interview: B. Frayn Masters – Back Fence PDX

For number 11 in the interview series, we talk to another woman at the forefront of Portland’s comedy / improv / storytelling scene, B. Frayn Masters, Host and Executive Producer of Back Fence PDX.

Among other illustrious titles, she is officially “The Reason Portland Knows About Lauren Weedman”.

Wish I could list that tag line on my business card.

This week Back Fence PDX has not one but two shows on. So you’re really going to have to work hard to miss them both. Or to channel Lady Bracknell: “To miss one Back Fence PDX show in a week may be regarded as a misfortune; to miss two you gotta be seriously f-ed up!”

4.5 Back Fence PDX – BUT WAIT, IT GETS WORSE | 5 TRUTHS AND A LIE at Mission Theater
4.6 Back Fence PDX – RUSSIAN ROULETTE at Disjecta

Look closely, dear readers, and ye shall find a discount code for Saturday night at Disjecta hidden away in the interview!

On stage at Back Fence PDX.
B. Frayn Masters on stage at another sold out Back Fence PDX show at the Mission Theater.

Hello Frayn! To start off, could you tell us a bit about your background. How did you first get into live performance – either on stage or behind the scenes?

Howdy Win! I first got into live performance in 4th grade. Cast as an elf in a Christmas play in Catholic School. I had one solid line, “Look! Look at the shiny bobbles on the tree!” When it came time to say it I full on deer in the head-lighted it and mumbled something inaudible about a tree and something something else. In High School I choked during a speech and ran out of the classroom crying. And as counter intuitive as it sounds that is essentially how my love of performing live began. I wanted to do it so badly, I was determined to overcome my early stage fright. Not long after that I began taking improv classes, which led to sketch comedy, which led to voice over acting, which led to plays, which led to writing, which led to scriptwriting, which led to directing, which led to a storytelling series.

Did you have any sort of theatre training growing up?

I had a variety of improv training, and I went to New York’s Atlantic Theater Company summer intensive in Vermont for acting. In addition, I attended various film acting workshops, Scene study, Shakespeare workshops.

You are a professional writer and animation scriptwriter by day. Have long have you been doing that?

Freelancing as scriptwriter/writer is really by day and night. Ha. Professionally for about 8 years.

And you mentioned a sketch comedy background. Are you still performing?

Yes. I produce and perform in Entertainment for People (E4P), which is a variety show. I’ll be doing a West Coast tour with that show in late summer with Dan Kennedy and Arthur Bradford and others. I do sketches in E4P, and also comedy videos with one of my comedy collaborators, Jason Rouse. Early on Shelley McLendon and I had a sketch duo called, Eastland Academy. We created some classics.

Possibly your most well known role at present is Executive Producer of Back Fence PDX, a live storytelling format similar to THE MOTH that has been around since 2008. Can you describe the background to starting up Back Fence PDX? When did you have the idea it could work, and where did you first start off?

I’d heard about the Moth when I was in NY around 2002. My curiosity was piqued immediately. But, there were no shows happening while I was in town. Then the idea got lost in the maze of my brain. Only to be reignited when I was in San Francisco in October of 2007. I saw my friend Beth Lisick’s name in the newspaper…she was hosting a version of her storytelling show Porch Light for a really cool festival called Lit Quake. I went. I sat in the audience and was blown away by the stories and the feeling of the people around me as they listened to to them. Everyone in the audience looked like they’d just had sex with their own lives..and it was good. Messy, sure. But really good. I spoke to Beth about how I might start a storytelling series in PDX and she was extremely encouraging and helpful. Coincidentally my friend Dan Kennedy was working with the Moth and he’s always been super supportive of my ventures and offered advice as well. I think the idea it could work came from going to Live Wire! shows and realizing that Portland would turn out for larger scale shows such as this. Then Mortified started up about 8 months before the first Back Fence and they sold out the very first show…so it seemed like the scene was ripe.

How has the style of the show grown or evolved during its five years in existence?

I think shows die if they don’t grow, evolve and take risks. We had intermission acts for a while that sort of fit with the theme. A hula hooper, a person singing holiday songs, and I can’t even remember what else. But, it turned out that people really just wanted to talk about the stories from the first half of the show. The intermission just needed to be social time. Also, one of the rules of Back Fence is stories must not have been told before they are told on our stage, and we’ve become more of a stickler for following that rule. Coaching storytellers also evolves, as does curating, and over the last couple of years we’ve brought in more out of town tellers as well. I love the addition of the audience lightning round as well. For our upcoming show we’re partnering with a series out of LA called 5 Truths and a Lie and I hope to do more of that kind of thing for sure.

