Portland Center Stage is bringing back live performances with “Frida ... A Self Portrait.” The one-woman show features writer and performer Vanessa Severo as the acclaimed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. She draws parallels between Kahlo’s story and her own life as an artist and as a person with a disability. We hear from Severo about the show and how it has evolved since she first started working on it in 2014.
Editor’s note: Portland Center Stage is an OPB sponsor.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. Live theater is back in Portland, Portland Center Stage is kicking off its new season with ‘Frida, A Self Portrait.’ It’s a one woman show featuring the writer and performer Vanessa Severo as the acclaimed Mexican painter Frida. Kahlo Severo draws parallels between Kahlo’s story and her own experience as an artist and a person with a disability and she captures the brashness, creativity, wit and pain that suffused Kahlo’s life. Performances of ‘Frida, A Self Portrait’ run through November 7th and I am pleased to have Vanessa Severo on the show right now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Vanessa Severo: Hi! Thanks Dave.
Miller: When did the idea first come to you to create a one person play about Frida Kahlo’s life?
Severo: The idea came, I was having coffee with a good friend that I’ve had for about 22 years. It happened about six years ago and he was looking at me over coffee and he said Vanessa, I see a Frida Kahlo in you. I thought it was such a bizarre thing for someone to say, because to this day, I still don’t know exactly what he meant. I thought, do I look like her? Do I have her essence? So, I started researching her because I didn’t know a lot about her. I knew some of her artwork, and as I dove deeper into Frida Kahlo, I started to find a parallel in her life that was attached to mine and I found this woman that was very ahead of her time and very tweetable actually for today and kind of the first selfies I would say of the 1930s and 40s. But the difference was that in today’s world we try to put on a patina of ‘everything’s great,’ and here’s this woman that’s painting her pain very clearly and unapologetically, and I thought, I wanted her to be alive and breathing today. So as I started to write it, it kind of felt like a downpour of information. I took six chapters of her life, which were tragedies and how she overcame them through art, and that was my first draft that I pulled together six years ago, which I performed at a storefront theater called the Living Room Theater in Kansas City…
Miller: What was…
Severo: …and then after…
Miller: ... How is that different from what I saw, and what other people can see now at Portland Center Stage? What was the first iteration?
Severo: [Laughing] The first iteration was just Frida, and it was just six chapters of her life, and I spoke to the audience and it was just not finished. I wanted to know how Frida Kahlo lived and what the streets smelled like, and what the footsteps she took on the streets, and what her community thought of her and I wanted to be in her house. So the difference was, that I received a beautiful grant, the TCG Fox Fellowship Grant and I went to Mexico City within a month and a half of receiving it. And I went to Casa Azul and I wanted to immerse myself in how she lived and you know, the trip was filled with disappointments and also unexpected revelations as I continued to dig deeper. The difference between the first version of the play and what you saw this weekend, is that I realized I couldn’t tell Frida’s story without telling my own. So the difference is that, it didn’t just become ‘Frida: A Self Portrait,’ it became ‘Vanessa: A Self Portrait,’ and this heart string that we share, attached to each other.
Miller: What do you see now, as the most important connections between your life and Frida Kahlo’s life?
Severo: That’s a good question. The most important, I would say, is that at the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can, and Frida, as much as surviving polio and a terrible trolley accident, and disabilities and deceit and divorce and betrayal and pain and 30 surgeries. I find that we all can look at our lives and realize that we can express that, however we need to be able to heal from trauma so that we can continue to connect, and keep going.
Miller: Early on in the play, you break from the narrative of Frida’s life to talk about an aspect of your own. You show the audience your left hand, which has a congenital defect. It’s smaller and doesn’t have fully formed fingers. How do you think about your left hand and Frida Kahlo’s body?
Severo: When I was researching her in Mexico City, talking to people who have lived there their whole life, they talked about how she disguised her disability. You know, one leg was smaller than the other because of polio, and then later on near the end of her life, her right leg was amputated, and so she would wear many layers of socks to try to make the legs look even. And then she would wear layers and layers of skirts and then she would put a crown of flowers on her head and all of this was sort of a device to sort of distract from what was actually underneath. And these flowy shirts which covered up plaster corsets that she was wearing to keep her spine fused together. But then she did this odd thing, where she attached a bell to her fake foot, her prosthetic leg. So they talked to me about how you would see Frida Kahlo and she’d come walking down the street looking like a tower, and then you would hear, ‘ping, ping, ping.’ So she did this little device to just say like there’s something different about me, and I felt my whole life, I found mechanisms to be able to hide my hand, to be able to get cast in plays, to be able to make new friends, and I either wanted pockets or I wanted a certain prop to hold on stage because as long as I could maneuver that way, I was able to get what I needed. But once I had opened up enough or I felt the opportunity was enough, I felt comfortable enough to reveal it. So I felt that attachment to Frida so strongly that people with disabilities, we do find ways to find all sorts of different devices to somewhat disguise and then also reveal...
