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HEART of the Matter

Barbara Colaciello keeps the art of storytelling and community alive and well

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Only the diehards are here this late. During daylight hours, the denizens who call CoRK Arts District their creative home zip in and out of the vast compound. Hatchbacks and trucks vie for precious parking, driving over the curb to park on the grass. People of every possible creative creed spend hours in personal or shared studios, while others grab a canvas or meet with a peer, then drive off down Rosselle Street.

Barbara Colaciello executes her vision within CoRK’s North Gallery. Ever busy, today she’s running a little bit behind.

“Hey! Sorry about that.” Colaciello swings open the door, smiling and motioning me inside.

In a flower-child dress, Colaciello leads the way to the main gallery space. A veritable who’s-who collection of works by local artists adorns the walls, including pieces by Mateo Applecrumbs, Matthew Bennett, Christina Boykin, Mark Creegan, Overstreet Ducasse, Crystal Floyd, Liz Gibson, Margete Griffin, Lori Guadagno, Marsha Hatcher, Dustin Harewood, Malcolm Jackson, Mal Jones, Karen Kurycki, Tiffany Manning, Deborah Reid, Anne Roberts, Jefree Shalev, Sharla Valeski, Roosevelt Watson, Edison William and Tony Wood.

Placed by each are large white placards with black lettering, identifying the poem that inspired them. The poems are from Chalk, Al Letson’s “poetical.” Colaciello smiles and glances over her glasses. “What do you think?”

The exhibit is split between North Gallery and Yellow House, cultural leader and Chalk co-curator Hope McMath’s new community arts headquarters just across the street.

“You know my whole thing is really about integrating the arts,” Colaciello says. “And this is National Bullying Prevention Month. So this show is 30 minutes, since it’s just some poetry excerpts from Chalk, but then we’re going to have a community ‘story share’ around bullying and also some improvised story share.”

The community section of the show seems crucial to Colaciello.

“We just invited people to tell their story: ‘Oh, I was a bully,’ or ‘Well, I watched someone being bullied and I never did anything about it. And now I feel guilty about it’,” she explains. “Some of that pain we carry around or we make light of it. In a way, I don’t think people really empower their kids or teach them to be able to deflect bullying.”

For the four performances of Chalk, starring actors ages nine to 30, Colaciello is presenting a prism of bullying experiences, from the schoolyard to the workplace, the aggressor and the wounded. She hopes people bring their kids, middle schoolers and high schoolers, even teachers. “I think that’s when the new space will really become ‘activated.’” Her goal is to do another full production, something she and Letson did in 2004 at the University of North Florida, for 2,400 school kids.

For Colaciello, the play hits close to home

Growing up, her son Matthew felt the wrath of bullies. “He always liked to talk to adults. He used words like ‘compromise’ and ‘negotiate’ when he was four and when he got into school he’d sing opera on the playground and always defend the girls,” she laughs. “But by the time he got to high school, he just became bored. But it got really, really bad.” The family eventually decided homeschooling would be better for Matthew; Colaciello says her son, now an adult, is an “astoundingly well-centered person.”

Bullying is not something Colaciello endured in childhood.

“I really wasn’t bullied, but I used to defend those kids who were bullied,” she says. “I used to wonder why a certain kid was being ostracized.” 

If there was a “problem kid” in the class, the teacher would “assign” the child to Colaciello, as their new guard and friend.

“I’d stand at the end of every line with them and I would listen to them. I don’t know why, but I’d always find something in them and I’d make them laugh,” she says. “It’s just like what I’m doing now.”
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READING THE LINES
Minutes into the interview, it’s apparent Colaciello is an almost-pathologically non-linear speaker. I set aside my questions and let the interview evolve as it will. She has a story; I have some questions. It’s my hope that we’ll meet in the middle.

Fittingly, our conversation begins almost like a stage production. The set is sparse; two facing chairs, her closed MacBook on the ground.

While hardly pushy, Colaciello has some salient points she hopes make it to the page.

“Look, I really want to stress this … ” she’ll say, stopping midstream in an anecdote to stress a significant point or memory. I bring up her childhood. She pauses for a beat. “You know, I’ve never really talked at length in the press about Andy. Maybe we could talk about Andy,” she says instead.

