Editor's note: Welcome to Fresh Meat, in which Portland comic Amy Miller interviews newcomers about their hopes and dreams and the foodstuffs from their native lands that Portland fails to prepare properly. This week Miller talks with B. Frayn Masters, Portland's storytelling ambassador, who is originally from Los Angeles.
If youâve been to a storytelling event in Portland, chances are the dirty little mitts of B. Frayn Masters have been somewhere near it. And if you think storytelling events are too niche for you to care about, the 600 people that filled the Aladdin Theater (disclosure: my employer) for a recent Moth Grand Slam might disagree.
Mortified, a show that began with one creatorâs sharing of an awkward love letter amongst friends, has spawned a documentary film and spinoff events in nine cities, including one in Portland, and even one in Sweden. B. Frayn Masters (known just as Frayn to her Frayndlies) isnât surprised by how many Portlanders have a story to tell, and how many others are willing to pay good money to listen. Sheâs been spinning that yarn for years.
Her own eventsâBackFence PDX, BackFence's Russian Roulette version and Entertainment for Peopleâs New Shit Showâare now steady sell-outs now, but they're the product of many years spent nurturing and connecting the local storytelling community.
If given five minutes to tell the story of storytelling in Portland, it might begin with âI told you so.â
Amy Miller: Whatâs it like to be someone who executes successfully in such a DIY pop-up town?
B. Frayn Masters: Portland is a really receptive town to new shows. In LA, you have to be much more jaded. People would be like, âOh, you wanna do a storytelling show? That seems cute! Who are you? Who do you know? Whoâs gonna be in it? The venue will be a thousand dollars a night and you have to pay for it up front. Do you think any famous people will drop in?"
But here, weâre short on venues but the ones that we have are really willing to work with you and make your shit work. Venues become more of your partner than in other cities.
It's a community. Once you show yourself to be a person who has ideas and executes them in a way thatâs professional and fun and lucrative, thatâs a key card into meeting other people who do the same, and then you collaborate.
Weâve all been put on the spot of someone saying, âIâve got a great idea for a show, do you want to be a part of it?â And then you, as someone who has shown yourself to be professional, end up doing all the work to carry out their idea. I donât mean to seem like an asshole but itâs like, itâs cool that there is a group of people that follow through with their ideas and get good people involved in their shows.
I donât think you sound like an asshole. Thereâs a huge gap between having an idea and executing, and people seem to underestimate the amount of work that goes into making a successful show happen. Itâs a ton of work.
And itâs a lot of dumb work. Itâs a lot of noodling with your website for three or four hours. And you have to monitor your sales online. And advertise. And cast talent and communicate with them. There are all these moving pieces. And if somebody canât do their piece suddenly, like a volunteer or a performer, suddenly thatâs your job. You canât be above doing anything.
So do you get a lot of idea people barnacling themselves to you in the hopes youâll execute their vision?
Are you asking if Iâm like a shark with remoras hanging off of me in the ocean of Portland? At first, yes. There were those people. But if people have an idea for a project, Iâm pretty clear about saying, âI wanna be a writer on that project or I wanna be a collaborator on that project, but I cannot produce that project." And as soon as producorial things start coming my way, thatâs a red flag. But Iâve met some younger people that are doing some really cool shitâhouse shows and other stuffâand thatâs exciting to me. They have great ideas and they want to execute them well and thatâs good for the artistic community.
Then you get to pass a baton instead of dragging people down the track on your ankles.
Yes, because thatâs painful. And eventually you see people fade away because theyâre not willing to do the grunt work anyway. Iâll see venues and producers come in and say, âI have all these great performers in town, these people are popular, obviously people are gonna come to my show.â And then no one comes to the show, and everyone is shocked. And people who have big venues are heartbroken. Because they donât understand why it didnât work.
Do you think Portland is such an idea town that some venues are less willing to collaborate with you because the bookers may have started off as adventurous idealists and then been burned by too many producers who couldnât deliver? And now they just ask for the rent up front to cover their own asses?
