I had the epic pleasure of sitting down after their opening weekend and chatting with several members of the cast of Village Theatre’s World Premiere of STRING over the phone. We talked about this new musical, about the process of its development and most importantly, why folks should go see it and additional insights that may enhance your experience when you do. Interviewed were cast members Sara Porkalob, Eric Ankrim, and Bobbi Koluta. They were all delightful to talk with, and here are just some of the highlights of what they had to say from our conversations:
DAVID HSIEH: So tell me about STRING…What should audiences know about the show going in? BOBBI KOTULA: It’s about love and Letting go. And it’s about learning how to be human…and what that’s like…and what that entails. You start off with these three Goddesses, The Fates, who are sentenced to come and live their life on Earth until a curse is broken. They must learn compassion…and they do, because of a human. It’s kind of beautifully done. SARA PORKALOB: Yeah, so the Greek Goddesses, the Fates, control each human’s life. We weave a tapestry of string and these strings are metaphors for each life. One day we anger Zeus and he throws us down to Earth and we’re stuck there until we fulfill the terms of this curse that he’s put on us. And while we are there, we work really hard, and we don’t connect with the humans until one day the eldest Fate sister, the one who’s responsible for snipping the strings of life, decides to save the string of a security guard who works in this building that we’re working in called the Infinity Building. And then our sisterhood is threatened by the fact that she’s fallen in love with him, and the tapestry of the universe is about to unravel if she doesn’t cut his string. And then she realizes that love is fleeting, but it’s beautiful, and it’s better to have loved than to never have loved at all. And we realize that humans aren’t so bad and we’re happier on Earth rather than yearning for our home amongst the Gods. DAVID: That’s a nice summary of the plot in a nutshell! ERIC ANKRIM: They bill it as a musical comedy with a mythological twist. And I think the thing that is great about it is basing a love story on these three Greek Fates and bringing Zeus in to the equation, juxtaposed with a musical that feels SO SO SO contemporary. I think Adam Gwon’s score and Sara Hammond’s book are absolutely NOW when it comes to tone. His music is quirky and complex and her dialogue is so naturalistic and of 2018 that it’s almost impossible to memorize because it is so human in all of its incorrect grammar and stammery sentences, and naturalistic style. So you have this epic piece that, without giving away too many spoilers, you know contains things beyond our world’s normal understanding, combined with everyday people who are talking like it’s 2018, and music that sounds like a brand-new World Premiere musical, which this absolutely is. And I think this being the first piece that Village has grown through their New Works Festival, into the Beta Series, and now onto the main stage, really shows they’re able to really protect that epic tale, while also embracing the fact that this is truly a new musical, with an emphasis on NEW.
DAVID: So, who do you play in the show, and what do you like about your character(s)? ERIC: I play a sweet, unassuming security guard named Mickey who works in the Infinity Tower…He happily observes from his basement camera-feed down on floor one of this 200-story building. And I think that that occupation is a perfect metaphor for where he begins his story…content to be an observer of life, and not necessarily desperate to live his own. Whether that’s from pains from the past or what, he doesn’t seem to be hurt by that choice. But he’s definitely content to watch life take place rather than participate in it. And his favorite person to watch is this strange woman who periodically shows up in an elevator in the middle of the night and just rides it for hours on end. He thinks she is fascinating and enchanting. And one night she falls asleep in the elevator and he’s the only security guard on duty, so he is forced to approach her to wake her up and get her out of this elevator. And that is the first meeting of this unlikely love couple. Spoiler Alert: She turns out to be one of the Greek Fates and in fact is not a human being but a Goddess, but he does not know that. He just thinks she is incredibly enchanting and over powering and worthy of obsession. And as they get to know each other his humanity infects her