Interview with B. Frayn Masters

B. Frayn Masters — who hosts and produces Back Fence PDX, and produces the Portland edition of The Moth StorySLAM — is so fucking busy with producing, curating, and hosting things I want to see that it sometimes poses a problem for me, because her events tend to sell out faster than I can finish an IPA.

When I arrived for our interview on the bar side of Beulahland, Masters was finishing her coffee and wrapping up a pitch meeting with a potential Back Fence PDX storyteller on the diner side.

“You have to hear this,” she said, and immediately began talking about perspective, language, and experience, while the partly sunny booth lit up a sunglasses-and-coat silhouette worthy of Brassai’s attention. I started recording about five minutes into the interview, realizing that this would be a conversation, not a series of questions with a finite start and end point. We stacked sentences in a few areas, particularly storytelling.

You have three opportunities to catch Masters in April. She’ll be co-hosting with Audrey Kearns and Brian Bradley for the Portland edition of LA’s popular 5 Truths and a Lie storytelling show at the Mission Theater. She’ll also bring back another round of Back Fence PDX: Russian Roulette. And for P-towners who are looking to tell a story, she encourages you to put together a 5-minute “Busted” story for the April 1st StorySLAM, grab tickets, and put your name in the hat.

JO: What’s the difference between telling a story to an audience and telling a story to your friends?

BFM: You don’t have to expose as much to your friends because they already know you. You have to give a little bit of context for an audience. Invite them in, let them take a look around.

The thing that an audience member really relates to in storytelling is you revealing things about yourself. Those are the points of connection for the audience. When you tell a truth about yourself, either they’ll go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you just admitted that about yourself,’ or they’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, me too.’

When you’re on stage, your life outside the moments that you’re telling ceases to exist. And that’s an incredible experience. You, in the moment, sort of get this collective consciousness of the audience — when it’s going well. When it’s not going well, you’re very conscious of yourself and how awkwardly your right hand is moving. David Mamet says that being on stage is learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And suddenly being conscious of how your hand is moving, or your mouth is moving is decently uncomfortable.

Sometimes you get so involved in the moment of your story, it is kind of like all of a sudden you feel like, wait, where am I in my narrative? As long as you stay relaxed and stay in the moment, you will find it again, and the audience will never know that you had those thoughts.

JO: What is the perfect amount of story?

BFM: Stories are frequently top-loaded with way too much stuff when you first prepare them. You’ve got to remind yourself over and over to start in the action. Learn how to layout the first line so the audience jumps in the action with you. You’ve got to know the beats of it. The words are not memorized, but you essentially know the story by heart.

This kind of unscripted storytelling leaves this openness because what will happen a lot — when you get on stage — is other things will occur to you to say. A lot of that comes from you feeding off the audience. You have to have the whole story in your body for the night, and that story has to be new every single night, too.

JO: What advice would you give to readers who want to be more authentic?

BFM: In writing, storytelling, and reading a story, that particular audience is going to decide what’s sad and what’s funny. Night to night, it varies.

An actor was doing a show, and all they had to do was ask for tea in this one scene. And the opening night got a huge laugh when they asked for the tea. And then the next night and a few nights later, they wouldn’t get the same laugh anymore — in that same scene — so the actor asked the director what happened. The director said, ‘Because you’re not asking for tea, you’re asking for a laugh.’ And that anecdote really resonates with me.

Even if you’re doing a reading of fiction, you’re still trying to connect with the audience. You still have to understand it and convey it so the audience gets it. Someone like Charles D’Ambrosio could probably read a story to you just as easily as he could tell the story to you without the book in front of him. A trick for becoming a better reader is to tell your story (fiction or non-fiction) without the words in front of you. If you can tell it well this way, your chances of reading it so it connects with people will be much higher. Charles also looks up a lot.

JO: How many times do you think you can hold onto a story and tell it fresh?

BFM: It just depends on how good the storyteller is at living that story again in the moment. I think that is really an individual thing. Retelling it starts to marry more into being an actor on stage, because every time an actor goes on stage, they have to approach it like it’s the first time that they’ve done the scene. It has to seem fresh. You can’t do it the exact same way you did it last night or else again, you’re asking for the laugh instead of the tea. In that moment, you have to re-ask for that thing as if it’s the first time.

JO: How is storytelling in Portland unique or offering something different than other places?

BFM: You’re not ever really reinventing the wheel with storytelling, but you can change it by who you invite to be storytellers and how you run the show. You can create more diversity. I spread the shows out a little more this year so I would have time to think about how to reach into other areas of the community. I really like the challenge of trying to figure out how to make Back Fence a little bit different and continue to grow it.


B. Frayn Masters is the host and executive producer of the live and OPB radio mini-series of Back Fence PDX, as well as the local the producer of the Moth StorySLAM, which happens on the first Monday of every month at Secret Society.

— Judith Ossello currently lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Find her here.

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