The Pocket Theater is not your average Seattle theater, but perhaps its philosophy aligns most closely with the grassroots Seattle theater community. Tucked-away in Greenwood, The Pocket is the brainchild of local comedian and theater producer Clayton Weller, whose deep roots in sketch comedy and improv fuel his passion and the philosophy behind The Pocket: “No one should have to pay to perform,”
Beginning with a Kickstarter campaign in 2013, Weller had a simple mission: Fund a small performing arts venue whose performance space would be free to artists, and whose proceeds pay the artists and the theater. Two years later (and after completely blowing past his minimum goal fund-raising goal), The Pocket is alive and growing more established with every show they house, creating not only a supportive and engaging space for new works, but building a community of supportive artists, comedians and theater-lovers. (As an aside, I think much of this is accomplished by Clayton Weller’s enthusiastic and loving demeanor and his genuine excitement for theater and people in general). Most shows produced at The Pocket only have a handful of performances that can pack out the intimate performance space, which just barely seats 50. This allows for dozens of diverse shows per year, sometimes with three or four shows a night. Check out their impressive, totally booked calendar.
I had never been to a show at The Pocket before, but I ventured north to check out a double feature of David Campton’s one-act play The Cagebirds and Seattle local Sara Porkalob’s one-woman show Dragon Lady on Friday, November 6. After going to productions at established venues like Seattle Rep and ACT—who do undeniably fabulous, highly professional work—The Pocket was a breath of fresh air, brimming with the special zest that only a community-based, passion-fueled venture can inspire. The staff was warm and personal; will-call tickets were no more than a list of names on a clipboard; booze was allowed inside the venue, and the intimate theater housed one of the most enthusiastic theater audiences I’ve seen since coming to Seattle.
The Pocket effectively fills Seattle’s need for a safe space for theatrical creation and experimentation for lower-budget and brand-new works, and Friday’s performances were the perfect example of how those philosophies emerge. The first work, The Cagebirds, is a relatively established one-act show by British playwright David Campton, the likes of which you may have read in your undergraduate theatre course. Cast for eight women, the play creates an ambiguously dystopian world in which six women are being held captive by “The Mistress.” A lot is left unclear: where they are being held, how they ended up there, the intentions behind The Mistress’s actions, why their identities are reduced to one essential psychosis (e.g. hypochondria, obsessions with appearance or food). The “cage” is disrupted when The Mistress introduces a new bird to the roost–a Wild One, whose intense rage, idealism and need to escape leads her to attempt to rally the other women, to no avail. Even after the Wild One succeeds in picking the door’s lock, the women refuse to follow, and the play’s forceful ending speaks to the lengths we will go to preserve that which we already know.
The cast of The Cagebirds at The Pocket comprises women from troupes in the Seattle comedy scene, collaborating for the first time in a complete departure from their usual genre. Cagebirds is anything but a comedy, but many of the individual characters are themselves darkly comedic in their boiled-down obsessive nature. Particularly effective was The Medicated Gloom, whose nasally languid voice was perfectly suited for her complaining hypochondriac nature. The costuming and vocal affectations were completely on point. These were perfectly inhabited characters, and lines were delivered with unsettling persuasiveness, though I was less convinced by the “Wild One,” whose complex, vaguely biblical manner of speech was not served particularly well by the actor’s slam-poet style. Direction by Baylie Freeman was precise and had some moments of brilliance. I especially liked the use of the theater’s garage door on the upstage wall being used for the door of the cage; when it opened to the “outside world,” it literally opened to the outside world, complete with a view of the inhabitants of the house next door.
After a short break to set up more chairs, I followed the crowd back into the theater for Sara Porkalob’s Dragon Lady. Porkalob is a Cornish graduate and has been steadily building her performance resume through work with The 5th Avenue Theater, Taproot Theater and Annex Theater, to name a few, but after finding herself disappointed with the roles available for Asian women, she decided to make her own. Her resulting show, Dragon Lady, is a one-woman show spanning three generations of her own family; it stands as an intergenerational collage of memories and the ways we choose to portray our pasts, and puts characters that are usually underrepresented or stereotyped onto the Seattle stage. Dragon Lady is mostly told from the perspective of her Filipino grandmother, though Porkalob also embodies her own mother, aunts, great-uncle and herself, as the lucky grandchild who hears the whole outrageous tale years later. (For a taste, Dragon Lady engages with such themes as child abduction, birthday parties, childbirth and secret family ninja clans, complete with a slo-mo murder sequence.
Part of the genius (and sometimes the downfall) of a one-person show is the variation of characters the genre demands: One moment you’re a blubbering six-year-old, the next, a tough grandma singing karaoke. The extent to which Porkalob embodies these characters is almost astonishing. You can practically see the tears and baby fat as she portrays her aunt as a child, and then—by an almost supernatural feat—her cheekbones harden and her posture straightens and you swear you see some flecks of gray in her hair as she morphs into her grandmother before your eyes. The transformation is instantaneous and shocking.
Dragon Lady’s script is exquisite, with perfect comedic timing. It is a testament to how well Porkalob knows her strengths as a performer and her subject matter that she can compose a show so perfectly paced and surprisingly hilarious. I cannot recommend the performance enough. (Look for it at Seattle Fringe Festival next February and March, presenting local performance artists at venues across town.) Also in the works is Porkalob’s Dragon Lady 2: I’m Going To Kill You, which will extend the familial story from the point of view of Porkalob’s mother, aunts and uncles.
The Pocket’s work is undeniably important in the Seattle arts culture. How many artists hit a financial brick wall, unable to explore the full potential of their work? How many brilliant shows have been denied performance because their creator wasn’t established in the community? I would urge readers to check out the venue if you want to get away from your Chekhov and Brecht. Most likely, you’ll find some laugh-out-loud-worthy new shows with talent you’ve never seen before, but hopefully will see time and time again.