Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Shackleton's Antarctic Nightmare

An old friend was passing through Portland January 11, so I missed the opening of Lawrence Howard's solo storytelling concert, Shackleton's Antarctic Nightmare: The True Story of the 1914 Voyage of The Endurance. I managed to make it to the closing night of the show, which ran for four sold-out nights.

Shackleton had been to the Antarctic before. Twice, his expeditions fell short of his goal (reaching the South Pole): by 200 miles and by 97 miles. An experienced adventurer, he led a talented and loyal crew on the attempt to cross Antarctica. Not a single man was lost on the harrowing 22-month journey that never even reached the continent; one of the many miracles of the soul-stirring story.

I was born and raised in Southern California, so this week's cold snap --overnight temperatures in the 20s -- seems intense, but it's a spring romp compared to what the Endurance's crew experienced.

I don't think it's possible to express just how much the story moved me. The one-mile-per-day rate at which the men persisted over the ice floes on foot, some pulling a sled in harness. Shackleton and photographer Frank Hurley sorting through hundreds of glass negatives of the journey, together choosing the 150 finest photos, and destroying the rest. The standards of obedience expected of British ships' crews. The unthinking bravery, the methodical planning, the 2000-foot slide off a mountain's precipice... it all inspired me in ways I can hardly describe.

I am a fan of inspiring stories: the tribal youth who walked from a South American jungle to the USA, worked as a janitor to put himself through school, and became a nurse; the single mom, struggling to make ends meet, who authored a children's book that became a global phenomenon; the man who suffered burns over 90 percent of his body, not expected to live, who established himself in a successful career and even ran for mayor.

There are so many people who want to paint those people as exceptions... and they are exceptional. But I think they are exceptional because they dug down and freed the determination and potential that we all possess, but so many of us leave untapped.

That said, I could not imagine how any human being could have risen to the challenge of Shackleton's expedition. Lawrence painted such a grueling picture (and I shudder to think what he left out), it seemed beyond the capacity of anyone to survive. And yet, they did.

It was one of those evenings where the rest of the audience dissolved from my awareness, and I lost track of where and when I was. I let the narrative lift and carry me. When Lynne Duddy first told me the performance clocked in at around 2-1/2 hours, it dampened my enthusiasm. But once Lawrence began speaking, I never once noticed the time.

"Storytelling" means different things to different people. Some think of fables and fairy tales. Some think of sacred tales and myths. Some think of children's stories. My favorite stories are personal and adult. I think of Daniel Pinkwater's stories on NPR, David Sedaris, James Thurber, E.B. White, Joan Didion. Some are more essay than story, but they still represent what I think of when I think of storytelling: Personal stories. Memoir. Humor. Evoking the exceptional out of the ordinary.

The story of Shackleton's expedition fascinated both Lawrence and his father, and I found that thread touching, as well. Children and parents often have difficulty over the years as relationships evolve or deteriorate. The story of a lifelong passion shared by father and son added a poignant shading to the story of Shackleton.

Next up in Portland Story Theater's 2008 Solo Series:

  • Okage Sama De (I Am Who I Am Because of You) by Alton Chung, Feb 8, 9, 15 and 16;

  • On Sale Now! by Rick Huddle, March 7, 8, 14 and 15; and

  • dark matter by Lynne Duddy, April 11, 12, 18 and 19.

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