On the train that brought her from San Francisco to Portland in 1955, (Marian) Mara Manly Stahl ’59 was seated with her peers—bright and motivated students, all heading to Reed. She found what she was looking for at the college: a tremendous academic challenge, where ideas required substantiation and research, and where, conversely, under the tutelage of Lloyd Reynolds, she could explore her artistic impulses and investigate ancient mysteries.
At the end of her second year, Stahl left Reed to marry and begin a family. And, rather than become the lawyer her father had been hoping for, she followed her instincts to the stage. She responded to a casting call for a production of Hamlet directed by Angus Bowmer, founder of the Oregon Shakespearian Festival. “I read Ophelia’s lines, and I thought, ‘She’s no wimp!’ So I played her strong,” Stahl recalls. Bowmer cast her for the part, then gave her contracts for two years at the festival.
What happened next was an invitation from Portland Art Museum curator Rachel Griffin to perform stories for a museum exhibition. For the occasion, Stahl created masks and puppets— props became the “verbs” for her stories. She approached the process of puppet- and mask-making using her Reed training: she studied the bone structures of the animals she wanted to portray, in order to create authentic renditions. “I learned about them from the inside out,” Stahl says. She also observed her cast in the wild, traveling to Alaska, for example, where she noted the distinctions between crow and raven, and to the prairie, where she observed coyote and wolf.
Stahl spent 10 years performing the works of others before presenting her own work—a new show and new characters each year—for the next 30 years. She made her home in Portland, and traveled the country with baskets of props, taking her productions to art museums, theatres, grange halls, and school gyms. She developed an intensely improvisational performance style, and invited audience members to participate in the unfolding of stories she adapted from indigenous oral traditions. Her shows included “Carp Becomes a Dragon” from Southwestern China, “Calling Back the Sun” from Tibet, “Monkey Judge” from West Africa, “Moon Spider” from Southern Mexico, “Tracking Bear” from the MicMac people, and “Earth Divers” from the Wyandot. “One of my strongest motivations for telling stories was to hear the stories of others,” she says.
Today, in a time that is better described as a sabbatical than as retirement, Stahl paints stories in a studio filled with books, baskets, and warm swaths of color. The past takes a share in the present: window curtains are constructed from old costumes, and masks and puppets serve as decorations.
“Artists don’t retire, but move on to new stages, other ways of telling their stories,” she says. She recently recorded a CD, Out of the Ashes, and is considering doing another. Lisa Steinman, poet and Kenan Professor of English and Humanities at Reed, describes the work as prose poetry. The CD, which Stahl produced with sound engineer Jeremy Bowker, is available at the Reed bookstore and through cdbaby.com.—Laurie Lindquist