CityArts: Dragon Lady

Publication date: 
August 28, 2017
Author: 
Gemma Wilson

Carbon-black type peeks from the underside of Sara Porkalob’s wrists whenever she gestures—which is a lot. Her two visible tattoos are very visible on purpose. On the right wrist: 11.8.16. “I don’t want to ever forget that rage that I felt that day,” she says. On the left: Fuck White Supremacy. “It’s a reminder that…fuck white supremacy!” she laughs, head falling back as her face splits into a smile.

In an industry that encourages adaptation, a performer with such clear convictions etched on her skin is an outlier. But Porkalob has worked hard to build a theatre career on her own terms. Her personal and artistic missions are inextricably linked, and she wouldn’t pack away her values for professional convenience, even if she could.

A new tattoo is on the way, location to-be-determined: a dragon, to commemorate her last five years since graduating from Cornish College of the Arts. To anyone tuned into Seattle theatre, the tattoo makes immediate sense. Dragon Lady is the work that launched the actor/director/writer/singer’s ascendant career. It began as a solo performance about her Filipino grandmother’s stories of a gangster past and was born from a craving to explore her identity inside the crush of white culture at Cornish. The short monologue grew into a longer version with multiple characters, Porkalob shifting between personas with nothing more than a raised eyebrow or a jut of the chin. A full-length Dragon Lady played at Theatre Off Jackson in 2016 and a food-filled version at Café Nordo in early 2017. Now, many iterations later, Dragon Lady opens this month as a musical at Intiman Theatre, where Porkalob is the company’s season co-curator through November. Intiman’s outgoing artistic director Andrew Russell is directing and—spoiler—Porkalob’s grandmother may make an appearance.

As symbols go, the dragon also feels right for someone who has fought to place self-discovery over self-doubt, though that demon still occasionally whispers in her ear. “I’ve developed a healthy relationship with [doubt] over the years, but more than anything instead of keeping me doubtful, now it keeps me humble and grounded,” she says.

It’s only been nine months since I last interviewed Porkalob, who appeared on City Arts’ 2017 Future List in January. But in those nine months, Porkalob’s profile has exploded. She has expanded the Dragon world with Dragon Baby, another solo show that played at the 2017 Seattle Fringe Festival; it focuses on Porkalob’s relationship with her own mother and her childhood as a self-described poor, brown kid. In her curatorial role with Intiman, she ran this summer’s Emerging Artists Program, which trains and showcases a diverse group of up-and-coming local artists.

As we sip tea in her new Pioneer Square apartment (when with Porkalob, you’ll never be hungry or thirsty), Porkalob laughs when I joke that I could fill this story just by listing all her upcoming projects, because she knows too well that it’s practically true. On the docket: She’s co-hosting the Gregory Awards with Justin Huertas, writing a brand-new musical at Village Theatre with Huertas and Kirsten DeLohr Helland, speaking on panels, writing the occasional theatre review and starring in the upcoming musical adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle at Book-It Repertory Theatre.

When that show wraps in late December, “I go into directing beast mode,” she says. Starting with Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men at Washington Ensemble Theatre, she then tackles Jiehae Park’s brilliant Macbeth riff Peerless at ArtsWest, then adapts and directs a youth novel for Book-It’s educational tour. Next summer, she’ll reunite with local playwright Seayoung Yim for the ’60s K-Pop-fueled Persimmon Nights at Café Nordo—a show in which she also stars. “It’s singing and food and intense family stuff,” she says. “I was like, that’s my life! Choose me! Choose me!”

This fast-growing resume is a lot to deal with, as is the name recognition that comes with it. “If I sit and actually think about it, I go, ‘What?’” she says, shaking her head in bewilderment. “But then another part of me is like, ‘Girl, you’ve been specifically curating this for the last seven years of your life, and this is the culmination of the work that you’ve put in. What are you going to do with it now?”

Staying sure of yourself when everyone wants a piece of you is a challenge. Porkalob’s learned that if you start letting other people’s expectations creep into your artistic process, you’re dead in the water. Too many acting programs encourage young performers to be neutral: Have personality but not too much personality, be yourself but also an empty vessel into which directors and casting professionals can pour their ideas. Porkalob wastes no time with that, which is why she was so keen to lead the Emerging Artists Program—to make sure these artists had a space to tell their stories and be shown consistently that they were important.

“I wish I had had that when I was five, when I was 10, when I was 15,” Porkalob says. Her theatrical education, she explains, focused so much on teaching her to be transformational as a performer that it made no space for her to figure out who she is. “How the hell am I going to transform if I don’t know what my baseline is?”

Yes, she’s an uncompromising intersectional feminist, dedicated to equity and social justice. Yes, she’s a truly fun person and performer. No, those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Porkalob fizzes with charisma—her physical comedy is exacting and intuitive, her multicolored voice slides easily from jazz to legit musical theatre. Even in conversation, Porkalob’s tendency to do funny voices when she’s talking about herself is disarming.

After so long as a freelance solo artist, Porkalob assumed that things like board meetings and high-level organizational decisions would be over her head, but her time with Intiman has taught her otherwise. “That’s completely within my grasp and my scope of understanding,” she says. “I’m realizing now that I have the skills, knowledge and abilities to articulate my ideas at the institutional level.”

Secure in her ability to hold her own, Porkalob is eager to make change, constantly interrogating her actions and motivations. We all have our long dark nights of the soul, and these are the fears that keep Porkalob’s brain racing.

“Is my activism performative?” she says, distress visible on her face. “Is anything I’m doing actually making a difference, or am I just like the crusty theatres who say they’re like ‘activist theatres’ but they’re just doing some bullshit community outreach?” She sighs, contemplating an idea visited so often its contours are tattooed in her mind. “I think I’m going to be figuring that out for the rest of my life.”

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