Cincinnati's "hunger for alternative work" brought performer Paul Strickland here to stay

For two years Cincinnati Fringe Festival audiences flocked to hear Paul Strickland tell folksy tall tales about the Big Fib Cul-de-Sac Trailer Park. His monologue-and-song piece Ain’t True and Uncle False was a 2013 hit. He came back in 2014 with a sequel, Papa Squat’s Store of Sorts.
And then he came back to live in Cincinnati.
“I firmly believe that making people laugh at themselves and think in a new way about their world,” Strickland says, “is a good way to help them escape while, hopefully, gaining some perspective on what they’re escaping from — and distracting them from the fact that I just took their money.”
Strickland, who really grew up in a trailer park (perhaps not quite so colorful but at least as inspirational as “Big Fib”), journeyed down several career paths — from operatic singing and theater management to stand-up comedy — before he landed squarely in the world of storytelling. He applied unsuccessfully to the Cincinnati Fringe several times before 2013 with one-man shows he’d done at festivals in Orlando and Indianapolis, but his piece Any Title That Works had never won rave reviews.

Ain’t True, he says, “did OK at other festivals. But it did really, really well here in Cincinnati,” earning Pick of the Fringe honors. When he returned with Papa Squat last June, he had full houses and standing ovations for every performance at Coffee Emporium.
“There is a hunger for alternative work in Cincinnati,” Strickland suggests. “Thanks to the Fringe and Know Theatre, there’s a lot of interest in new forms. That’s the primary reason I moved here.”

Know, the Over-the-Rhine theater company that produces the annual festival as well as a season of theater that pushes boundaries, was a major factor in his decision to relocate. Its Jackson Street Market initiative provides performing artists with logistical support, resources, space and more for their own project.

“Thanks to Jackson Street, I can teach workshops and do strange things,” he says.

Long and winding road to Cincinnati
Strickland the storyteller describes his life prior to Cincinnati in this way on his website: “After not graduating with degrees in creative writing and vocal performance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Paul got married, then divorced, then decided to crash on couches and make jokes, stories, performance pieces and songs his bread and butter, because bread and butter got expensive. Now he is who he is probably as a result of all of that.”
Born in Pensacola, Fla., relocated to Charlotte at 15 then on to Nashville, Louisville and Indianapolis, Strickland still travels a lot to perform stand-up comedy and monologues in far-flung locales. Chatting about dropping anchor in Cincinnati at The Lackman bar in Over-the-Rhine on a cold Tuesday afternoon, he mentions his Sunday night drive back from St. Paul, Minn., in time for a Monday night performance in Serials! at Know Theatre.

He travels two weekends a month to do stand-up comedy (“That’s how I make a living”), so it’s an itinerant life, but he’s definitely found a creative home in Greater Cincinnati. He and his partner Erica Kate McDonald, another Fringe veteran, rented an apartment in Covington and settled in during January.

Since the first of the year, he’s offered several month-long workshops on “The Craft of Storytelling.” He gathers participants three times to share thoughts about writing and structuring brief monologues and provide them with guidance about the basics of performance; the last session is a chance for them to perform.

He’s in the midst of the final round for the spring, but he plans to do this again next fall. He’s even had interest from companies hoping to improve employees’ storytelling skills.

His workshops certainly help drive interest in storytelling here from audiences and participants alike, a trend that's growing in major cities across the country. Know has hosted True Theatre's storytelling nights for several years, and The Enquirer recently started organizing storytelling events.

Meanwhile, Strickland is developing several new pieces of his own, including Tales Too Tall for Trailers, to be presented in the 2015 Cincy Fringe (May 26-June 6) as well as in cities including Calgary and Edmonton later in the summer.

Strickland loves the stew of local creativity he’s finding in Greater Cincinnati. In the 2014 Fringe he admired Slut Shaming, a play by Trey Tatum. They met and bonded — it turns out they grew up just 45 miles apart on the Gulf Coast (Strickland in Florida, Tatum in Alabama) — and created a “hillbilly musical,” Andy’s House of [Blank] — on a car trip to Indianapolis. It’s been a hit in Know’s recent Serials! presentations, 15-minute episodes spread across a two-month period.

Cincinnati has surprised Strickland.

“In a lot of cases, it makes ‘big-city art,’ and that’s a remarkable thing,” he says.
He’s moving beyond the trailer park, working on a new piece called Whelm — “and its two suburbs, ‘Overwhelm’ and ‘Underwhelm.’ It’s a piece about gentrification, a toy-box theater and paper puppetry production.”

This will be a more fully produced piece — he needs funding, too — for a show that’s “going to be funny and musical, with jokes, stories and songs in a provocative vein.”
That’s Paul Strickland’s story so far, taking root and growing right here in Cincinnati.
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Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.