Wednesday, October 29, 2014

That's So Portland, Part 2: The Longest Running Show on Earth

In the fall of 2001, Portland’s Musical Theatre Company (“MTC”) put on a production of the musical No, No Nanette, and apparently it’s been playing ever since. At least that’s what the sign outside the historic brick building of the former Eastside Performance Center indicates. It’s October 2014 now, and the sign is still advertising the show. Or a version of the show – either one of the “No’s” got left off or it fell off sometime in the last 13 years. Now the sign simply reads “No Nanette.”

The play opened on Broadway in 1925 and features blackmail, a millionaire Bible publisher, and, of course, Nanette herself, a fun-loving heiress who runs off to Atlantic City after telling everyone she’s visiting her grandmother in Trenton, New Jersey. The hit songs of the show were "I Want to Be Happy" and "Tea for Two."
I never went to see MTC’s production of Nanette, but I used to spend a lot of time in the Eastside Performance Center building, back when its basement was an indoor park. On rainy days, my toddler son and I would go down a long flight of stairs and into a gym that had been turned into a sort of kid heaven with baskets of blocks and puppets and games. It also had a climbing structure and a toy kitchen outfitted with all kinds of cooking utensils and pretend food, but my son’s favorite thing to do there was to drive around in an orange plastic car with a yellow roof.

With his hands holding the steering wheel, he would push his feet along the floor Flinstone-style to make the car move, and I wonder now if the look of concentration on his face meant he'd transported himself to a place where he was on the road, in charge of his destination, and happy. Whatever he was feeling, he never wanted to get out of the car when it was time to leave. Inevitably, we’d play out a little drama of our own that featured coaxing (mine) and tears (his). Sometimes, to take our minds off of this tragedy, I’d say, “Let’s count the stairs on our way out.” It seemed to help both of us to have something concrete to focus on beyond the sadness of parting with the wonders of the indoor park.

Before the building housed this basement play area or the theater company, it was Washington High School, which was decorated with columns and lions’ heads and terracotta trim. The school’s notable alumni include the world-famous chef James Beard; the civic leader and businessman Bill Naito; the former governor of Oregon Vic Atiyeh and the Nobel-prize-winning Linus Pauling.

My dad went to Washington High School too and graduated in 1949 at the age of 17. Even though I drive past there at least a few times every week, I can’t picture him there at all. When he was living, it never occurred to me to ask him about his life back then, and when he passed away in 1995, his stories from that time died too. If I could go back in time about 20 years, I’d ask him, Did you have a favorite book? Did you watch the clock during math? Who did you eat lunch with? What made you laugh?

A developer bought the old high school from the City of Portland last year, and soon the building will be open for business. Maybe the new tenants and patrons alike will hear the echo of a locker door slamming down the hall or the tire of a toy car rolling over the floor or a madcap heiress tapping and trilling across the stage that she wants to be happy but she won’t be happy till you’re happy too.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Some Conversation

I’ve always been a writer, but I didn’t really think of myself as a poet until after my father died.
That summer I watched a Bill Moyers program on PBS that featured poets like the ex-con Jimmy Santiago Baca and the jazz musician Sekou Sundiata and the children’s author Lucille Clifton. For the first time I fully understood that poetry isn’t covered in dust that makes you sneeze and that you don’t need a PhD or a magic decoder ring to understand its hidden meanings. And poetry (or “The Language of Life,” as Moyers called it) is a vocabulary we can all use to say things we don't say in ordinary conversation. It can be about everything from the birth of a baby to the death of a friend, and everything in between. What's it like to be sent to prison at the age of 17? To hear your grandmother sing? To feel your depression lifting when you see a bee landing on a lily? There are no limits to what poetry can tell us.

The spring after I saw the Bill Moyers show, I took a writing class taught by the Portland poet Donna Prinzmetal. Donna’s first assignment was for us to write about our birth. I wrote a little piece about how my brothers weren’t allowed to see our mother in the hospital after I was born, so she held me by a window and waved to them. I also wrote about my beloved 6th grade friend who introduced me to the wonders of Shakespeare and ballet – a whole new world for a girl who spent all her free time reading and watching TV. For the last class with Donna, we met on a warm June evening and sat in a circle on the lawn, where I shared a poem I'd written about my dad, telling my classmates things I hadn't said to anyone except my husband.

I continued to study with Donna for almost three years. Along the way, I fell in love with a form of poetry called pantoums, which follow a pattern of repeating lines. The really beautiful thing about a pantoum is that it ends with the same line you began with, bringing the piece full circle, while giving the words a whole new meaning the second time around. The repetition also gives the poem a rhythm that’s as satisfying on a physical level as holding a baby in your arms and swaying from side to side.  

Ever since I learned about pantoums, I’ve been experimenting with using repetition in my prose too. I’ll be reading one of those experiments on Thursday, October 23, at Rain or Shine Coffee House. Five other VoiceCatcher Journal authors, including the incomparable Donna Prinzmetal, will be also be reading their work. I can't wait to hear what they have to say.

Join VoiceCatcher for the Last Reading of 2014
Thursday, October 23, 2014
6:30-8:00 p.m.
Rain or Shine Coffee House
5941 SE Division St.
Portland, OR 97206
Come early to grab a drink or bite to eat from
Rain or Shine’s special menu for the event.

Top row: Helen Sinoradzki, Donna Prinzmetal, Linda Ferguson Bottom:   Kate Comings, Jennifer Foreman, Tanya Jarvik
Top row: Helen Sinoradzki, Donna Prinzmetal, Linda Ferguson
Bottom: Kate Comings, Jennifer Foreman, Tanya Jarvik