Artist Stephanie Cole, Michael Bobbitt, and Sara Porkalob
This week a conversation and look at the work of artist Stephanie Cole and her exhibit at The Fuller Craft Museum, New Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director, Michael Bobbitt on creating work during COVID and the racial reckoning in theatre, and Sara Porkalob’s “Dragon Mama” and “Dragon Lady.”
>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,
WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture
from around the region and the nation.
I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,
artist Stephanie Cole making portraits in pieces.
>> I found that
building things and making things was what
was really I was meant to do.
>> BOWEN: Then, for New Repertory Theatre,
how the show must go on.
>> Whatever we create, we don't want it to be a stopgap,
because I don't think digital theater is going to go away.
>> BOWEN: Plus, Sara Porkalob brings her family drama
to the showDragon Mama.
>> "And I just want to be sure that you know
that this is a gay club."
"No, I, I knew it was a gay club.
I mean, I mean, I'm gay."
"Oh." "Are you gay, Tina?"
"I, I'm so gay."
"Great." "Yeah, great."
>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.
First up, we meet artist Stephanie Cole,
and it's fair to say she never expected to be met.
A lifelong artist now in her 70s,
she never intended to show her work publicly.
But now that museums, including the Fuller Craft Museum,
have taken notice, well, that ship has sailed.
When it comes to the artwork of Stephanie Cole,
here you will find her life in pieces.
>> I found that building things and making things was what
was really I was meant to do.
>> BOWEN: Within these wooden frames are bits of everything
the artist has been collecting for more than 70 years--
shards and shells,
windows and words,
even Cole's DNA is embedded
within these assemblages.
>> (laughing): Yes!
Are you thinking of the
"Royal Reliquary" window?
Probably in other places, too.
I think there's some of my hair in the getting there.
>> BOWEN: Temples to the artist's tenacity,
these sculptures now on view at the Fuller Craft Museum
represent how Cole has looked at herself,
her grief, and the world.
From the pain of losing a beloved cat
to the euphoria of turning 60.
>> The one thing that is
more joy than anything else
is my self-portrait-- "Domestic Goddess."
It was supposed to be self-portrait at age 60,
but there were so many things going on it wasn't done
until age 63.
But it's called "Domestic Goddess"
because I was really happy
with everything that I had accomplished.
>> BOWEN: An artist for as long as she can recall--
and well documented here when she was four--
Cole first learned from her artist father
then at art school.
She later became an art teacher,
raised a family,
and with her husband, restored an antique home
where she's excavated many an artifact now found in her work.
And it's here where she's had the luxury of working
in a filled-to-the-brim studio only since she was in her 60s.
>> You just get deep into it.
And I've had to learn
to be able to portion it out
because I'm... I still... I'm a grandma.
I'm a mom.
I'm a wife.
There are still responsibilities.
That's my first priority.
But I'm able to do it in
bits and pieces, and I'll tell them I'm going out
in the studio and they're pretty good about
letting me be.
>> To hear about an artist that
was only creating for herself
to make sense of the world around her,
to chart her own history,
it was really compelling to me.
>> BOWEN: Elements of the show bring us deep into Cole's life
We find a radiant rendering of her husband Jim,
or "My Golden Man" as she crowns him.
And a frank assessment of her own aging.
The work is so personal, Cole never intended to sell,
or even really share it
until curators like Beth McLaughlin took notice.
>> She has this very deep understanding of objects
and this very intuitive connection to material culture.
And she has a respect for the histories of these objects
and for the embedded stories
that come with them to her.
>> BOWEN: It was Cole's daughters who urged her
to put the work out in the world.
Art is the family business, by the way.
>> ♪ I don't want to wait
♪ For our lives to be over
>> BOWEN: Her daughter Paula Cole is the
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and a chief champion.
For Stephanie Cole, seeing her work in a museum
leaves the artist both delighted and slightly perplexed.
>> How do you go from being private
to a museum?
That takes chutzpah, doesn't it?
So it was my daughters' chutzpah, not mine.
>> BOWEN: And how do you feel about them being out now?
>> I love it.
I love it.
And what I love especially is people's reaction to it.
That's what I love.
>> BOWEN: Both Cole and McLaughlin say
women in particular are drawn to her work--
finding pieces of themselves among hers.
>> I see an artist who is juggling the demands of family.
She also has very overtly feminist work,
such as "Don't Wake the Tiger," which is a gorgeous mosaic piece
that was created after the 2016 election
that is speaking directly to the oppression of women,
and how we do need to rise up and to fight for equality.
