There is an art to story telling, and Barbara Colaciello is a seasoned veteran in that art. Barbara uses words to create emotion, convey meanings, and tell a narative. Barbara's craft is not limited to verbal communication. The body plays an integral role in how we communicate with others, and Barbara has a deep understanding of this.
Barbara herself has an interesting story to tell. She has made Jacksonville her home, and by all means she has been adopted by Jacksonville's creative community as an insider. However, her roots originated in New York City. Barbara lived in an era of New York when the streets of Manhattan were a dark and gritty place and the City was experiencing an economic collapse. Something grew from this decay - a vibrant art scene which largely impacted proceeding generations of artists. From Pop Art to Punk Rock, New York loomed as a place where everything was happening, or was going to happen.
Barbara's brother, Bob, worked as a writer for iconic artist Andy Warhol at "Interview Magazine." In 1971, Bob brought Andy to Barbara's family home in Rockville Centre, New York. Barbara, who even in her youth was an outgoing storyteller, enterteined Andy and his entourage. Barbara's personality and humor left a lasting impression on Andy, which led to Barbara herself later acquiring a job at "Interview."
In 1993, Barbara, her then husband Mark, and their two young sons left New York and moved to Ponte Vedra Beach. At the time, Barbara was not thrilled about relocating to Florida. The move was a result of Mark being hired by a company in the Jacksonville area. Disconnecting from her community and relocating to not only a new city but also a new state prompted Barbara to reflect on what she wanted to do with her life.
This reflection led to Barbara pursuing a career as a storyteller, improviser, and educator. While Barbara may have always been gifted with the art of story telling, exploring new roles while forming roots in Jacksonville presented Barbara with opportunities to encourage others to also explore creatively. Over the years Barbara has collaborated with a number of notable arts organizations and individual artists, while also working in the education system as an instructor and advocate of improvisation and play.
Barbara hosts workshops in her studio at CoRK Art District. If you are interested in learning more about these workshops you may contact Barbara directly via email.
For more than twenty years you've nurtured and developed the playful and communicative sides of your students through improvisation. What have you learned about yourself through your career in the arts and education?
I have learned that I am happiest when I accept that every single day will unfold in an unexpected way and I work to move through it with the least amount of stress. Why suffer unnecessarily?
I’ve learned that as a teacher and Director, I’m more successful when I function as a facilitator. You have to trust and give people permission to find the answers for themselves, on their own terms. That’s difficult when you have a show to open or a deadline to meet - but it works. It was a real “aha” moment when this approach influenced how I parented. I said to my boys, "I’m your mother and your acting teacher, but first I am Barbara. We will learn together."
You are a proponent of improvisation being included in education curriculums. Are there any schools, domestically or internationally, that you feel do this exceptionally well? Additionally, what do you feel are the benefits of teaching storytelling, playing, and improvisation during developmental ages?
I was thrilled to learn of The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Alda created a program for scientists and health professionals that uses improvisation to build their communication skills. And it makes total sense. I would love for improv training to be required for most degrees.
A couple of years ago I created an improvisation pilot program for J. Allen Axson Elementary School. For three months I taught in all 28 classes, training both the teachers and over 500 students. I wanted to demonstrate to the teachers that improv games could be an integral part of everyday learning. You don’t need supplies, just get the kids into a circle.
The entire school knew the same games. Siblings were playing them in the car and teaching them to their parents. Extremely shy children who rarely spoke began to volunteer to share stories. They wanted to PLAY. Through the repetition of participating in games, which incorporated both verbal and non-verbal expression, they were getting practice. This allows the student to be successful when they’re asked to speak in front of the entire class. They don’t see it as a big deal. Surveys show that the fear of public speaking is greater than death. We are doing something wrong.
There have been points in your life when you left the security of full-time employment and traveled in to uncharted territory to pursue new goals. During these moments, how did you know when it was time for change and how did you convince yourself to take the first step in a new direction?
I became acutely aware of a kind of self-betrayal. I no longer could ignore my heart. For me it feels riskier to stay in a situation then to leave. I need time for introspection, and to broaden my scope.