godliness and her godliness infects his humility and they both are irrevocably changed by each other’s presence. And ultimately, we’re left to understand that whether you are a God from another world, or an unassuming invisible security guard shoved into the corner of a basement of a giant building, we all have life inside of us that is worth sharing and worth celebrating and worth chasing no matter how big or small we feel currently. SARA: I play Clotho, who is the youngest sister, more historically correct, she’s the Goddess who spins the thread of life. So, she essentially creates life. I like her because she’s the baby sister and I’ve never had any siblings so it’s kind of fun to play the baby who essentially also plays the role of the peace keeper between her two older sisters. And I wear a pink wig which is also pretty fun. BOBBI: Well, one of the characters I play starts the show and ends the show with this wonderful little second story line. Her name is Geneva, and she is the janitor at the Infinity Tower, and I like her because I used to be a maid on weekends when I was in grad school, so I understand what it’s like to clean. I know what it’s like to pick up after people and make things look good. So I just infuse her with that. She’s very quiet, which is opposite of me, so I love being able to listen and not say anything except for a few words here and there…She doesn’t say anything, but she’s really loud about it. She’s a delight to play and I get to work opposite Nathaniel Tenenbaum…So I get to pop in and out of the show and make connections with him…I adore her and her details. Her quietness and her ability to fix everything as she goes. And then one of my favorite moments is only about 2 minutes long… Harmony Arnold, the costume designer, created a gown that is longer than me, and Doug Decker created a wig that is higher than God…That is an amazing moment for me because I play the Fates’ mother, Night, and I sing to my girls and I comfort them, and I tell them that I’ll be there for them when they come home. And that song, when I first sang it for the reading, it had only been a few months after my mother’s death, so for me to sing that, took a lot of strength. But now that it’s been two years since mom’s death, I’m able to do it with more joy and more gratitude … and it sounds like I’m singing from the heavens. DAVID: What a special moment, and tribute for you. Are there other anecdotes or things you really like about the show? BOBBI: I love doing the show and singing this music so it’s kind of a joy to wake up and go “Get your ass out of bed! LET’S GO!!!” Really fun people too…and there’s a moment at the end of the show that I am waiting for my cue off left and I have the privilege to be able to stand there and watch these three women do this beautiful scene as they care for each other through a difficult time. Jessica Skerritt, who plays Atropos has this brilliant line, and every time she says it I just go “Waaaaaahhhh!!!!” I live alone and my family is all on the East Coast, and for me it’s a little bit like, “Am I doing the right thing, living by myself here?” And of course, losing my mom a couple years ago… So when Atropos asks how do people just go on? How does life go on when you have such pain? And one of her sisters reminds her that Life does go on. You just do it. You have to do it. It’s part of living. I find that really beautiful. SARA: I like my cast a lot. I like the people who play my sisters, I think we have really wonderful chemistry…Lauren Du Pree and Jessica Skerritt, we have great chemistry! I also think that it’s exciting to be part of a new musical…It’s kind of nice to be in the World Premiere, I mean that feels special by itself. ERIC: They’ve found a really great group. And to be only a cast of 10 total, and yet for the musical to feel large, and to feel like a true ensemble musical, where the ensemble is really supporting us all night with their voices. The soundscape of this musical is very complex, and the ensemble vocals are almost used as a supplemental piece of orchestration rather than just character driven lyrics. The background vocals of this piece are ambitious and constant. And so this group of 4 to 6, however you determine what “ensemble” is in this show, just sing all night and are really essential to the sound landscape of this piece, which is unique…A string quartet combined with one keyboard and one percussion player is our entire band. And this string quartet, kind of represents the soundscape of the play, just as much as the ensemble vocals do.