See below for our newest evolution, Russian Roulette!

What lies ahead for Back Fence PDX? Will you change it in any way? Would you like to do it in larger venues? Or is it pretty much exactly where you’d like it to be right now?

It will always evolve in small increments, but at its core its people telling true stories, revealing themselves and connecting to the audience through their lives. In January we presented a new format called Russian Roulette. I wanted there to be a way to include more storytellers who’ve told from the past at our show (we don’t repeat storytellers very often), something more risky, and something more fast-paced. It’s a combination of the Armando improv format and other stuff I’ve participated in/seen in the past 10 years. The first show was a blast. The second show will be at Disjecta (pts: That’s this coming Saturday, April 6), because I also wanted to bring the event to a different part town. And Disjecta is the perfect space for this type of show. Just the right size for loads of energy to be churned inside.

Note: We have a discount code for specially priced $10 tickets: roulette2013

As far larger venues…We’ve done the show twice in partnership with Portland Center Stage (a 600-seat venue) and that was fun. We are in talks now to bring another show there sometime in the future. But, for me the Mission (300+ capacity) venue is ideal as an ongoing venue, I like spaces with tables and chairs and booze and food. It keeps it more social, and there is no 4th wall in this show, so something about the tables and chairs makes it more lively. The great thing about PCS is that even though it is a larger venue it still feels very intimate.

Now that you have established yourself as a successful producer of live entertainment in Portland, if you were talking to someone just starting out, how hard would you say that process has been to get where you are today?

Decide your goals for the show, and do everything you can to get it there. Ask people when you don’t know where to go next, don’t give up. Cliche’d as it sounds, you must ignore the naysayers who think your idea is too big. Fortunately I find myself surrounded by a bounty of friends and staff who are drama-free yay-sayers. Also be prepared to fight off the feeling of being scared and wanting to quit all the time.

Portland’s live performance scene seems to be growing fast in your sector. When you look across the available entertainment spectrum, with comedy, improv, storytelling, cabaret, and traditional theatre all in the mix, what changes or trends do you see? Where do you see the most excitement right now in Portland? And what’s ahead?

I see a lot of excitement around tremendously talented novelists and memoirists being published and selling well…their books being turned into screenplays. Their work going global. I am stoked that the film and television scene is growing too. Portland is still the wild west, if you see a niche’ not being filled, and if you have the gumption you can fill it. I’ve found people who run venues in town to be supportive of people producing new shows. Lots of hilarious writers/comedy people/talented actors/writers/video makers/storytellers are creating their own shows and working them in a professional way…but, not a stuffy way…in an accessible way.

In addition to your Back Fence PDX duties, you also appear to be an all around producer looking to make fun events happen. For example, last November you brought Lauren Weedman to Disjecta for a sold out weekend, was that the first time you brought her here? Given that Weedman has a show coming up at Portland Center Stage this season, the Disjecta engagement seemed perfect. Was that your idea?

I’ve known Lauren for a long time and we were talking in December of 2009 and she said that she’d be interested in performing here. I love watching her perform, I get inspired, and it seemed to me like people here would love her. So, I put together a workshop performance of BUST at The Woods in 2010 and invited Portland Center Stage to attend. And lo and behold she was picked up for a full run of BUST at PCS in 2011. It was so exciting to see that all happen. And, during that run Lauren’s husband Jeff was talking about how great her show NO…YOU SHUTUP was going. I spoke to PCS about doing a run of that show at Disjecta and they helped to cross promote it with People’s Republic of Portland. Which was really cool.

Lauren is also a favorite storyteller at Back Fence.

Do you have plans for other such shows featuring a single performer in the future?

There are a few people I’m in talks with.

How would you like to see Portland change in the entertainment field in the near future? Are there specific things you’d like to see happen here?

I would just like to see it keep growing in the direction it is, and for people to continue to be supportive of one another. I am unbelievably supported by my dedicated Back Fence staff (including longtime lovelies Nathalie Weinstein and Meagan Kate) the community, other producers and organizations, our sponsors and I owe a lot to my amazing husband Kevin Sampsell.

Thanks, Frayn! Good luck with all your endeavors!