Miller: ...To disguise or to put a bell on it, which seems like not just revealing, but almost celebrating. I’m curious when you said early on, when you would be in a production, you would look for some way to hide your hand with a pocket or a prop or something. How much did that come from you and how much did that come, say, from a director of a production?
Severo; I would say it’s a mixture. I moved a lot when my father finally relocated to the US from Brazil and joined the US Army. We moved around, probably every two years. I think that from my upbringing, I learned at an early age that if children saw my hand before getting to know me, I had a large difficulty making a friendship. It took longer, and that conditioned me that I learned that when I moved, if I hid my hand for the first two weeks, I could make a friend and then they got to know me and they would see it, and there was always that moment of surprise, but then we had already established.
Miller: Was the idea that, by that point they knew you as Vanessa, a new friend and they knew what your favorite color or what you liked and what you were like and if they saw your hand first, then you were in the category of a person with one hand, that’s not normal. I mean, how did you think about what you had come to realize about those interactions?
Severo: There’s just, there’s a lot of fear surrounded around differences, and I feel like we as a society are actually coming to a place right now, that is celebrating differences in a way that we’ve never done before, but when I was growing up in the eighties there was so much fear surrounding it, and I think that when we’re afraid of things, we push away from them. And so I think that’s what happened with these children that didn’t understand, you know? So that is what conditioned me that I didn’t like the fear reaction that came with it and with that fear didn’t come questions, which I was happy to talk about, but instead there was a polarity where they pulled away from me, and the same thing happened in theater. I was actually told by a director in San Francisco that I should have a prosthetic hand with my makeup kit, I should have these things and I disagreed. So it was just a moment in my life that didn’t happen until my late thirties, early forties, just recently that I decided to break that conditioning and be unapologetically who I am.
Miller: Do you feel like that’s changed you as an actor or a dancer or a performer? I mean, do you feel different now, because of that mental shift about the way you present yourself and the kind of more fearlessness, about not having people react negatively when they see you?
Severo: I absolutely do. I feel like I think all stage actors hate to see themselves on video, that’s why we do theater, we don’t want to see what we look like. But I would watch videos and it was this moment that really clocked for me, that I realized that the way I was moving, even though I am technically trained in dance and theater, that when I could see the moment happening, that I felt I needed to hide it, it almost looks like the left half of my body was not able to move. It was stifling, and the difference now is it feels open and it feels very honest and connected and in this play where I am talking about it is the first time I’m ever doing that, and it feels like I’m actually having a conversation with every single human being out there. It takes away a performative element and it really feels like I’m sharing a story with them and that I’m getting feedback from them as well.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Vanessa Severo. She is the writer and actor behind the new show ‘Frida: A Self Portrait.’ It’s up right now through November 7th at Portland Center Stage. I should note that PCS is a sponsor of OPB. There’s a quote from Frida Kahlo that seemed to launch this project more than any other particular language from her, and you use it as a sort of bookend for the play. I wonder if you could recite it for us?
Severo: Sure. “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought, there’s so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same way as I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and you read this, then know that yes, it’s true, I’m here and I’m just as strange as you.”
Miller: Do you remember when you first encountered that quote?
Severo: I do. I encountered it six years ago when I first started to research her and that was the nail in the coffin for me. As soon as I read it I realized I felt like she was speaking directly to me, I felt like, what an interesting thing to say, because I had always felt so different and strange and I’d never seen anyone like me in theater, I’d never seen anyone like me on stage, or on television, and when I read that quote, I felt like she was going, she was transcending space and time and speaking directly to me. And it’s when I decided to write the play, which came out in five days. Not that it was good the first time, but I did write it in five days, and it did feel like I was having a conversation with Frida.
Miller: It says something about the power of art, whether it’s prose or anything that you, reading that, you could feel less alone just by virtue of reading some words.
Severo: Yes. I mean that’s what we do, right?
Miller: Do you feel like there’s a connection for you between that feeling of strangeness and your decision to become an artist in the first place?