DAVID: What do you think Village audiences will take away or enjoy the most from experiencing STRING? ERIC: I think there are a lot of things about the show that this savvy subscriber base will recognize and connect to immediately. It is definitely a classic underdog, romantic comedy, nervous boy meets incredible girl who finally you know gives in to his strange awkward overtures and it’s boy gets girl / boy loses girl, but they’re also a lot of form innovations and out-of-the-box methods of storytelling that are original and unique. So I think that the over-arching story will be a recognizable one, but the package it comes in is very new, and very different and I’ve already enjoyed hearing audiences stretched while listening to this show. The tone of the show isn’t necessarily consistent throughout the show and one thing Brandon Ivie, our director, has talked about is it has been very visceral in the room to notice how audiences aren’t sure where the play is headed because rather than maintaining a singular tone throughout the evening, the story shifts, and the tone of the musical shifts in Act 2, and rather than resetting back to where we began, it just continues to shift and we find ourselves in a place at the end of the evening that is completely unlike that we began with which is a fun journey to watch and feel an audience go on with us. SARA: I have to say that I think the orchestra has done a really good job to bring a different quality to this musical. It’s very contemporary…Our ensemble honestly has the most interesting music. The back-ups that they get to sing are really powerful. Adam has written these harmonies that are really dense and close when you have a small ensemble, everybody has to be on top of their game or else it all falls apart. Our ensemble has really been delivering, and in a way, I wish I could sing their music because I think it’s more interesting than mine. BOBBI: The music, oh my god, it is stunning. The fellas that did the orchestrations have been so innovative. It is one of the most difficult scores to conduct, I think…Because of the combination of string instruments that are electric and have patches so that they’re playing the same instrument but sounding like a different instrument or like a sound effect…It’s such a fresh idea and interesting to listen to, and exciting…THRILLING to listen to. You’re not just going to sit there and hear the usual big 25-piece orchestra in the pit. Nope! You got a small ensemble with an amazing set of electronics. DAVID: Did you have a good opening? BOBBI: Oh, Yes! It’s always such a joyful moment when the audience plays with you, and usually our opening audiences know how to play! Some shows, you have audiences where you just don’t know, or you can’t hear them. And while they’re usually enjoying the show, it’s kind of like making love with somebody… some people really respond back, and you can understand what’s happening and everything is happy… and sometimes it’s like “Does this feel okay? Are you sure? Cause I don’t really get anything back from you.” I liken it to any conversation, but our opening audiences have been great! DAVID: As this is a new musical, were there any big changes made in the script from the beginning of the process? SARA: You know, honestly, no huge monumental changes, but small things that add up. ERIC: This has been a piece long in the making for Adam and Sarah. I think Brandon once mentioned that they have been working on this piece off and on for 8 to 10 years now. I’m coming on incredibly late in the process and the piece was very well put together by the time I joined so I had many questions but the piece tone wise, and pace wise, and content wise was very complete as we started this rehearsal process. But I think all writers have a hard time addressing each individual character with as much specificity as the actor does, since we don’t care about anything other than our own character’s motivations, so I would constantly ask questions about “Well wait, how did I get from A to Z here? And what is B through Y? What happened offstage that got me to this place?” And a lot of the new pieces of detail or tiny little nuanced changes were really a result of each actor trying to take ownership of every specific detail and Sarah and Adam were both incredibly gracious and generous in trying to explain to us what maybe we didn’t fully understand. And then also, they were diligent and humble in their willingness to then make slight changes if they thought that maybe that confusion or curiosity that an actor brought to their attention might actually be something that an audience member is curious, confused or unclear about. And so I wouldn’t say that any major form changes took place during this process, but it was just a never ending chase for clarity and that’s something that I think sometimes writers are not as willing as these two awesome writers have been to really examine their piece with a magnifying glass, even when they already know that it works very well.
Having seen the show, I can attest it is indeed a charming production with wonderful music that takes us on an unexpected journey. Those with an interest in Greek mythology, quirky modern romances, and deep thoughts about life, love, fate, things lost, things found, and the inter-connectedness of our lives will particularly enjoy this musical. STRING plays through April 22nd at Village Theatre in Issaquah and then moves to the Everett Performing Arts Center from April 27 – May 20th. Don’t miss it. Oh, and guard your yo-yos from Atropos.