Prior to that recognition of self-betrayal, I was living in this divided way. I am here and I am there. It’s exhausting to live like that. And, it’s hard for me to have a plan, to move right into the next setup. No, I need time to float. That’s how I am wired. I accept that about myself.
Another motivating factor to change course was my strong desire to pick who plays in my sandbox. When I was 24, a top NYC publicist threw a telephone book at me while she was under the dryer at the Plaza Hotel. I remained silent and accepted it out of fear. Standing up for myself didn’t happen overnight but I intentionally set that as a goal.
The opportunity to work for Andy Warhol at “Interview” magazine arose as a result of you being an outgoing story teller. It can be assumed that the opportunity may not have been extended to you if you were more introverted. What do you think is the single best exercise someone can do to reprogram introverted tendencies?
For adults, I’d say, the simple act of showing up. What does that mean? If you bring your mind and your heart to a situation and speak from that place, rather than go through the filter of ego and conditioning, you will successfully engage others. It’s not about reprogramming, it’s allowing what is inside of you, your voice, to take action. And yes, we have personality types, but that does not mean we have to limit or define ourselves through just that one filter.
How do you mentally prepare yourself when you begin a new project? Do you have any patterns, routines, or rituals?
I start out cleaning. Everything. I organize papers. I paint walls. I take care of anything that might be a distraction later on. During these activities, I am answering questions and stumbling on ideas. Something that I do daily is to open a book to a random page and meditate and ponder on the words. It’s astonishing how it will trigger my imagination and connect with what I am working on. It’s how I play.
I am trained as an actor and writer to observe behavior, listen to the words and thoughts around me and capture them. I write things down in journals. I doodle and draw. I’ll start designing a set for something that’s not formulated yet but I trust it’s showing up for a reason. Basically, I don’t censor.
I also collect a lot of data. For the past 35 years I’ve been fascinated by how the mind works, people’s relationship to their bodies, their doctors, and how they go about taking care of themselves. I have boxes full of NY Times articles, images, quotes, books, and journals that I will start going through in 2017. I know the title of the play, "To Pop or Not to Pop."
Can you describe the feeling of living in New York City and being involved in the iconic art scene of the 1970s?
It felt glamorous, lush, challenging, exciting, and at times alienating. Oh, and cheap. My Park Ave. studio apartment on the 16th floor of a prewar building was rent controlled. I was paying about $230.00 a month. It had two walk-in closets. I felt blessed.
There were moments, such as dancing at Studio 54 with Bryan Adams (my date for the evening), being at The B-52’s first gig at the Mud Club, and seeing Whitney Houston’s debut cabaret performance in a small Soho restaurant that were all so much fun. I took it in stride. I mean, there was an air of naiveté. High society wanted to mix with the downtown art and music scene. Andy Warhol was right in the middle of that even geographically being at Union Square. That’s how Jean-Michel Basquiat became an art world sensation overnight. Studio 54 created fantasy environments where all the worlds converged.
This was when Park Ave doctors said cocaine wasn’t harmful, as long as it wasn’t cut with talcum powder. Okay, right. My roommate’s boyfriend was Jeff Koons who was working at the book store at MoMA. He was obsessed with Warhol and would grill me about Andy all the time. Soho seemed to pop up overnight and that was the place to be. But there was a lot of snobbery, drugs, and faux-ness. I watched the powerfully seductive magic of those years cast a dark spell on many talented people. What kept me balanced was to escape to Greenwich Village to hang out with my college friends, and continue my acting training.
What projects are you working on now and are you seeking or presently involved in any collaborations?
I’ve been working at making my new studio at CoRK North an inviting, creative space for myself and fellow artists. I have named it BABS’ LAB, as it is a place for me to experiment with form and content. I am in conversation with a number of artists and organizations to offer a diverse array of programming. I’m teaching improv classes both at the studio and Jacksonville Arts and Music School, boaching a lot of people, and offering workshops. In January, director and actor Daniel Austin will be teaching a Saturday class. Right now he and I are in brainstorming mode as we have many common goals.
