“Howl’s Moving Castle” is sometimes thought of as a love story in a land of fire demons, sorcerers, magic — and of course, large moving castles.
But Sara Porkalob, star of Book-It Repertory Theater’s adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 young adult fantasy novel, sees the story differently. For Porkalob, it’s about a young woman who learns to accept and love herself only after a witch’s curse turns her into a 90-year-old woman.
“At the end of the journey she realizes that she really likes who she is, that she doesn’t want to hide who she is or what she wants anymore and that the world is her oyster,” said Porkalob, who is onstage as lead character Sophie Hatter nearly the entire show. “I just get emotional thinking about it.”
For Porkalob, her theater career and activism have taken her on a journey of testing and transforming boundaries in the theater world and beyond.
Porkalob is an actor, director, and producer, a pioneering figure in Seattle’s theater scene. She’s pushed past the boundaries of cookie-cutter scripts and characters and created original work on her own terms, a risk that has garnered attention and acclaim.
She recently had a well received run at the Intiman Theater with her original one-woman musical “Dragon Lady,” where she portrayed three generations of her own immigrant family.
Pushing Past Expectations
Porkalob, whose family came from the Philippines and from Hawaii, is drawn to narratives about people of color, women of color, children and older women. She said she found those stories lacking in the regional theater scene when she was a student at Cornish College of the Arts.
“A lot of the work available to me, as a woman, as a woman of color, were problematic roles,” she said. “Roles that were written by dead white guys or alive white guys, that were portrayed as being to me, sexist tropes, and classist tropes as well.”
This compelled her to begin creating original work. Porkalob said creating original work also helped her push past conventional rules of narrative and creating theater.
Porkalob’s work engages with topics of political and social relevance.
“I was worried about being preachy or hitting people over the head only because I had internalized ideas of what good and strong narratives were,” she said. “What I realized is that I still unconsciously held on to the idea that good and strong narrative looked a very specific way.”
Porkalob wanted to tell stories that didn’t fit neatly into the structures of traditional narratives.
“Why would I worry about making something over here that looks nothing at all like me and be worried about what people thought about it? That makes no sense,” she said. “I found the true ways of making my artform and I couldn’t really rely on anybody to tell me if it was right or good. I could only rely on myself.”
She said that she needed to cast away expectations – of what it means to be a woman, to be a person of color, to operate a certain way in the world — which are absorbed by people every day.
“We internalize how we are supposed to think about the world, what’s good about the world, what’s good about ourselves. And so much of that is not actually meant to help us be better people. Its meant to keep us small, especially women and people of color, and people who grew up poor,” Porkalob said.
Artist and Activist
Porkalob sees herself as an activist both inside and outside the theater world. As she continues to make a name for herself as a theater artist in Seattle — she was the 2017 co-curator at the Intiman Theatre — she says she wants to use that exposure and power to bring resources and support to communities that might not have access to theater opportunities.
Today, the Pacific Northwest theater scene has diversified since she was in college and she has been getting other roles in plays other than her own.
“It’s hard though,” she reflected. “ I’m starting to realize that I am becoming more and more invested in doing new work and my own work than I am in acting in plays that have been produced before,” she said.
Porkalob’s activism is also present in her storytelling as well, especially in her original works.
“I have found my storytelling to be the best vehicle to incite compassion and empathy and understanding in people who might have otherwise not had that before,” Porkalob said.
Porkalob based “Dragon Lady” on her grandmother’s life in the Philippines and Hawaii. She didn’t shy away from presenting painful and challenging topics based on decisions her family had to face. The show challenged the audience to view their own family histories from a new vantage point.
Identity politics play heavily in Porkalob’s work, and she says that it is necessary to understand the politics of identity that affect us every day to regain touch with our shared humanity.
“I mean we are a series of identity politics within systems of power … And often when you think about activism, that kind of talk removes people from the heart and humanity of people. Storytelling is a bridge between those things,” she said.
If you go
“Howl’s Moving Castle,” is Book It Repertory’s first full-scale musical, and was adapted by Co-Artistic Director Myra Platt with music and lyrics by Justin Huertas. Diana Wynne Jones’ novel was also made into a 2004 animated film by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
Book It’s musical production opened last weekend for a holiday-season run that ends Dec. 30 at The Center Theater located in the Seattle Center Armory. Tickets begin at $26. More info at www.book-it.org.