>> It's mostly women that talk to me
about their feelings about it.
They've said things like, I feel brave now."
"I think I'm going to do things
that I have not allowed myself to do."
Or they identify with moments--
moments of grief, or joy,
or materials lying around.
Because a lot of people collect things.
>> BOWEN: Because we are the sum of our parts... or pieces.
Next, like theaters around the world,
New Repertory Theatre in Watertown hasn't been able
to put anything on its stages.
But it is finding new footing-- from walking plays to streaming.
And all while taking some of the most forceful steps
to combat racism.
New Rep's artistic director Michael Bobbitt
recently joined me to discuss that and more.
Michael Bobbitt, thank you so much for being with us.
>> Thank you so much, Jared, for having me.
It's good to see you again.
>> BOWEN: I'll start with the hardest question.
When is theater coming...
when is live theater coming back?
>> I don't know,
and I think that we all have to be prepared,
that we need to continue innovating and trying new ways
of doing theater, because who knows?
I mean COVID's gonna be around forever.
>> BOWEN: And what does that mean for, and in a moment,
we'll talk about the virtual offerings that you have,
but what does that mean for... for theater in this interim?
To have this time away from a live stage
and not having audiences come together physically?
>> Well, I think it's a couple of things.
I think, one, we have the opportunity to start thinking
about ways of innovating and incorporating digital theater
or film theater into our canon,
things that we have stayed away from because the building
of doing theater inside was a sacred space
and now that has been challenged.
So we have to come up with new things.
>> BOWEN: What does this...
and I'll let you talk about the virtual offerings
that you're about to have at New Repertory Theatre this...
throughout November and into the winter,
but does this make you filmmakers all of a sudden?
>> Uh... yes and yes and no.
And I, again, this is I think is a... is a deficit
in the training that we're offering
our theater professionals right now that we need to...
we're all learning it.
But, yeah, we have to become filmmakers.
We have to think about what the people are going to be seeing
at home and how do we create that sort of
live and visceral experience, even though we're separated
and not in the same space.
>> BOWEN: So tell me what you're doing with your virtual...
you have two plays coming up, two shorter plays,
that'll be online.
Tell me about them.
So we... we're... we're trying to figure out a way to,
as I said, create this sort of live and visceral experience
of being... of seeing something happening at the same time.
So we have two plays coming up.
One is by Alexis Scheer and one is by Miranda Adekoje.
They are written for this platform.
They're both interactive.
So patrons will come to a website.
They'll be greeted by sort of a house manager of some sort,
and they'll be told about how the event will work.
They'll see one play.
I think we're going to see Alexis' first,
it's about a half an hour.
It is interactive.
So patrons will be part of the action.
They will be... they will have to gather things on their own
to participate along with the actor in the play.
And then at intermission, they're going to be met by,
I don't know, like a virtual bartender,
or a busker entertaining them for the 15 minutes
of intermission and they'll come back and go to the second play.
>> BOWEN: I mean, you're not going to tell me
it's not fun to do, but my question is going to be,
is this fun to do or do you think we're doing this
because we have to do this to get through this time?
>> I think it's both in many ways.
And one of the things that I... the staff and I talked about
was that whatever we create, we don't want it to be a stopgap
because I don't think digital theater is going to go away.
But I do miss the live aspect of it and I was happy to see you
at the walking play a couple of weeks ago
because that was exciting to have theater outdoors.
>> BOWEN: It was my first live performance in what...
six, seven months at that point.
It was very exciting for me, too.
But it also made me wonder how you all are doing.
We hear about the epic job loss in the arts community.
How do you assess it at this point?
>> Well, yeah.
I mean, I think that we probably haven't seen
the kind of job loss we're gonna see because, again,
I'm not sure we'll be back up and running for a while.
We have put people first.
And with the support of the board, we have chosen
not to lay off anyone or furlough anyone.
We are able to keep our doors open through the generosity
of donors and patrons and sponsors and foundations
who... we're super, super grateful for that.
As things reopen and as we embrace innovation,
I'm hoping we'll bring in a little cash from productions
that are not in the theater.
>> BOWEN: Your theater is one of the first that I saw
that has come out with a major, comprehensive,
very detailed anti-racism plan.
We've talked about this on the show,
the racial reckoning that is happening all across the country
and of course within American theater.
You start, I noticed, with the board.
A lot of people talk about the shows you present,
the people you put on stage, but you talked about the board.
Why is that important?