At the end of December I will be performing a new piece as part of an on-going series called "Confessions of Crazy." I am excited that violinist extraordinaire, Philip Pan, will perform at one in March/April 2017.
I’m also currently collaborating with the Cummer Museum on creating a theatrical experience for the closing day of the exhibit “LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience,” on February 12th.
My big project for 2017 will be directing and producing "Chalk" by Al Letson. He calls it a poetical, as he weaves poetry with dialogue. The play examines the effects of verbal abuse and bullying in our schools and society. I’m extremely motivated to start this project. I will be seeking actors and sponsors. Stay tuned.
What role has community played in your development as an artist?
A big part. What comes to mind is the saying, "if you build it they will come." Connecting to the pulse and needs of a community through your art is rewarding, as long as you remain true to your voice. I need to be daring, experimental, and honest through my work. I am my canvas. I have been fortunate to have cultivated a curious, open minded group of people who give perceptive feedback when I workshop new material.
I moved to Ponte Vedra in 1993. There were lots of positives about raising my sons there but I was frustrated by the lacking of culture and diversity. There was a vacuum to be filled. Through Soirees at my home in Ponte Vedra, starting in 1999, my ex-husband and I gave ourselves and emerging artists a space to develop original material and build an audience. At the same time, I quit my job and started Inter-Act, a school focused on acting process and coaching.
Five years later, Al Letson, now an award winning NPR radio host, hired me as his acting coach for his first solo play, which led to my directing and producing most of his work. Over a 10-year period, while Al was breaking ground with plays that experimented with form, I was honing my directing skills. Finding ways to stage his poetic language in to theatrical political pieces was right up my ally. There was no road map and we had total artistic freedom. Since Al was already a well known slam poet, we brought the plays to Baltimore and NYC, always receiving great reviews.
Joe Schwarz, Executive Director of Players by the Sea, supported the work producing a number of Al’s plays. He also brought me on as the Education Director for the theater and I had the opportunity to broaden my reach and develop an outstanding children’s program.
Other successful partnerships that served community and utilized my talents: The Noble School where I taught drama to kids with learning disabilities for 4 years; working with the Cummer Museum of Arts and Garden who, along with Players By The Sea, commissioned me to research, write, and perform a one woman play about Ninah Cummer for their 50th Anniversary; being able to talk about my the value of improvisation as a 2013 TEDxJacksonville speaker; performing my solo play "Life on the Diagonal" directed by Robert Arleigh White and bringing it to NYC; speaking at MOCA about my 6 years working with Andy Warhol.
How can enrolling in storytelling and improvisation workshops benefit an adult’s career and social life?
It wakes you UP. How often do we actually get to intuit? We are conditioned to ignore our intuitive nature, and not to trust our irrational selves. That’s harmful. Classes help you have a better relationship with yourself, and others. It’s a place designed to take risks, people are working out issues that they don’t feel safe to try in the real world. What I hear from my students is that it helps them speak extemporaneously. They become better at listening, observing, and standing up for themselves.
One of your personal transitions included moving out of your home in Ponte Vedra and into an apartment in downtown Jacksonville. What attracted you to living in downtown Jacksonville and how did living in Jacksonville’s core positively impact your life?
Honestly, The Carling on Adams St. seduced me. Its’ vibe reminded me of my NYC flat. I loved the three levels of communal space where I could have classes and readings. My adult classes have grown with lots of non-actors wanting to explore improvisation. I also saw it as a way to bring Beach friends to the core. When I produced a POP UP play in the Carling ballroom we got 90 people from all over.
It was also TIME for me to be closer to other creatives, to engage with my tribe more frequently, and to support each other’s work and processes. Launching BABS’LAB at the CoRK Arts District came about because more people got to know about the kind of work I do. So the convenience of my location allows me to participate more fully in the arts, and show up to volunteer more often.
Downtown living can be challenging at times but I am thrilled that the FSCJ Culinary Arts and Hospitality dorms and restaurant will be on Adam Street. I want to put in a good word and celebrate the trees in Hemming Park. I’ve had a couple of mystical moments occur under those trees.
Questions? Comments? Submit something for consideration?
Please email Jihan@CulturalCouncil.org