Yes. Itâs their business. They have to have staff, and food prep, and security, and I think a lot of times people donât understand that when you ask a venue to do something, itâs a partnership. Theyâve got to deal with their own business. So youâve got to highlight their venue and reach back the other way. Itâs really a 70/30 partnership. And thatâs if youâre lucky. Itâs probably largely 90/10.
You have to have empathy for the venue when youâre producing. Theyâre not an open pocket thatâs just gonna be doing stuff for you.
And itâs great to have a great idea. But what you want is for people to come to a 50-seat house and be like âOh my god, this is such a great idea! You should move to a bigger venue!â You want the audience to direct where your show is headed.
Then the audience feels like theyâre on the ground floor of something special. And thereâs nothing people in Portland like more than knowing about something before it was cool.
Yes, they need to feel special. And people donât feel special in a group of five people in a 600-person room. They feel like losers. They feel like, âYou made me feel like a loser for choosing this. And I only came because I owed you one and now youâre done. You owe me three.â
A beautiful thing about Portland is the tremendous fan loyalty. There are so many things going on that people start to know which recurring events are quality and then theyâll show up every time. Once you establish credibility, you have some more room to fail and experiment. So if something does go south, your audience is still on board. Rather than feeling like losers, they feel like they just walked into their favorite restaurant on a fluke day and there was no wait. It feels lucky rather than like somethingâs wrong.
Every show to me is like my birthday party and Iâm worried no oneâs gonna come. Itâs really good when youâve been a performer for a long time, and an audience member, because you have empathy for the whole circle of the process.
I think of a show like a Kids in the Hall episode. Because they take risks. Usually thereâs one sketch that you donât love, but they take a risk. You have to take risks in everything.
Of the pyramid of talent, in any art form, Portland feels a bit bottom-heavy, wouldnât you say? Some of that bottom is enthusiastic and new and some of it is just apathetic and willing to phone it in so they can be a part of something. Do you think the fat bottom helps you stand out? Or does it just muddy the waters?
Iâve never really pondered the big bottom. Iâm neutral about it. Iâm not in a competition; Iâm just doing what I wanna do. Thereâs a place for people who just want to do their craft as a hobby and not take it any further. I donât think it affects well-produced shows. People are savvy enough to figure out the difference between the two. I do think people should have a circle. They want to find creativity in their lives and I would never want to take that away.
I envy your non-dickish perspective. Maybe itâs different for comedy. Because audiences might be savvy, but if you are a comedy fan and you do take a chance and happen to go to three or four poorly produced shows, you reach an exhaustion point and potentially give up on that art form locally. And I do think it affects the good shows for the better, potentially. Because people stop taking chances, and just come back to the shows you produce because they know it will be a quality show.
I can see that for standup. Thereâs a tip of the comedy pyramid that hasnât been here for that long and so I think that people who might have reached an exhaustion point need to give it a chance.
Itâs like the comedy scene got our circumcision reversed? And a fresh tip?
Yes, now you have your sensitive skin fold back and you have to clean out the smegma.
So I changed your mind then. And you agree with me ultimately that poorly-produced storytelling events can be harmful to your art form in general but ultimately helpful in the long term if youâre producing something of quality?
Yeah. I think your idea of exhaustion is true. Iâm curious what peopleâs burnout point is, though.
I think as someoneâs burnout point gets closer, their loyalty increases as well. Which is good if youâve already established your audience, but might make it harder for someone just starting who is also producing quality events but doesnât yet have credibility.
When you do have an event that starts to gain some traction, I think of it as a community, and try to give a nod to other things that I like. Thatâs part of the responsibility of creating and allowing all of the boats to float at once. Thatâs how community builds.
And you have to be a decently curious personâcurious about new performers, curious about other shows like yours, curious about your audience. All these things are curiosity and some people have no curiosity about their events. You also have to be a little OCD.
And have a deep-seated emptiness and a crippling fear of failure.
Itâs true. Iâm still learning how to be a better producer. I make mistakes all the time. And the failure feeling never goes away. From show to show to show to show. It never goes away. You sort of just have to live with that.
SEE IT: B, Frayn Mastersâ series Entertainment for People: New Shit Show happens every second Monday from October through March at Action Adventure Theatre. More info at entertainmentforpeople.com