She’s speaking of her onetime boss and perhaps greatest mentor: Andy Warhol.

“No one has ever really talked to me about how that experience has shaped what I do now and how it has permeated what I do.”

We split the difference: I ask about her childhood–and we talk about Andy.
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ANDY’S GANG
Barbara Colaciello was born in 1952 in Brooklyn, New York. Her family eventually moved to Plainvew, Long Island, and when Colaciello was 12, they settled in Rockville, Centre, Long Island. She grew up on stories. John and Libby Colaciello were excellent, even spellbinding, storytellers. Each night at the dinner table, after shifts on the sales floor, John and Libby would regale her and her older siblings Bob and Suzanne with stories.

“We’d sit down for dinner every night and we’d tell stories. My mother would say, ‘This woman came in with these shoes and lemme tell you, these shoes went through a lot. And she wanted to return them, and I said ‘You can’t return them!”” recalls Colaciello, thickening her Long Island accent and widening her eyes to invoke her mother’s performance of a day’s work at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“When I was very young, I realized the power of performing. I wanted to sing and act, and when people weren’t paying enough attention to me, if I sang the song, with all of the motions, everyone would say, [her voice softens] ‘Oh, look at Barbara.’”

Some 40 years later, Colaciello would dip into her family lore with her 2005 one-woman show, Life on the Diagonal. “I’m talking about growing up in my Italian family, and things like how they thought that I was Japanese.”

When she wasn’t valiantly defending kids from bullies, Colaciello was a good student. In 1973, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a focus on theater from Rider University.

By then Colaciello’s older brother Bob had moved to Manhattan. As Bob Colacello (dropping the “i” from his surname), he became a respected writer and contributor to the Village Voice. Bob soon orbited into the galaxy of Andy Warhol, de facto guru of both the NYC art and celebrity scenes.

Interview magazine was Warhol’s latest venture, a large-format publication with stories and images of some of the biggest names in arts, fashion and entertainment. He hired Bob as editor.

Colaciello soon left Long Island and started working in sales at Madison Avenue’s Yves St. Laurent boutique.

“Andy would come into the boutique and he knew who I was because of Bob working for him.” Though he browsed the merchandise, Warhol was really on a mission to recruit Bob’s kid sister.

“Andy liked me because I was a talker—he liked talkers. He told my brother, ‘Your sister is really funny and we need her working with us.’”

Bob disagreed.

“My mom always said, ‘Never work with a relative,’” she laughs.

Not that she was interested; Colaciello was content at Yves St. Laurent. But after three years of visits and invitations, in 1977 Colaciello signed on, even though she knew nothing about publishing or advertising.

“When I first came to work for Andy, I was a little bit of an outsider and that’s how I wanted it.”

Colaciello employed a universal, improvisational performance tool: fake it ’til you make it.

“The first year was really difficult. I knew nothing about all of it.” Within two years, Colaciello was promoted to advertising director.

Colaciello’s masterstroke at Interview came in the form of blueprinting a strategy to attract new clients at dinners and luncheons. She was essentially selling Interview by “selling” Andy Warhol and his glitterati kingdom of red carpets, popping flashbulbs and an almost-blinding hipness. Superstars like Bianca Jagger and Farrah Fawcett sat side-by-side with prospective clients. During these gatherings, Colaciello kept her cool; Warhol was a nervous wreck. “His hands would be shaking as he poured the wine.”

Her plan worked.

“My ultimate pitch was that we had a readership of 100,000 and they’re all trendsetters, in part because they’re emulating the ultimate trendsetter: Andy. So by the end of the luncheon, we’d get a 12-month contract and a new client.”

In 1983, Bob left the paper. Now considered one of the greatest living American biographers, he’s penned a critically praised book about Warhol, and spent three decades as an editorial and journalistic voice at Vanity Fair.

The experience of working so closely with Warhol and the rest of the staff helped expand Colaciello’s skills as a facilitator and, eventually, director and teacher.

By the time she left the magazine in 1983, the girl with a penchant for protecting the underdog had grown into a savvy adult who had no time for bullshit but always kept her humor, qualities that surely endeared her to the genius, albeit awkwardly reticent, Warhol.

