‘Off the Page’ gives an outlet to people with a story to share

Series at library part of region’s growing storytelling scene

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



If You Go: Off the Page

What: Off the Page, “real stories told aloud.” Storytellers: Rob Katsuno, Shane Gardner, Betsy Henning, Pat Jollota, Jericho Knight, Bruce Ziegman. Featuring: Hors d’oeuvres and no-host wine bar supporting the Friends of the Cascade Park Library.

When: Doors open at 6:30 Jan. 29; program 7-8:30 p.m. 

Where: Cascade Park Community Library, 600 N.E. 136th Ave.

Cost: Free.

Ages: Recommended for 18 and older. 

Contact: 360-906-5000.


The next “Off the Page” is set for the Three Creeks Library on May 13.

“Front Porch Battle Ground” has events scheduled on Feb. 27 (special kids’ event), March 24,  May 19, Aug. 18. Locations and specifics vary; check www.frontporchbg.com

Magenta Theater’s “The Edge” storytelling workshop will begin in March and aim for a public performance in April. Details to be announced at www.magentatheater.com

Back Fence PDX: Events scheduled for March 12, April 9, June 4, July 2; visit http://backfencepdx.com

The Moth: http://themoth.org

'Authenticity' is key, Camas storyteller learns

Rob Katsuno of Camas wears a sharp suit. He's worked in highly technical fields like aviation and investment banking, and he's a financial adviser now. He cops to his wife's description of him as an "anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive, maniacally perfectionist control freak." Not the kind of guy who usually wears his heart on his sleeve. He never intended to be a writer or performer, he said. But Katsuno, a Japanese American, once found himself at a baseball game where the mandatory playing of the national anthem both annoyed him and brought him to sentimental tears. "I have big problems with America. But I love America," he said. And that's the core of personal storytelling, he said: it requires both "valor and humility" -- that is, the courage to come up with a strong idea, and the commitment to telling it honestly. Even if it's difficult or dangerous or simply embarrassing. "Authenticity," he summed up. In our massively cynical, mass-produced culture, "I think people are starving for authenticity." A few years ago, Katsuno put together an autobiographical presentation about diversity for a corporate conference. The core of the piece was his rigid Japanese upbringing versus what he's learned from the freewheeling, spontaneous background of his Brazilian wife. Japan is where "people can literally die from overwork," he said, but Rio de Janeiro is where people tend to expire from "overpartying." The audience loved the piece and Katsuno ended up submitting it to a Portland writing contest, where it placed third. After that, he took a playwriting class and started developing what became his own one-man show, "American Atlas," which Katsuno performed during a theater festival in Portland last week. He also discovered storytelling venues like The Moth. "My mind caught fire at that point. It really unleashed a creative spirit. Instead of having this fear of always being judged, I have learned how to be myself," he said. Check out an 11-minute, definitely R-rated story that Katsuno shared with a live audience at Back Fence PDX at https://vimeo.com/69323354. — Scott Hewitt

Pull a chair up to the fire, get cozy, close your eyes and listen: Once upon a time … .

The tales that folks tell Jan. 29 at the Cascade Park Community Library, starting at 7 p.m., probably won’t start in such a timelessly traditional way. But lending your ear while somebody spins a story — using no script or notes, no video or musical accompaniment, nothing but rehearsal and the human voice — is the basic idea behind “Off the Page.”

“For us as a library, the story is always a big part of what we do, who we are,” said program coordinator Amy Scott of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. “We do storytelling for children, but we don’t provide that for adults.”

And why not? You don’t grow out of stories when you grow up. Some fall in love with the written word and keep consuming ready-made narratives like candy — mysteries, romances, thrillers — or try delving into deeper, more difficult literary works. And everybody loves movies, where the storytelling can fill up your eyes and ears as well as your imagination.

But in this new age of super-slick, manipulative media, an opposite trend has emerged: storytelling in the most ancient and intimate manner. One person tells a tale. The rest listen.

“It seems like in the last 10 years, the personal narrative has become really big,” Scott said. “That personal connection is something people are really looking for.”

Public radio listeners know there’s a weekly show called The Moth, where storytellers bare their souls about all sorts of real experiences, comic to tragic and anecdotal to deeply autobiographical. The Moth, launched in the late 1990s and named for those little fliers that swarm the overhead light while you’re hanging out on the porch swapping stories with friends, has become a busy nationwide storytelling network of events and venues in places like Portland. Portland has also grown its own local storytelling series, Back Fence PDX.

Similar projects have come and gone from Clark County. Years ago, Elizabeth Holmes launched a Vancouver storytelling series called Anecdotal Evidence, which hopped from venue to venue for a while; Magenta Theater tried a storytelling workshop and performance last fall called The Edge, which it plans to restart in March; and a little farther north there’s Front Porch Battle Ground.

That’s a series organized by local churches, businesses and community activist Curtis Miller, who sees storytelling as a life-giving, community-building activity and a real weapon in the fight against social problems such as isolation, depression, bullying, drug abuse and even suicide.

“We’re going old school,” Miller said. “It’s always been stories, delivered in that good old oral tradition, that have defined and shaped and nurtured communities.”

‘Take a deep breath’

While they do get together to rehearse ahead of time, Miller said, “None of our storytellers are professionals, they’re not actors or anything like that. They’re community people.”

Go to a play or concert or some other professional presentation and everyone’s a critic; performers who falter tend to earn the audience’s derision. But fans of Front Porch and The Moth and other storytelling events regularly witness the opposite: kindness and encouragement at work.

“Sometimes people get emotional, they’re struggling, they’re nervous — and it just draws everybody in. It’s a shared experience,” Miller said. “They get way more vulnerable than you would expect them to get in a public setting. It changes the whole dynamic in the room.” (This reporter has watched first-time Moth storytellers fall apart; the friendly Portland audience usually responds with the nicest possible catcalls, like: “Take a deep breath!” and, “Take your time, we’re not going anywhere!”)

When it’s all over, Miller said, he regularly hears how profound the experience has been for tellers and listeners alike. “Healing. Freedom. Restoration. It’s very magical,” he said.

Miller likes the name “Front Porch” because it works on a couple of levels, he added. Your front porch is where you visit with friends, telling stories; also, the front porch of a house is the transition between private and public. “It’s the natural place where those two things merge,” he said.

Being human

Community activist Temple Lentz was one of the first storytellers to appear in Anecdotal Evidence, and she eventually became its host. But the series fizzled after a couple of years, the way volunteer projects can, Lentz said.

Now, she said, she’s thrilled that a stable Clark County institution like the library is taking up the mission — and that she’s been invited to host the launch of Off the Page, which will literally be beside the fireplace Jan. 29 at the Cascade Park Community Library, 600 N.E. 136th Ave.

“I just love hearing people’s stories,” Lentz said. “I find people endlessly fascinating. I think the reason these things are so popular and successful is the human connection. These are human beings telling stories about being human.”