Shane Portman is the ultimate hyphen: actor-writer-comedian-founder-creative force to be reckoned with. His website is a pretty good reflection of who he is: lots of info all packaged into a colorful and energetic package. I heard of him through mutual friend and hyphenate Dave Droxler and he had this to say:
“My dear friend and collaborator, Shane Portman, has just self-published a new book through Amazon called Allister Cromleys Fairweather Belle: Bedtime Stories For Grownups To Tell. It’s a series of whimsical and magical stories and I illustrated the cover, as well as a handful of other pictures throughout. In fact, I think I mentioned it in my interview with you. It releases Nov 15th. Well, Shane is someone who went to Point Park with me and has done a great deal of work in Pgh, particularly with the now defunct sketch comedy group The Animal Club (which I was also a member of) that started in Pgh. He is currently living in LA…[and] is also the friendliest human being you’ll ever meet.”
Yeah, that pretty much sums Shane up in a nutshell. And yes, he is one of the friendliest human beings I’ve ever interviewed. In fact, we kinda got carried a way a bit with our chat, so I divided it up into two parts. I didn’t want to edit his wonderful answers at all, because y’know, he’s a writer and his answers are awesome, so instead, check out part one here, and then come on back for part two. I’ll wait….
Writing is a very solitary thing, but you collaborated with many people for your book, including our mutual friend and actor extraordinaire Dave Droxler. How did that come about, and what did you enjoy most about partnering with some amazingly talented people?
A large part of that comes from my background in theatre and from what I learned while performing in the improv and sketch comedy community of Chicago, which was just a mind-blowingly amazing melting pot of, “yes, let’s do that right now!” And, perhaps because of that, the way the blog stories developed and shaped into a book was a little unconventional.
Even before I began seriously working on the book, I began workshopping the stories for a stage show. I love the visceral feeling that comes with performing. It’s such a gift when you can share a performance directly with an audience and I really wanted these stories to feel that way. I really wanted to have the experience of reading directly to an audience. So, I began working with a really great director in New York, Scott Illingworth, just to feel out what theatrical devices to use and how to best present the stories on stage. And, although we did not perform in front of an audience, those workshops really helped hone in on the language and how it sounded out loud.
At the time Ruth had had a very severe back injury and had to move out of the cold of New York and near family in Los Angeles to heal. So, we were apart for a while. And, in that time, Ruth was struggling to pay for medical bills and help her Mom who was sick at the time and needed care, too. I felt incredibly helpless on the other side of the country. But, Ruth mentioned to me that she was reading the stories aloud to her Mom and they helped soothe them both. And that sparked something.
I contacted the amazing and talented friends and collaborators that we’ve been so fortunate to meet across the country, told them what was happening and sent them the stories. And, together, we organized unique fundraisers that incorporated varying doses of the stories, live music, clowning, and their own personal flavors into storytelling experiences that were performed in theaters in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. People were invited, donations were accepted and the performances were recorded. The collected funds were given to Ruth to cover medical expenses and sent with the tapes of the shows as a surprise to her-except, of course, the Los Angeles performance. For that one, Ruth was taken to the event where she was surprised to find friends there, waiting to see her, to be with her, and to read stories to her.
The feeling that came from those experiences affected me greatly. There’s an undeniably incredible warmth that you get from being together and it’s enhanced even further by being together in honor of someone or something else.
And, before leaving New York for Los Angeles, I began working with another brilliant director, Jess Smith, and a cast of actors to create storytelling experiences using the stories, simple light and shadow tricks and live music. We organized two other fundraising performances of the stories; one to help raise money for the eye-opening organization Project Explorer and another to help a daughter get home to take care of her mother in Seattle after a family emergency. The stories used in the latter show are actually what will eventually go into the second book. You can find pictures of that performance here.
But, those performances and even just the people who listened to the stories in the early days of editing and feedback really help give them life beyond words. And I am eternally grateful for that.
So, when it came time to make the book, I knew illustrations would be so important. But, I’m not a visual artist. Fortunately enough, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some incredible artists and so I trusted their eyes. The same goes with the layout and design of the book, which Ruth handled. And Amanda’s editing. I trusted their eyes, their minds and their intuitions where maybe mine would come up short or would gloss over tiny errors.
Writing can be isolating and, certainly, I need alone time sometimes to do it. But, working with others has only given more life to any project that I’ve ever been involved in.