In 2012, Colaciello performed her multimedia talk, I Was a Factory Worker-Inside the Warhol Machine, at MOCA Jax, recounting her experiences working with her employer and friend.

On his way to Montauk, Warhol would routinely visit the Colaciello family home on Long Island for authentic Italian dinners. “He loved to hear stories and my family was full of stories. But Bob and I also saw this thing about Andy where he liked twins and he liked ‘family acts.’ We think it was because he thought we’d be less likely to leave, since Bob and I already had a kind of ‘shorthand,’ in finishing each other’s sentences. And Andy was right, because we both stuck around for years.”
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THE SPOTLIGHT KID
After leaving Interview in 1983, Colaciello traveled to Europe then returned to Manhattan and a new endeavor.

“When I left Warhol, I started doing standup, like at this lesbian club called WOW, Women of the World.”

Colaciello’s performance artist friend Reno got her the gig. Onstage, in lieu of one-liners and jokes, Colaciello told stories, riffing on subjects like men and doctors, in an act she describes as “quirky.”

Colaciello was doing standup in an era when NYC performance artists and comedians often crossed paths, intersections that at times led them to forge new paths. At the time, Karen Finley was creating radical performance works that mashed feminism and humor in intense, successful combinations.

When she started to bomb onstage, Colaciello simply added more fire to the fuse. “What did Johnny Carson do for years? If he didn’t get a laugh, he’d put himself down.”

Colaciello says she learned two things from her standup days. One, some audiences are just jaded and two, always try for a good performance.

“After that, I realized people are really paying to see your best. I [can] say anything if I’m gutsy.”
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LINES OF CHALK 
Colaciello met Al Letson in the ’90s, when he was transitioning from being an acclaimed slam poet into creating more extended, theatrical works. A graduate of Orange Park High School, the now-45-year-old Letson is a creative force to be reckoned with. In the last two decades, he’s established himself through spoken word, playwriting and acting. As the host of the NPR radio show and podcast State of the Re:Union, Letson created a winning blend of watchdog journalism and travelogue, fueled by insights and an empathetic tone. Since 2013, he’s hosted the radio-and-podcast show Reveal. Letson has won several awards for his journalism, including the 2015 Peabody.

“In 2005, I was commissioned by the Baltimore School for the Arts to write a play for their graduating class. The class was mostly girls, so I wanted to write something that felt right for them,” Letson says via email of his impetus for writing Chalk. “I started researching relational aggression and that’s where the play came from. The theme of the piece is how violence/aggression is handed down from society to our kids, and how that manifests in their lives.”

Colaciello and Letson met at interesting nexuses in their lives. In 1992, Colaciello and second husband Mark Williams, along with seven-year-old Matthew and two-year-old Luke, had moved from New York to Ponte Vedra Beach. A musician-songwriter, Williams also worked for stock photography house SuperStock in Manhattan. When the company moved to Florida, the family headed south.

“I thought I was going to kill myself,” Colaciello says of her hard landing from Baldwin, Long Island to sandy beaches walled-in by gated communities. “I was working for my brother part-time. My parents were there and loved to babysit the kids, and all of my friends were in New York.”

Ever adaptable, she improvised.

When she was 45, a woman few years older than she with grown children posed a powerful question to her. “She straight-up asked me, ‘What is your mission? Write a mission statement for yourself. Because the kids are going to grow up—and then what?’”

The next day Colaciello sat on her porch, writing that she “wanted to do a creative project from beginning to end.”

“I suddenly realized that throughout the years, I’d lose myself. I’d think, ‘Oh, yeah—what was my goal?’”

Acting training combined with raising two creative sons who loved to play-act with their mom led Colaciello to teach acting. She contacted the Cultural Center in Ponte Vedra Beach, and soon created an afterschool acting program, culminating in a stage production. It was an immediate hit. Colaciello expanded her teaching skills and acting methodology as the education and outreach director for Players by the Sea; a position she held for nine years until 2014.

