The Dragon Lady is back.
Musical theatre performer Sara Porkalob has developed new material for her Dragon Lady persona, and, this month, Intiman Theatre will present the new version under the direction of Intiman Producing Artistic Director Andrew Russell, with an expanded set and new original music by Pete Irving.
This latest version builds on the feedback that Porkalob received two years ago, after she presented a shorter version of Dragon Lady at Bumbershoot. “Solo shows get a bad rap,” Porkalob said. “A lot of them are people only monologuing, without much action or dialogue.”
But Porkalob wanted to present something different. “In the Bumbershoot iteration, I played twelve characters with zero costume changes, often playing three or more characters in one scene,” she said. “People were astonished and amazed.”
This was enough impetus for Porkalob to develop a version that she presented at Café Nordo. “I’ve never had much of a set before,” she said. “The version at Cafe Nordo had dining tables, gold lamé, and a bandstand.”
But that has all changed with this new, and largely unexpected, opportunity. “Last year, Jen Zeyl and Andrew Russell approached me about being the Co-Curator for Intiman’s 2017 season because of my work as an artist activist and intersectional feminist,” Porkalob said. “They wanted to curate a season around those two things.”
Porkalob agreed to take on this behind-the-scenes artistic and administrative role. “Initially, I wanted my biggest contribution to the season to be the curation and program development of the Emerging Artist Program,” she said. And so she got to work on that.
Meanwhile, Porkalob was giving the Dragon Lady a bit of a hiatus. “[Russell and Zeyl] had originally said that, because I was doing so much with Dragon Lady around town, to slot it in at Intiman might be overkill, which I completely understood,” she said. “I didn’t have any intention of trying to get Dragon Lady on the stage.”
Then serendipity stepped in. “As we were planning Intiman’s season, the second September-October slot was still empty,” Porkalob said. “But then, [Russell and Zeyl] came to see Dragon Lady at Cafe Nordo in its immersive dinner theatre iteration and Andrew Russell, who had never seen any version, was convinced that it needed to be in the second slot.”
Porkalob was ready to create another version. “When they approached me about it, it was a total surprise but it felt right,” she said. “So I said yes.”
With this new production, Porkalob emphasizes the gratitude she feels toward her past and current collaborators. “I had had two other directors involved in the evolution, Terri Weagant and Keira McDonald,” she said. “They are both amazing solo performers and they really helped me explore and expand my imagination-what type of world can I create with only lights and a chair.”
Her explorations with composer Pete Irving have also provoked much thinking. “My grandma was a singer in the Philippines and everyone in my family is musically talented. Music is a huge part of our family,” Porkalob said. “So in that way, it makes sense that a play about my family has music, but I’m not sure if other people would call it a musical.”
Now her partnership with Russell has taken her into new territory. “In this process with Andrew, he has really pushed me to think as a playwright and editor,” she said. “He really trusts my ability as an actor and as a self-directed performer, and that means that we can both focus more on the character nuances and overall narrative structure.”
That involves some risks for a performer who is drawing from her own life and family experience. “It’s scary material,” she said. “It delves further into the sacrifices my grandmother made to come to this country.”
There’s also the risk of burnout. “The new material I’ve included is very challenging, reliving trauma and being so vulnerable for hours of rehearsal on end can be exhausting,” she said. “I’m tired.”
But with these risks come definite rewards. “Dragon Lady is really the only artistic place or thing I can be or have where I am 100% me,” Porkalob said. “It’s an attempt to encapsulate the totality of my family’s history, which is my history, which makes up my identity, which influences how I interact with the world, which influences the type of art I make, which I want to use for social change to deconstruct and destroy white supremacy.”
What does this look like for Porkalob? “Most of all, seeing little brown girls in the audience, knowing that they get to see someone on stage or on screen that looks like them,” she said.
As if that wasn’t enough, Porkalob reports even bigger ambitions for Dragon Lady in the future. “Andrew has also been a champion for this work and myself to expand beyond Seattle,” she said. “The plans for Dragon Lady include film, television, a book deal, two more shows to make a Dragon trilogy, and more.”
How will this all come about? “He’s into it, I’m into it, he has connections, and I have the material,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Dragon Lady will run from September 5 to October 1 at the Jones Playhouse, University of Washington, at 4045 University Way NE, Seattle. For more information, visit www.intiman.org/dragon-lady.