A Gift Of Time by Michele Carlo
(or How Portland Story Theater Singlehandedly Helped a "Story Sistah" Out)
You know the saying, "Be careful what you wish for…because you just might get it?" It came true for me last month when I was Portland Story Theater's out-of-town artist-in-residence for their annual solo performance festival called "Singlehandedly." And this unexpected and amazing stroke of luck-or what my grandmother would have called "La Gracia de El Señor"-couldn't have happened to me at a more opportune or crucial time.
For over a year I had been trying to adapt my 2010 memoir "Fish Out Of Agua: My life on neither side of the (subway) tracks" into a solo show, with no success. The multiple story arcs I so lovingly and painstakingly constructed-about growing up in New York City as a redheaded freckle-faced Puerto Rican in an Italian/Irish neighborhood; family secrets that impacted both my mother and me; and the journey from top-floor tenement walk-up to working artist-made distilling 300+ pages into a 60-minute solo show at first exciting, then daunting and ultimately…overwhelming.
I knew if I could somehow devote myself to do nothing but work on it for a week or two, I would figure it out. But like so many working artists, ("working" meaning one or more day jobs) I struggled to find the time, any time to write. After a particularly frustrating week last December, I Googled writer/artist residency programs, but after visiting a few websites learned I'd missed their spring application deadlines (spring being the only time I could take a week or more off from work and keep my job). Since I couldn't afford to go off somewhere on my own, I reluctantly accepted that my dream of creating a solo show with a single story arc that did my book justice couldn't be realized…right now.
But for good or ill, I've always been the kind of person to whom "no" means "find another way." And I kept thinking maybe a change of scenery would boost my drained creative batteries. So, right after New Year's, I turned to the place where everyone looking for someone (or something) turns these days-Facebook-and wrote to a few West Coast storytelling organizations in hopes of being invited (i.e. paid) to come out and perform and/or read. Lynne Duddy from Portland Story Theater wrote back. She said that her company produced a solo performance workshop and festival each spring and I was welcome to apply for the one remaining (airfare, room and board provided) slot-but that I had to hurry. After multiple emails and phone calls, plus an in-the-nick-of-time video sent by Boston's MassMouth (Norah Dooley, you're my angel) I was accepted! I soared-until the contract arrived-and I realized I'd have to "deliver the goods."
The irony was, before becoming a writer I had been a performer. You could say I went from the stage to the page (actually, someone did: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/how-michele-carlo-went-from-storytelling-slams-to-a-book-deal_b20062). But now I was trying to come back to the stage-and from the worst writer's block I had ever experienced.
I arrived in Portland April 27, 2012, (after an awful, turbulent flight, but that's another story) feeling like the odd-woman out-even though Lynne, Penny and Lawrence couldn't have been more openhearted. Because although we'd had weekly phone meetings, I feared my gazillionth draft was still not good enough. The next day I presented that draft at a group barbecue/practice session. It was the first time I met the other artists-all of whom had been working together for months-and I nearly choked. It was easier for me to perform in front of 700 strangers at a MOTH Mainstage show than to those 10 festival peers. But, of course, being a professional (and a true Noo Yawker) I told my story. And, of course, because I had put in the work, it was good. Now that I realized my doubts and anxiety were unfounded, there was nothing else to hold me back.
A week later, the debut of Fish Out Of Agua closed the "Singlehandedly" festival. The next day I returned to New York (on a much nicer flight) with the immense, incomparable satisfaction that comes from turning "I can't do this," to "I did it!" At last, I have a solo show-which I will continue to refine-and find a way to produce.
So just what made my time with Portland Story Theater so productive-and invaluable? Was it the comfy private room with ample workspace and three healthy, (and mostly) home-cooked meals each day? Was it their location? (The neighborhood was a walker's paradise with lush, amazing scenery nearly everywhere you looked.) Or was it the group and/or one-on-one story sessions/critiques, which gave you insight into a myriad of different creative processes? (Each a revelation that there are indeed many roads to the same destination.)
For me, it was all of the above, plus one more: the Gift of Time. Time to write, reflect and edit, then write, reflect and edit some more, without having to juggle day jobs, performing, domestic chores, social relationships and other distractions. I took long walks, long baths, reclaimed a long-abandoned morning yoga practice (I know!)-and still was able to accomplish in just eight days what I had not been able to in over a year.
So if you are a storyteller/solo performer who wants to develop your work while helping others develop theirs and live as an actual, real legit working artist amongst those who believe each one can teach all-give yourself a Gift of Time-there'll be another Singlehandedly to apply for next year. Just be careful what you wish for…
For more about Portland Story Theater, visit www.portlandstorytheater.com For more about Fish Out Of Agua, both the solo show and the book, visit www.michelecarlo.com
Michele Carlo ©2012