Alright, another sort of cliche question but I gotta ask: what’s next?
I began recording some of the Allister stories that are not in the book for a free podcast. The stories were directed by Sam Rhodes and feature a different musician’s score and have been releasing once every other Wednesday since October 3rd. I’ve found these really rewarding and another way to grow the stories. So, I’ll be continuing that, for sure. We intend to work in seasons. So, the first season will end April 17th. And, then, we’ll get back to recording more and recruiting more musicians to score them. You can find them all at www.fairweatherbelle.com.
I’ve also got a couple of children’s books in the works. One is an original story of mine about a little eskimo girl that’s currently being illustrated. And the other is a story that I was contracted to write for the lovely Miss Melodee, a wonderfully gifted children’s dance teacher here in Los Angeles. Fun fact: Dave Droxler did the illustrations!
And, speaking of Dave, we’ve been working on a passion project for a few years now, a biographical play about Buster Keaton.
And, finally, Ruth and I are beginning to develop some sketches for an eventual two person show together.
Wow, sounds exhilerating and exhausting. But mostly exhilarating! Finally, you decided to self-publish your stories instead of pursuing the traditional publishing route. What factored into that decision? And for those who wish to do the same, what’s the best piece of advice you can give them about navigating the Amazon self-pub landscape?
I don’t want to give anyone the false impression that I chose self-publishing out of any sort of “artistic” reason. The idea of “not selling out” or wanting control over my words played no role in choosing self publishing for me.
I had a couple of years of submitting the book in various forms under my belt before moving onto self-publishing. It’s just incredibly hard to get an unsolicited manuscript in the hands of a publisher or a literary agent. And two years of submitting isn’t even much in comparison to how long some authors have gone before finding a home. But, I’d definitely recommend submitting to publishers and agents before going with self publishing (unless, of course, self publishing is precisely what you want to do). There’s just a plethora of things like marketing and packaging and distribution and design and yadda yadda yadda that a publisher can open the doors to and get your work to a larger audience.
But, I was ready to move on. And I knew, even if I could get the book into a publisher’s hands, it would still be at least another year before the book was released. And this may sound crazy. But, there’s just so much happening in the world and I wanted to get this book out as soon as I could even if it was just to my family and friends to give them a moment to pause and breathe and reflect and maybe feel safe for a moment.
And the world of self publishing (as with all publishing) has really begun to change in the age of the internet and Kindles. It used to be that you would often be giving the rights to your material over to a publishing company when you self published. Now there are companies likelulu.com and createspace (which I chose) where you can make the book, but you retain your rights. So, if you get enough buzz or have the right eyes see your book or ebook, you can negotiate contracts with bigger publishing houses and take your material hassle free. This is basically what E.L. James did with Fifty Shades Of Grey. Of course, it’s still a gamble to get to that level. But, if you are ready to put your material out there, the self publishing world is getting better and better all the time. Lulu and Createspace can go right up on Amazon.com. And Createspace is a subsidiary of Amazon so you have access to a lot of great distribution channels. And the quality of the books themselves is really great.
My biggest piece of advice to anyone self publishing is to really scrutinize your work. Really really scrutinize your work. And, once you think it’s amazing enough, give it to other people. Then, find someone who is a professional editor or as close as you can get to it to look it all over. And, after that, just have someone there to be your second eyes throughout the whole process. Because you will get to a point where you’re eyes just can’t be trusted. They’ve been looking at it for too long and are just ready to get the book out.
Ruth was my second eyes and my savior at that point. With Createspace, you can order proof copies of your book once you’ve uploaded the file and designed the cover and all that jazz. A proof is a copy of your book assembled and sent to you exactly as it will look. By the end, we had ordered so many different proof copies. Different fonts, different sizes of book, different covers. And Ruth could still have a non-bias eye and say, “this is looking crooked” until we got it right. And that’s what you need. Because you’ve worked so hard to get to the point where you’re ready to publish and you don’t want to put something out there that you’re not proud of.
Thanks so much again, Shane! You are a joy to speak with and your book, Allister Cromley’s Fairweather Belle, is exceptional. Creative, fun, fascinating and clever. By the way, I’m talking about the person as much as the book.
Allistir Cromley’s Fairweather Belle is available now through Amazon. To purchase and get more information, go here.