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ART’s ‘Behind the Scenes’ series brings theater lovers closer to creators

Online sessions with Sara Porkalob, Kate Hamill, and Todd Almond will offer glimpses of their works in progress

Sara Porkalob performs a song from "Dragon Baby," her musical in development that will eventually premiere at the American Repertory Theater.
Sara Porkalob performs a song from "Dragon Baby," her musical in development that will eventually premiere at the American Repertory Theater.Courtesy Sara Porkalob

The pandemic may have put the kibosh on live indoor performances, but that hasn’t stopped the American Repertory Theater from fostering new plays and giving artists the resources, time, and money to create. “We’ve always been an incubator for artists,” ART artistic director Diane Paulus says over Zoom. “The research and development of groundbreaking work is the heartbeat of what we do.”

Indeed, the company has a rich history as a theatrical development laboratory, helping to birth shows including the Tony Award-winning musical “Once,” “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” and this year’s Tony-nominated “Jagged Little Pill.”

To give audiences a glimpse into the creative process that brings a show to life, ART is mounting a new series called “Behind the Scenes” that spotlights artists who are nurturing new work with the theater. The online series kicks off on Monday with an event centered on Sara Porkalob, the Elliot Norton Award-winning writer and performer whose “Dragon Mama” and “Dragon Lady” garnered huge buzz when she performed them at Oberon in 2018 and 2019. She will talk about her work on the third installment in the trilogy, the musical “Dragon Baby.”

Subsequent “Behind the Scenes” events will feature composer, writer, and performer Todd Almond and director and writer Lear deBessonet chatting about “Two Cities” (Dec. 1), their adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities”; and writer and performer Kate Hamill (Jan. 6) discussing her adaptation of Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Each session will showcase songs or scenes from the still-in-development work, conversations centered on the creative and collaborative processes, and interactive Q&As with viewers at home.

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“It’s more than a discussion series. It’s really a peek into the artistic process,” Paulus says. “You get to experience where the work is now, which audiences usually don’t get to see. We do lots of workshops in the theater, but our viewing audience usually doesn’t have access to that. So how can we pull the curtain back and let the audience see that process and also understand the dynamics of complex collaborative work?”

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“Behind the Scenes: Dragon Baby" will explore the final chapter in Porkalob’s autobiographical “Dragon Cycle,” which tells the story of three generations of Filipino-American women in her family. While “Dragon Lady” centers on the remarkable life of her karaoke-loving grandmother with a gangster past, and “Dragon Mama” chronicles the story of her mother’s difficult childhood and queer awakening, “Dragon Baby” is Porkalob’s own story. The show has been commissioned by the ART and will premiere at the theater in a future season.

“It’s closing a loop. It’s my version of [the 2010 Christopher Nolan movie] ‘Inception,’ but less violent and with more brown people,” Porkalob says with a chuckle over Zoom from her home in Seattle. “I’m writing the story of when I woke up and decided what I wanted to do with my life.”

It’s also a musical. While both “Dragon Lady” and “Dragon Mama” were essentially solo shows, “Dragon Baby” will boast an ensemble cast and a small orchestra. Porkalob also aims to challenge popular culture’s definition of “The Great American Musical" and put her own stamp on the form.

She also hopes to scramble the musical trope of the “hero’s journey.” “That’s a very Western way of storytelling. ‘Dragon Baby’ is about de-centering the individual as protagonist and re-centering community,” Porkalob says. “It’s not only about me. It’s about these women who made me. It’s about these communities who supported me. It’s about you in the audience right now. And I’m really excited to figure out how to do that.”

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The “Dragon Baby” session on Monday will feature a conversation between Porkalob, composer Brian Quijada, and director Andrew Russell. Porkalob will then lead an interactive autobiographical storytelling exercise with attendees, and a filmed performance will offer never-before-heard songs from the show. “It’s essentially a trailer for ‘Dragon Baby,’ ” she says. “It’s me in my apartment in front of the camera playing multiple characters.” (The ART is also making an archival recording of “Dragon Mama” available to stream through Dec. 10 as part of its Virtually Oberon series.)

For the “Two Cities” event, co-creators Almond and deBessonet will be joined by their director, Whitney White, who helmed Aleshea Harris’s electric “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” in Roxbury and Cambridge last fall. Almond also has a relationship with the ART; his “Kansas City Choir Boy,” starring Courtney Love, was staged at Oberon in 2015. The Dec. 1 event will offer an exclusive look at songs from the show, and the creators will dissect how they’re re-imagining Dickens’s literary classic as a musical. “Two Cities” will eventually premiere at the ART in a co-production with Playwrights Horizons in New York.

The final “Behind the Scenes” event will examine Hamill’s adaptation of Homer’s ancient epic. Hamill has been one of the country’s most produced playwrights in recent years, and her wry, irreverent adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” was staged at ART’s Loeb Drama Center in 2017-18 to critical acclaim. On Jan. 6, Hamill and Ryan McKittrick, ART’s director of artistic programs and dramaturg, will discuss her penchant for “reexamining classic texts through a feminist lens and centering complex female characters in her plays.” The event will feature the performance of a scene from the play, and audiences will learn about the images, events, and research that inspired the adaptation.

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“We want to support artists over multiple projects and give them a creative home,” Paulus says. “These are long-term commitments that ART has been very eager to make.”

In addition to the stream of “Dragon Mama,” the ART’s Virtually Oberon series includes both archival recordings and new virtual shows from Boston-based artists recorded at the venue. “Unbothered” by queer poet and rapper Oompa streams on demand through Dec. 9. “The Triad,” directed by Summer L. Williams, features a collaboration between feminist rapper Brandie Blaze, singer-songwriter Anjimile, and Latin-rap-R&B fusion artist Kaovanny. It premieres Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m. and will be available on demand through Dec. 30. “The impulse was, how can we share Oberon and use it to support artists and amplify their work?” Paulus says.

While the virtual, socially distanced nature of theater-making in a pandemic can feel overwhelming, Paulus says that all falls away once the creative process starts. “I have found that once you open that Zoom link, and you’re talking with actors and artists or composers about script development or working on a show, those are the soul-nourishing moments that have kept me going, frankly, over the last eight months.”

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Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Presented by American Repertory Theater. “Dragon Baby,” Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. “Two Cities,” Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. “The Odyssey,” Jan. 6 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for each show: $20 with a pay-what-you-can option. Packages available. More details at americanrepertorytheater.org