The Colaciellos then started Soirée Away, an invitation-only immersive theater experience, featuring musical and theatrical performances. Hundreds attended the soirées; audience members ranged from doctors and lawyers to people Colaciello had met earlier that day in Publix.

When her son Matthew was in the ninth grade at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, the school had a fundraiser for its creative writing program at Fuel Coffeehouse, the onetime coffee bar and performance space opened by Jim Webb in Five Points. Al Letson was one of the featured performers.

“Al read and I remember it was like he was Superman. I didn’t know what the poem said exactly because he was coming off the slam circuit, so you had to get it done in three minutes,” she says, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “But it was truly impressive.”

Still in his 20s, Letson was already writing and performing brilliant monologues, effortlessly changing body language and voices of different characters as they arrived in his stories.

“I thought she was strange when we first met,” says Letson of Colaciello. “But then I realized she was brilliant.”

Colaciello and Williams soon began working with Letson. “Mark and Al worked on some music together and Al was working on a play and wanted to run the script by me.” Letson also gave a highly successful performance at one soirée.

Letson asked Colaciello for some help morphing his spitfire-spoken word into more languid performance pieces.

“Everything Al does is done with determination … He was always honing his work,” she says. “So I think, even though he knew me fairly well, he was a little resistant.”

In 2005, Colaciello directed Letson in his one-man show, Essential Personnel, for a run at NYC’s Nuyorican Poets Café. The next year, she produced and directed Griot: He Who Speaks the Sweet Word, a collaboration among Letson, David Girard and Larry Knight. The staging of the one-man show at the 2006 NYC International Fringe Festival was a smash hit.

Letson is performing a new piece at Babs’ Lab on Oct. 21. There will be two performances of the piece In Dialogue; Colaciello’s certain both will sell out.

“We have a good relationship,” she says. “Al is never not working. But if we need a heart-to-heart talk, we’ll call each other.”
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PERMISSION GRANTED
After an hour, it’s apparent there isn’t a real lull in any conversation with Barbara Colaciello. It isn’t that she’s a chatterbox, nervously stringing sentences together until ideas arrive. Rather, like a true storyteller, discernment is ingrained in her narratives. Words are her prima materia and she knows how to shape them, coaxing out narratives. The improvisation she’s known for is evident, even as she shares her story to an audience of one.

She has a lot to say and a helluva lot of New York attitude to back it up; a kind of quick-paced contemplation not unlike the 1974 two-part poem by NYC wordsmith Anne Waldman, “Fast-Speaking Woman.” In the poem, Waldman spits out a rapid-fire celebration of self, an identity of a love of words and a love of where words will take you:

I’m a bird woman / I’m a book woman / I’m a devilish clown woman / I’m a holy clown woman / I’m a whirling dervish woman / I’m a whirling-foam woman / I’m a playful-light woman / I’m a tidal-pool woman / I’m a fast-speaking woman.

References, accesses to the interior, even games, are all part of Colaciello’s process as a teacher and storyteller.

“People won’t tell their stories because they feel like they don’t have permission. Give yourself permission. I’ll give you permission.”
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LAB EXPERIMENTS
Since her days in Ponte Vedra, Colaciello has wanted her own space. But the only vacant spaces were in strip malls, or owned by people who didn’t want to rent to her.

“When I was teaching some kids here locally, they’d been acting for three years—and they couldn’t act. It’s fine to do musical comedies, but they need to learn emotional literacy, and really notify when they were happy or sad.”

She discovered the same inhibitions and shortcomings in some local actors as well.

Those early, frustrating experiences inspired her to create a kind of evolving curriculum. Regardless of age, developing craft is key to Colaciello. Her goal is to teach actors how to draw out emotions and find self-connection. Two years ago, she created Improv to the Rescue, which coaches both actors and non-actors on how to hone their delivery.

With Babs’ Lab, Colaciello has her own space to teach, produce, direct, present and perform. She shares the 1,200-square-foot space with longtime collaborator Mark Creegan, whose art-making space is in an adjoining room.

Most recently, local playwright and educator Jennifer Chase presented her new one-woman show, Renunciant at Babs’ Lab. Both nights sold out, turning the 60-seat space into standing room only.