>> Well, I will be frank and honest and I think that theater
and the arts has been terrible at developing
anti-racist culture and diversifying their audiences.
And mostly because the people that are coming up
with these ideas are probably programming people,
they're artists, and so their ideas
for fixing and solving problems is to tell stories
or to do... to do sort of outreach programs.
And those don't work.
New Rep has chosen to focus on governance and focus on
operations and, and patron services and marketing,
all the things on the other side of the table,
because I believe that is where the racism exists.
And not that there are bad people involved,
but there are policies and procedures that we have been
perpetuating for years and years and years.
And the reason why we start with the board is because
that's where the decisions are made.
If that board is not building in anti-racist policies,
then all that will trickle down
into the rest of the organization.
So we're doing things like we're getting rid of our subscriptions
because subscriptions can perpetuate white supremacy.
>> BOWEN: You're the first
and still the only person I've heard talk about that.
Subscriptions, I'm sure people know,
but we'll remind them that's where you buy a package
for the entire season, you're guaranteed seats,
but why have you taken a look at that?
>> Well, there are many problems with subscriptions.
Some are financial, that we're collecting all this money
from people six months to a year before we produce something.
And because it's a cash flow model, we're spending that money
when it comes in.
So God forbid there is a flood or a strike or a pandemic.
We have already spent your money.
There are issues with marketing because most of these campaigns,
we kick you out at the end of the year
and then we have to put all these resources
into renewing you.
So that's a problem.
So that aside, there's many problems with subscriptions.
But from a racism point of view, you have to think about
what group of people has enough money to buy a year's worth
of tickets six months in advance.
And then what privileges
are we giving those people that we're taken away
from other people?
There has to be a better way.
And we're now looking into sort of a Netflix model
where you pay a certain amount of money a month
and you get all access to all of our content.
Um... and I think that's going to be a better model.
That's a little bit more
of an equitable patron loyalty program.
But we're also going to add general admission seating
so that everyone has the chance to sit up front.
>> BOWEN: How do you expect people to react to this?
And I ask this in light of something that I read about
that you... I mentioned you're first out...
or one of the first with an anti-racism plan.
One of the first, if not the first,
with a message in support of Black Lives Matter on June 1.
And how is that answered?
>> Um... I'm hoping that
as we roll out these new procedures and policies
from a racial equity point of view,
I think, I hope people will embrace it
because I do believe that anti-racism is an act of love.
So regarding that,
when we came out with our Black Lives Matter statement,
there were probably six or seven patrons that responded
very negatively to... to that.
And I sent them a note saying, "I appreciate your note,
but you are no longer welcome to be a patron of this theater."
And from my perspective,
if you don't believe that Black lives matter,
then you can't come to the theater run by a Black man.
>> BOWEN: Simple as that.
>> Simple as that. (chuckles)
You're not welcome.
I mean, you probably can come because the ticket sales
are still anonymous but you're not welcome because our culture
is going to be anti-racist.
So racists are not... not welcome.
>> BOWEN: Well, finally, I know that nobody...
I was unfair to you at the beginning asking you
when theater is going to come back.
And nobody has, of course, that answer.
Not even the great Anthony Fauci
has that answer.
But do you have a show in mind, something in mind
of what you want, when you envision that day,
when you're back on the stage and you get to make
that curtain speech once again
of what you'd like to be saying it for?
>> Well, you know, my... my goal is to shift New Rep from being
a predominately white institution to a
predominately multicultural institution where the stories
of all of our people are being shared on stage
and the audience reflects that.
When I started rereading adult theater, I was like...
there's like a list of a hundred plays I want to do.
So it's hard to pick one.
I was really excited about opening the season
withAngels in America and maybe that's the first one
I want to see come back really bad.
With a nice, diverse cast and diverse cast of artists
bringing that story of life.
>> BOWEN: And people rising up as we see inAngels in America.
Michael Bobbitt, thank you so much.
Always great to see you.
>> You too, Jared.
See you soon, my friend.
>> BOWEN: It's time now for Arts This Week,
where we find an array of Monet and revolutionary fashion.
The Museum of Fine Arts offers a rare display.
Starting Sunday, see all 35 of its Claude Monet oil paintings
in the exhibit "Lasting Impression."
Wednesday, catch artist William Kentridge's "KABOOM!"
at the I.C.A.
His multimedia installation tells the story
of South Africans drafted to carry supplies
for colonial rulers in World War I.
>> You guys do nothing but complain about how
you can't stand it in this place here and then you haven't got
the guts just to walk out?