Severo: Absolutely, 100%, Dave. I feel like, in just what I’d said before, I’d never seen anyone like me on stage and even when I went through school, there was no one in my class like that that was pursuing the arts and I had been told that the odds would be against me or that I would only be picked for particular things and in doing this, I feel like I am hopefully broadening the landscape for anyone who is different, or who feels different because when I say disabilities, it doesn’t have to be a physical thing. We all have something that we’re struggling with or that we feel a little bit maybe off kilter within society. And the fact that I want to open those gates and have it be celebrated instead of portraying the same cookie cutter type of person that we have been so used to seeing for generations, that maybe we can actually sit in a theater and watch a story and realize that these are the real people we see in our lives. So we can sit and reflect on our own lives. That’s what I want to do.
Miller: You noted some of the unimaginable litany of physical ailments and pains that Frida Kahlo dealt with from Polio to a really severe accident. She had to go through dozens of surgeries over the years and dealt with really unimaginable pain, and this is something that you embody in the play, over and over, the action sort of stops, her monologue or memories stop, and she or you is wracked with pain. I’m curious how you thought about portraying that, because there you are in front of the audience, showing us what intense physical pain is. How did you approach that?
Severo: I approached it by looking at her self portraits. She doesn’t shy away from showing how much agony she was in them, and she is challenging all of us to actually have to take that in and observe that here is a woman showing how much physical pain she is in and I took that and just interpreted the best way that I could because I have not had 30 surgeries. I mean, I’ve dealt with uncomfortable situations and we’ve all dealt with pain to some degree, but hers, as she talks about in her diary and in letters to friends, it was debilitating to her, of what she was experiencing and sometimes she would put it in her painting but didn’t want to portray it in front of other people because she was afraid that she wouldn’t have visitors or have company. So she would try to put on a patina of being affable and okay, but then would have these moments when alone, of either completely shutting down and in agony and trying to relieve the pain in whatever capacity she could because I think she just tried every avenue, I mean she tried morphine, she tried lots of Tequila, she tried a lot of different things and which ended up, I feel like, speeding up her death at age 47.
Miller: What has it been like for you to perform in front of audiences again, right in front of one, not on Zoom, after what, a year and a half away?
Severo: 19 months. It’s incredible. But I think we’ve all come back really, more open to each other. I think we come back with a beautiful grace and gravitas that we did not have before the pandemic.
Miller: You feel that as a performer, in looking out at the audience, the audience…
Miller: ...feels different to you?
Severo: Yes, they feel different to me also because I think that we have all experienced something traumatic, right? The thing that was missing in the Zoom world, is that we were trying to do something and that wasn’t a play, and what we’re missing is the human connection. We’re missing the tennis that happens, because there is a relationship that happens in a room when we collect. When we remember, as a group, there is an energy exchange that happens and it cannot happen through a Zoom square. And I think that we’ve all gone through something traumatic. We’ve all had to live in solitude and in isolation like Frida Kahlo did. And then we are regrouping and sharing an experience together and we’re not doing it with our screen off, we’re not doing it hidden behind the camera. We are doing it openly in front of each other and I think that we’ve all evolved into better humans, post pandemic. We care more.
Miller: Do you think that’s going to last? Or will that shock of being together again evaporate, as we get used to it?
Severo: I think I would like to hope that it’s going to last just because we don’t know what the end game is, we don’t know what the light is, at this. We’re still in this, you know? I think it will last because I feel like we learned something at the end of it. There are certain things that happen in life that do change you forever, and I think learning that we can’t be without the arts and we cannot ‘human’ without having connection with other humans and sharing space with each other. I think it will last.
Miller: I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘human’ as a verb. I like that. Although human, we also do terrible things to each other but we needn’t get into that right now. I’m just curious, before we go, after immersing yourself in Frida Kahlo’s life for years now, trying to be her, a version of her, do you still have questions about who she was?
Severo: Yes, all the time. I think that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? All of us, as living beings- there’s what we leave behind, there’s what we’ve written, but we never really fully know a person, and that’s the fun part, that has always been about exploring this. It’ll never stop evolving. I feel like I will always learn something new about Frida Kahlo, as I do this. I think it’ll just always continue.
Miller: Vanessa Severo, thanks very much for joining us. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Severo: Thank you so much. Have a great day.
Miller: You too. That’s Vanessa Severo, the writer and performer behind ‘Frida: A Self Portrait. It’s up right now at Portland Center Stage, going through November 7th.
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