The space gives Colaciello the chance to really roll up her sleeves and dig even deeper into her work. While she’s worked for decades with community theater, she seems like a parallel entity, if not force, in local stage arts.

“That’s probably true,” she says. “I work well with others but I also work pretty damn well alone.”
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WHEN THE STUDENT IS READY …
There’s an egalitarian idea in the arts that “anyone” can be an artist, or a musician, or a dancer, or an actor … the entire punk rock community is based on this DIY ideal. Persistence is surely key to unlocking and developing any discipline, creative or otherwise. But for many, there’s a point when gut-level honesty and humility arrive like divine providence. Self-awareness can sting. For every John Coltrane, there are thousands of discarded saxophones rusting in junkyards. That bloated manuscript might be best appreciated crackling in the fire pit. The loudest, most confident voice at a gallery opening is often that of the wheezing dilettante, weaving their way to the cheese cubes. When you expect the world to cosign your bullshit about being an artist, don’t be surprised when that same world shuts you down, hard. Everyone is not an artist. Knowing your limits can actually free you to move on, maybe find success elsewhere.

Colaciello agrees but also doesn’t agree.

“Some people are naturally good storytellers; they use gestures well and it’s just natural,” she says. She believes a slight adjustment can be all that’s needed to create a powerful presence. “For other people it’s painful, just to do anything related to storytelling. It’s like they’re in a box, like their body’s been encased. You can’t get them out.”

Does everyone have the potential to be a great storyteller?

“No.”

So do you think they can be taught to tell their own story?

She pauses. 

“Maybe … probably. But I do believe, if someone is focused on what they’re saying, and could let go of how they think they’re being perceived, they’ll let go. They can tell their story. And if they’re touched by their own story—we are touched.”
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OPENING UP
Crowdfunding seemed an obvious choice to raise money for lights and a new sound system for Babs’ Lab.

A week before launching a Kickstarter campaign, Colaciello went for a routine thyroid checkup. For 31 years, she knew she had a heart murmur; she’d sometimes notice an odd “clicking” sound when listening to her heart. On this day, the doctor ordered an echocardiogram.

“I knew there was something wrong,” she says.

When the results came back, the doctor explained her heart murmur was actually a congenital birth defect, a bicuspid aortic valve, and had led to stenosis, or narrowing of the valve. Colaciello also had a lung-sized aneurysm in her chest.

She was stunned. Walking up nine flights of stairs to her apartment each day, having low cholesterol and not being overweight, Colaciello had always assumed she was in good health.

“He told me that I was absolutely going to have open-heart surgery,” she says. “To which I thought, ‘What the fuck?’”

With open-heart surgery looming, Colaciello initially felt the Crowdfunding campaign would somehow be “deceitful.” On one hand, she didn’t want to appear like she was making a money grab. On the other, she was afraid she’d die before the campaign was over.

“I had to sit with that,” she says. “But then I decided I was going to go through this and embrace it because I have things I want to do.”

The Kickstarter campaign ended on Aug. 9; Colaciello had surgery on Aug. 11. She won on both counts: her initial goal of $10,000 was exceeded, and the surgery was a total success.

“This sobered me,” she says of the experience. Colaciello then tells a sobering story, straight from the heart. When she was 25, she was sexually assaulted.

“The guy told me he was going to kill me. And that made me realize that just ’cause you’re young, does not mean protection. At that time, I ‘woke up,’ and tried to live a certain way but I just didn’t have the maturity. Now, at 65, I know what’s important to me, what my gifts are, what I want to do, and how I want to be with my sons.”

During the five-hour surgery, the doctor removed her aorta and its root, fixing her up with Dacron, a polyester textile fiber, and putting a pigskin valve in her heart. She jokes that she’s now “Bionic Babs.”

Taking a sip of water, the laughter fades and Colaciello turns pensive, leaning her chin on her open hand and staring off to the right, toward the stage.

“I don’t have time to play around. I write stories, but I want them to leave this room.”
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Al Letson’s Chalk is staged 8 p.m. Oct. 19, 20, 26 & 27 at Babs’ Lab, CoRK Arts District North, 603 King St., Riverside; doors 7:30 p.m., $12; barbaracolaciello.com/register/chalkatbabslab

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