I mean what do you think you are
for Christ's sake-- crazy or something?
>> BOWEN: Thursday is the 45th anniversary
ofOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's premiere.
It went on to win the five major Academy Awards,
only the second film in history to do so.
This year the Boston International Kids Film Festival
is going virtual.
Tune in Friday to see
student-made and professional films from around the world.
Appropriate for all ages.
Saturday see how female fashion designers have changed our lives
in the Peabody Essex Museum's
"Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion."
Next, the American Repertory Theater is now streaming
one ofmy favorite plays of 2019.
That would beDragon Mama-- a show Sara Porkalob wrote
and stars in about her mother coming of age
in the wilds of Alaska.
I spoke with Porkalob last year about bringing generations
of her family's saga to the stage.
But first, here's a look atDragon Mama.
>> "Uh... my name's Maria?"
"Hi, Maria, my name's Tina."
(chuckling): "Tina! Wow!
"God, whoa, you know you sound just like Whitney.
"I mean, oh my God, blow my mind.
You even look like her."
"Oh, why? Cause I'm Black?"
Um... I'm sorry, I'm just gonna go..."
(chuckling): "No, hey, it's... I get it all the time.
You know, actually, you remind me of Chaka Khan."
I'm not Black though."
"I know, I just saw you in the crowd,
and your hair was just so... big."
"Oh... I didn't really know what the dress code was, so..."
"No, I mean... I'm just saying that I like your hair."
"What?" "I like your hair, Maria."
>> BOWEN: Sarah Porkalob, the creator of the "Dragon Cycle"
at the American Repertory Theater,
thank you so much for joining us.
>> ♪ Thank you so much for having me. ♪
>> BOWEN: You're here, from Seattle
at the American Repertory Theatre with your
You've... you've taken a look at your family,
you've taken a close look at your family.
What was it that you saw there
that you thought was ripe for telling in theater?
I think, for me, it started in college.
I've always loved my family, um, very deeply, very fiercely.
We're all very, very close, and whenever we hang out
we're always partying, we're singing, we're dancing,
we're telling stories, we're cracking jokes.
It wasn't until I had the context
within my liberal arts college, what my career
as a theater artist
could potentially look like.
That I was like "Oh.
"What my potential theater career looks like
"doesn't look like anything I came from.
>> BOWEN: Because what was the impression that you had
about what that theater career was... could or supposed to be?
As a young woman of color I didn't have any mentors
or professors who were Asian women or women of color,
to really create a contextual environment where my experience
as a second generation Filipina American,
as a child who grew up within a poor family, with queer parents,
what my narrative added to the American theater pedagogy,
and I didn't have anything
within the American theater pedagogy to reflect back at me,
what my human existence looked like.
>> BOWEN: Of course you have to
find a narrative arc in your family,
you have to find the drama in your family.
>> Yeah. >> BOWEN: What did you see?
>> Well, well I didn't have to look far for the narrative arc
and the drama. (both laughing)
Somehow we find ourselves
around the dinner table or in the living room,
and then the stories from my aunts, my uncles, my mom's
their past just come pouring forth.
Stories of adventure, of tragedy, hilarity,
you know what happened in the Christmas of 1981?
Those types of stories.
And, when I found myself in those situations
now with the context of, like,
career as a theater professional,
it changed how I was receiving those stories.
Um, and it made me really, really curious as to why
there were certain discrepancies between the stories--
depending on who you were talking to--
or how that story revolving around my aunts and my uncles
trying to feed themselves for two weeks
when they had no idea where my grandmother was,
why they could share that story
with such humor and, and levity.
Whereas for me I'm like,
"That's... that's really kinda sad!"
So it was a deeper curiosity as to, one,
where these stories came from, and how they intersected
and changed, depending on the perspective.
♪ Felt your touch
♪ And it always seemed
♪ You loved me.
>> BOWEN: The quick billing for your...
for your grandmother's story, Dragon Lady,
is everything gangster affiliation to karaoke.
And it's funny because for a lot of people who are not Filipino,
that association seems very bizarre and unnatural.
You talk to any Filipino American,
it's completely natural.
It's as natural as our diet.
The thing that we know like the back of our hand.
>> BOWEN: And how is that the case?
>> It's the case in, I think, we could talk a whole other episode
about I think the history of colonialism and imperialism
and how Filipino American identity has been shaped
by like American influence over hundreds of years.
And what that means now for like contemporary Filipino Americans
straddling like both of these cultural worlds,
and also wondering what is our history.
