By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Seattle-based actor, playwright, and drama teacher Sara Porkalob, brings her one-woman show “Dragon Lady,” to the Theatre Off Jackson from March 26th to March 29th. Inspired by her Filipino family, the show promises several generations of family and family secrets, plus Diet Pepsi, pork dumplings, and some heavy bouts with the karaoke machine. Ms. Porkalob took some questions over email.
NWAW: Are you originally from Seattle? If so, which neighborhoods and schools? If not, where are you from and when did you arrive in Seattle?
Porkalob: I was born in Bremerton, Washington. I moved to Anchorage, Alaska when I was 5 then moved back to Washington when I was 9. I moved to Seattle for college and have lived in West Seattle, Capitol Hill, Ravenna, and Lower Queen Anne.
NWAW: How have your perceptions of the city and its theater scene changed over time?
Porkalob: The biggest realization that I’ve had since graduating from a private, liberal arts college is that while our city’s demographic is very diverse regarding cultural backgrounds, sexual orientation and political belief–the demographic of the theater world is very homogeneous, mostly white and dominated by males. Going to Cornish—issues such as race and gender inequality weren’t discussed as part of our curriculum and looking back, I’m upset and baffled that those studies were not mandatory. I have less opportunity available to me—from a “big house” point of view because of my ethnic background. There was no preparation for what it meant to be a colored woman in the business of theater.
NWAW: You went through the Original Works program at Cornish College of the Arts. How did you audition for the program? Who were your teachers, and what were the most important lessons from your studies?
Porkalob: I didn’t enter the Original Works program until my junior year—the year that all students must choose a specialized track of theater work. My audition consisted of an original 10 minute-piece that I wrote and directed and a personal interview with three of the OW faculty. I had many skilled teachers but two left and incredible impression on me and have had the most influence on my artistic aesthetic—Keira McDonald and Paul Budraitis. Both specialized in physical technique and were incredibly specific and determined artists. They were always honest and didn’t take bullsh** from students. Their critique was tough to hear but I came to realize that it was never personal—it was always about the work. Make it about the work—that’s an important lesson I learned. One of the other biggest lessons I learned was this: Words do not inherently mean any one thing while theater—a medium dependent upon words/text-is about truth. Seems inherently contradictory, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It’s my job as an artist to reconcile and deconstruct those ideas.
NWAW: How have you grown and changed as a feminist?
Porkalob: My belief in gender equality has always stayed constant. The ideas of privilege, white guilt, misogyny, sexism, and institutional racism have all become clearer. My position as a colored woman makes me very aware of the effect of such social constructs on my self-perception and the destructive influence it also has on the minds of young girls and boys. I’ve become more outspoken, more confident in my self-identifying as a feminist.
NWAW: How do your directing, performing, and teaching influence each other?
Porkalob: How could they not influence one another? Each role is about communicating.
Directing—you communicate with our production team on how best to communicate a story to an audience.
Performing—you communicate with other actors and the audience to tell a story.
Teaching—you have to communicate with students while at the same time, encouraging them how to communicate in their own unique way. Being an artist is all about communication, for me. How many different ways can I communicate effectively and efficiently and with passion?
NWAW: How did you go about putting together your first one-woman show? What lessons did you learn from that about solo shows?
Porkalob: “Dragon Lady” was first created my senior year at Cornish in Keira McDonald’s Solo Performance Class. The semester class syllabus was a series of prompts where we had to generate different types of solo material. It culminated in a showcase at the end of the year, a piece of our choice. I knew I wanted to write about my family, specifically my grandmother. Originally, it was a 7-minute piece that was more from a specific character’s point of view. Honestly, it was a lot of sitting around and letting ideas and stories about my family float through my head-waiting for inspiration to hit. One day, I decided to listen to one of my grandma’s favorite karaoke songs—we’re Filipino so karaoke is a huge thing—and BAM—I knew how my solo piece was going to start. The biggest lessons I learned is that every person’s story is worth hearing, that as a solo performer you had no one to hide behind and to trust your audience. It’s only you up there but the audience is your scene partner. I learned how to draw them in, what it felt like when they were listening, to follow my impulses in the moment.
NWAW: You’ve written in a bio that your biggest inspirations are your two mothers, your dysfunctional family, and the strangers you meet on the streets. Which strangers on which streets inspired you recently, and how?
Porkalob: I’m who I am today due largely in part to the people who raised me—my mothers and my crazy family. My mother is a lesbian. Growing up with an “alternative” home life made me very aware that a lot of what we’re taught about the world is not true. My parents were very open about things that are normally taboo—death, sex, drugs, politics, aliens, genetically modified foods, the healing power of art and music, racial bias, gender inequality, etc. They told me that being born a colored woman was going to affect how people treated me—that I would face racism, sexism, and all sorts of other inequalities and injustices and if I let it, it would affect my self-perception. I could either let others define me or I could define myself. So, in regards to strangers on the street, my interactions happen mostly at bus stops. You meet all kinds of people. I started making eye contact with strangers and smiling, saying hello, that kind of thing. Basically, acknowledging that other people existed at these bus stops other than me, hahha. Polite conversation would soon turn into deep conversations and then, buses would take these people away.
NWAW: How did you go about sculpting “Dragon Lady’s” story line?
Porkalob: Mostly between the hours of 10pm and 12pm, eating kimchi and laughing out loud to myself like a madwoman. It was fevered inspiration. I had a fully written piece which I hated. Then three weeks before the premier at Radial Theater’s Locally Grown Festival, I scrapped the whole second half and rewrote it. It was a better piece afterwards.
NWAW: What were the most difficult aspects of putting on “Dragon Lady” and how did you work through them?
Porkalob: The hardest part is just doing the damn thing. So many other actors wait until the last minute to get a piece on its feet, and repetition is your best friend. Do it over and over, in front of people you trust. Receive feedback. Keep what works, scrap what doesn’t. Work on it a little each day.
NWAW: Can we expect a lot of karaoke, a little, or none? Do you ever do karaoke out on the town?
Porkalob: Come see my show and you’ll see just how important singing is to my show. And duh, of course I karaoke about town! My favorite standards are: “Crazy,” by Gnarls Barkley, “Last Dance” by Donna Summers and anything I know except “Don’t Stop Believin’”. Ugh. Cee-Lo is a genius and he was a genius before his “F*** You” song. “Crazy” is a crowd pleaser—it sounds better being sung by a woman. Donna Summers is a disco goddess and I love disco.
NWAW: What’s in the future for you on all fronts?
Porkalob: Being a full time artist is in the future. I’m currently doing it and will sustain it as long as I can. (end)
For more information about “Dragon Lady,” visit heatreoffjackson.org/event/564/spf-dragon-lady.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.