pioneered and popularized the genre through its podcast and public radio show, Masters doesn't have to explain things any longer.
"Storytelling has had a huge growth since The Moth began podcasting and people began to understand what this type of thematic and true storytelling is like," says Masters. "Initially we would say, 'It's like This American Life' or 'It's true stories based on a theme.' Now we just say, 'It's like The Moth' and people immediately get it."
They also seem to love it. Back Fence's live shows, held every other month at the Mission Theater, are selling out and drawing interest from storytellers and online listeners from around the country. This month, Masters and OPB are launching a radio program based on the series.
Arts and Life spoke with Masters about producing the series, finding new storytellers and why musicians want to tell stories, too.
A&L: What has it been like turning your live shows into a radio program?
FM: The thing that has been really cool [about working on the radio show] is listening to the majority of the stories from the past in order to create the show. It's been nice to hear a lot of those stories again because while I'm hosting and producing the show, I don't get to put my full attention to the stories as much as I would like. Listening to the stories is really different than the live experience. There were some stories where I just laughed a lot [hearing them again] and some of them were bittersweet. I just felt the full impact of the stories and that was great. Each of those environments is different and each has its own little magic in the way the story comes across.
A&L: How many stories did you listen to and have to pick from?
FM: In the first couple of years — and I say this regretfully — we weren't podcasting or recording the stories in any professional way, so we weren't able to pull from the entire catalog. But we were able to start with about about 80 stories. Some of those were immediately cast aside just because the audio was funky on them and others the topics weren't suitable for public airwaves. That's just the process of paring it down. A lot of it had to do with creating mixes for each show and different kinds of stories, so that in a show there might be a funny story mixed with a more poignant story. [We were also] looking at the lengths of the stories so we could mix and match long stories with shorter stories.
It was a fun experience. I'm a freelance scriptwriter for my job and this was really just a different kind of script.
A&L: How are you able to find people who have a good story and are able to tell it in front of people?
FM: The show is largely solicited. So when we pick a theme we [reach out to people we know and] try to hit the theme from different angles. We meet and talk to find out if they have a story, then I work with them on their story to help them be more successful on stage. For instance, we had a show with the theme "camp" and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a forest ranger and somebody who had gone to camp?' Later we decided to make the show a fundraiser for the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls so we had a young girl on who was a drummer. We try to find a mix of nationally known storytellers and local storytellers, as well as people who have been on stage before and some who have never been on stage before. It creates a great, energetic show when you have people who have never been on stage before and they totally kill it; it has this different feeling.
One thing that we chose to do differently with our show is the stories must never have been told publicly before they are told at Back Fence. We ask people not to write out their stories, but to tell them from memory. You know the shape of the story, you know where it begins and ends and the bullet points in between. I know once we give people that kind of feedback, they are going to do what they are going to do. We tell them not to memorize it, but people are nervous, so they might tell it memorized. But that's also a part of the show; it's not perfect. Our personal stories are flawed and I think it makes the show more conversational between the storyteller and the audience.
A&L: Is there something unique about Portland storytellers?
FM: I think that Back Fence definitely has a mix of stories that are a little bit more raw. What makes a really good story is not that everything is tied up in a neat little bow and everything went well. Usually life goes on after the story, so I think that in general that's what the audience connects to. We tell these cringy, raw experiences in our lives where we made mistakes and here we are, standing before you seemingly pretty much OK. We made it through. There's a lot of humor in that.
It's probably easier in Portland to find people who are willing to share that. We have had some people we've approached who have said, 'I don't think I can do that.' But for the most part, Portlanders are pretty open to it. Even people who have been on stage a lot, like actors or musicians, will say, 'I want to do it because that sounds really scary to me.' It's so much different than being on stage in any other way.
Musicians often ask if they can have their guitar on stage with them just for comfort. That's why we don't allow any props up there on stage, because it's a different experience when it's just you. I've even become much more staunch this year about not letting people take the mic off the stand. When it's just on the mic stand, you are not holding anything, so you can't pull it away and pause if you get nervous. It's still there and you have to keep going and keep connected to the audience. It's really funny how those little tweaks make all the difference in the quality of the storytelling.
When to Listen
- Saturday, November 10 at 7 p.m. (rebroadcast Wednesday, November 14 at 9 p.m.) on OPB Radio
- Saturday, November 17 at 7 p.m. (rebroadcast Wednesday, November 21 at 9 p.m.) on OPB Radio
- Saturday, December 8 at 7 p.m. (rebroadcast Wednesday, December 12 at 9 p.m.) on OPB Radio
- Saturday, December 15 at 7 p.m. (rebroadcast Wednesday, December 19 at 9 p.m.) on OPB Radio
- Get podcast