Born out of that is a deep sense of strength and resilience.
>> BOWEN: How does your family feel about you
telling their stories? >> Oh man...
There was, um, some hesitation,
but not... not this type of hesitation.
(sharp inhale and exhale through teeth)
"You shouldn't, mm-mm, you shouldn't do that."
It was more of "Really?
And then when I started diving
deeper and expanding not only my grandmother's story,
but my aunts' and my uncles',
and what it was like for them growing up,
um... I think that there was some internalized shame there
around these narratives
that included poverty,
um, how to survive.
The survival techniques that like, you know, so many people
are like, "Children shouldn't have to worry about that."
Well, the fact is they do worry about it every single day
right here in our own country, in our own neighborhood.
So I was able to really lift those and show them up
in a way that I thought was, hopefully,
compassionate and complex.
Pew-pew ten points for grandma, bitches!
I was afraid that I would never see my child again.
But then I heard a baby crying.
And like a mother emperor penguin recognizes
her baby penguin's voice in a sea of gajillion penguins
I knew that it was my baby/my penguin!
>> BOWEN: When you're doing Dragon Lady are you inhabiting
You know, it's funny because...
(clears throat) my piece is really funny.
You're gonna laugh, I guarantee it.
And when people... when people come and see my show
they're like, "Ah, how is it
so funny one second, and so tragic the next."
I'm like because it's truthful.
That's really what just what I'm trying to do
is I'm trying explore the truth.
And when I'm onstage, you know I used to think that I wasn't
a funny actress, I was so scared of solo performance
I was just scared of being seen.
And now I don't care.
I'm like I'm here, see me.
How lucky you are to see me and the story.
And because of that, because there isn't
that fear there anymore that's stopping me from doing
the thing moment to moment,
it creates this like really beautiful metaphorical space
and literal space that like four years of college
tried to teach me about being "in the moment," right?
(affected voice): "Be in the moment!
I'm like what does that mean?
It's so meta!
While I'm inhabiting these characters,
every performance is an opportunity to learn from them,
and in relationship to the audience
they always teach me something.
>> BOWEN: How do you feel the audience?
You're, you're in small spaces,
you'll be at the Oberon, a very small space--
and especially to know that you've gotten
over this notion, of, of having fear onstage.
>> Well, if they're willing to look at me, it's really great.
You know the concept ofDragon Lady is that
it's my grandmother's 60th birthday,
and everybody in the audience is her favorite grandchild,
So it feels so special to be able to walk and move
through Oberon and directly interact with people
that because of the conceit, I deeply love them,
and I want them to be there.
(Southern accent): "What are you gonna do about it
"little baby Anna?
"You gonna cry and get your snotty little baby tears
all over me?"
(crying): "Don't call me...
(forcefully): "...a baby!
>> BOWEN: Dragon lady, it's an incendiary term,
but you've chosen it very specifically
as you've carried it through, throughDragon Mama.
>> Yeah, the examples
that I saw, particularly in more in mainstream entertainment
like movies and TV shows,
around like Asian Pacific Islander women was one that
was always either like extremely demure
or like really aggressive and vilified.
And so I was like well I'm either Madam... Madam Butterfly
or I am a dragon lady.
I wonder which of, out of those two... the stereotype reflects
at my family in a truthful way,
and which one do I actually feel
more akin to?
And which one can I subvert?
I was like, "Not Madam Butterfly.
Ugh." (Jared laughs)
That's what I thought and I was like,
"Well, then I guess it's dragon lady,"
and I tried it on and it felt right.
>> BOWEN: Well, Sarah Porkalob,
such a pleasure to speak with you.
I can't wait to see this show.
>> BOWEN: It's great to have you here.
Thank you so much. >> Yeah, thank you so much.
>> BOWEN: That is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.
Next week, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
re-opens with a vision of utopia.
And from the so-called Lynching Memorial
to hospitals in Rwanda,
the firm finding justice in architecture.
Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.
Thanks for joining us.
As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.
And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter
More Episodes (339)
35: Frontline Songs, Beethoven in Beijing, and moreApril 16, 2021
The American Heritage Museum, the BYSO, and moreApril 09, 2021
The Iguana Music Fund, Violinist Gil Shaham and moreApril 02, 2021
Museum of Russian Icons, The Conjurers’ Club, and moreMarch 26, 2021
The Fitchburg Art Museum and “The Kimono in Print" at WAMMarch 19, 2021
New Public Art, Author Debra Balken, and moreFebruary 26, 2021