When asked about the inspiration behind How the Potty Trained Us, the fecal-focused one-man show debuting locally at Shout House this Saturday, POOP Project founder and self-described "puru" Shawn Shafner describes the moment when the ideas that had been building up for years all suddenly flowed out in one blissful release.
While preparing to tour with a live production of Nickelodeon kids' show The Backyardigans, Shafner realized he had to go. "But there was just this thin door separating me from everybody hanging around the dressing room," he describes "So, I tell them: 'It might smell, it might sound awkward, but I don't want to hear any guff. We're all going to be sharing really small spaces for a long time, and it's important that people go when they need to go.'"
That interaction eventually prompted Shafner to form the People's Own Organic Power, or POOP, Project in 2010 as a way to use everything from theater to film to stimulate a conversation about sustainability and stool. His first solo show, Eat $h*t, earned rave reviews at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe—known as the world's largest celebration of culture and arts. Follow-up production An Inconvenient Poop went on to win an award for Overall Excellence in Solo Performance at FringeNYC three years later. That success gave Shafner the confidence to hit the road with a streamlined solo presentation.
"In 2018, I covered my mom's old car with these giant poop fountains," he says, "put an 'I'm a Pooper' rainbow on the hood, and took that poopmobile about 15,000 miles."
Shafner's first Portland appearance is something of a small festival itself. On Friday, he'll perform in Assume the Throne—an interactive celebration of bodily functions designed for more intimate settings. The following afternoon, Shout House will screen Flush, the documentary Shafner helped produce, before a full production of his newest show, How the Potty Trains Us.
"It's sort of like a TED Talk, plus standup comedy, plus a character-shifting one-man play," he explains. "I present a lot of the research I've done around why we feel the way we do about poo, and how that came to be. When I come across a text that I'm quoting, I'll go into character as Miss Manners or Sigmund Freud or Father Erasmus of Rotterdam, who was writing etiquette manuals in the 1500s. Ideally, it'll change the way people look at something they do every day with a lot of love, a lot of passion and a lot of humor."
For the next stage of his "doo-doo domination," Shafner plans to rework a past collaboration with Portland puppeteer Katie McClenahan on a children's piece "about a worm who learns to love herself and her role in the nutrient cycle."
"I'm just amazed with Shawn's ability onstage," McClenahan marvels. "I think what he's doing is incredible. It's so basic, but it could change the world. It could be a revolution. And I think it's something people around here could really hook into. Companies like Portland Loo and Phlush are already doing a lot of this work. Portlanders, specifically, are so open to ideas that benefit the climate and the world, and I think they'll get a lot out of this."
"We really are holding it in as a culture," Shafner says. "Whether real or metaphoric, we all have shit in our lives, and acknowledging that, we learn its secret lesson. All shit is fertilizer. If we understand that, it can nourish us. If we don't, it really stinks. That's the tao of poo."
SEE IT: The POOP Project takes place at various venues, thepoopproject.org. 6 pm Friday, 2 and 8 pm Saturday, Feb. 21-22. Free-$12.