by Tim Gilmore, 1/13/2023
1. From the Factory to the Lab
When the lights go out, when the show’s over, when the lab empties, everything that’s happened here remains, repeats, pickles itself into the walls, the air, the mythos of this place.
You can sense that in any blackbox theater, any performance space. What happens here maintains a life of its own, outside the writers and hip-hop artists sharing their words, the speakers sharing true stories they’ve never told another soul, the actors channeling the lives of characters who’ve channeled their authors to write them.
You might call it a factory; it’s truer to say it’s a laboratory. It’s an experiment. It’s the stage upon which each of us struts and frets our hour.
So I’m here in the Lavender Lounge upstairs to talk to my friend, Barbara Colaciello, to figure out how to create some impression of this magical crossroads of community imagination.
Barbara once worked at that most famous art scene in America, The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio and social scene in New York, but it’s here her flower’s borne fruit. She calls herself “a late bloomer.” Fruition takes time, the right arc and necessary conditions. Her place isn’t the factory, but the lab. She calls it Babs’ Lab.
2. This Decade is the Gift
I’m sitting on a sofa across a coffee table from Barbara up in the comfortably dim lighting of the Lavender Lounge, a loft space looking over the theater. A few people are always sitting up in the lounge during shows, others against the wall on the stairs.
Somewhere amidst our two hour conversation, I decide to make the soul of this story Babs’s own words. We are, after all, often referring to Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, but also Babs’ Lab is her vision, so I’ll make her words central:
“My mom passed away this past year. My mom passed, January 11th. I turned 70, January 28th. I’m a girl at heart. But for me this decade is the gift of being alive after having open heart surgery. So I see my 70s as my doing things that I’ve been wanting to do for years.”
3. Sampling Backdrops
The multimedia artwork The Brown Wonder debuts live at Babs’ Lab just before Christmas. Hip-hop artist, graphic designer and sound engineer Willie Evans Jr.’s tapestry of song and video sampling features the voices of Jax-based musicians GeeXella, Jay Myztroh, Tough Junkie and Patrick Evan McMillan. (There’s a quiet tribute to legendary MC and DJ Paten Locke who died in 2019 here too.)
Evans explains how the videowork interplays “classic performances” from James Brown and Stevie Wonder “with animation and experimental video” to create “visual backdrops in the same way a hip-hop beat would be an audio backdrop.” There’s something postmodern about it; the musical eras splice in and out of each other. The discussion that follows posits James Brown not just as the “father of funk,” but the “godfather of hip-hop.”
And so these confluences move through this lab space at night when all the creative spirits of the communities around us converge, inter-sample, cross-pollinate.
4. Three of Us
Cross-pollination brought Babs abloom in North Florida, channeled Italy to Jax by way of Rockville Centre, Long Island: Barbara Colaciello as classic Italian New York giving Jax its own stage.
“There were three of us,” she says. “My brother Bob is older. My sister is in the middle. We moved to Long Island early, so really I don’t remember Brooklyn. I played a lot outdoors. My father was commuting back and forth to Wall Street. He worked in commodities. He bought and sold coffee. And he was a grader. He tasted coffee.”
“My father’s father came from Italy when he was 17 and then stayed with relatives and married a distant cousin, but he was 15 years older than her and she was never happy. And they had four sons and she would say, “Four sons, four bullets in the heart!”
6. The Sermon in the Suicide
The third Friday of each month is story slam night. Everybody’s a storyteller. Joan Didion said it in 1979’s “The White Album” – “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.” It’s how homo sapiens makes sense of the world.
Five minutes a story. No notes, no props. Artist Tiffany Manning storytelling in front of two of her own abstract aquascape dream paintings almost as tall as she is. Barbara teaches storytelling and improv and acting, but tonight’s for the individual and the story to work each other out. Audiences vote. Winners go to the grand slam. Barbara also directs the Untold Stories series downtown at the Florida Theater.
There’s always a stated theme, but themes emerge accidentally too. Poet Tonn Pastore talks about how he nearly died to get sober in the 1980s. Journalist and memoirist Tricia Booker talks about her father driving around with an icebox of beers and his oxygen machine in his last days. Johnny Masiulewicz, poet and creator of the ’zine Happy Tapir, talks about his own sobriety, but also how “If you’ve ever been in the kitchen making a bologna sandwich in your bare feet and you drop a piece of bologna onto your foot, that’s what it feels like when a duck steps on your toes.”
7. Specializing in Human Behavior
Barbara doesn’t think linearly. She thinks radially. She wears story like an aura. Narrative arcs shine out from her like the corona around a star. So I tell this story by sampling different pieces of Barbara’s interview and the shows I’ve seen at Babs’ Lab in the five years since she opened.
“No one knew about Attention Deficit Disorder, you know, and I was distracted. At school I couldn’t behave, so my teacher put me in with the bad kids. One kid says, ‘My mother fights with her boyfriend. She’s depressed.’ Or today, George gets in trouble. So I go over and I talk to George.
“My teacher put me with these kids and I made them feel good, and my mother started complaining, like ‘Barbara’s not getting her work done.’ But that was so much more interesting to me: human behavior. So today I read people’s behavior really well. I’ve specialized in it.
“Bob always had this, ‘I’m the older brother.’ He always had a certain responsibility. And me? ‘Barbara needs help because she’s not the smartest.’ My siblings were A-students. I was a B-student. I was in my bedroom singing Lena Horne and choreographing in the basement and I always felt guilty about it.”
8. In Front of People, In the Moment
“I didn’t like this idea of, and I was a damn good actress, but I didn’t like the idea of waiting for someone to give me permission to act. That’s one thing. The second thing is that there was the fear. I’m always slow to get into the water. So when I went to college [at Rider University], I didn’t audition the first year. Then when I started auditioning, the director of the department goes, ‘Where were you?’
“It goes back to growing up. I would throw up on the first day of school. Every year. One year, I threw up in class and would not go back to the class. Then literally, my mother got me changed to a different school, a different school entirely. My mother said, ‘I don’t want this young teacher. I want an old-fashioned teacher that knows what she’s doing.’
“But I have two personalities. A lot of people wouldn’t guess it, but in my household, I was very introverted. I try to combine them by doing oral storytelling. I create a lot of shows in front of people.
“I find some of my best material comes out in front of people right in the moment. You know, that’s why I teach improv. But I don’t feel any transition from being here to being on stage anymore. It’s just a matter of something that I do that used to be separate.”
9. One-Woman Show
In her one-woman show, Life on the Diagonal, Barbara weaves together the stories of her New York life. The woman so obsessed with the size of the dress she was trying on at Yves Saint Laurent that she didn’t notice the store was being robbed. Another night, when an assailant broke into her apartment. In her play Sustaining Beauty, she uses the words of Ninah Cummer, patron of the arts and wife of a Jacksonville lumber baron, to tell her story.
In Chloe Smith’s one-woman show, FullPowerLess, she relives growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness household, having her family turn against her when the church disfellowships her.
In her one-woman show, Lessons We Were Never Taught, Nikesha Elise Williams becomes a series of women asked by their families, their cultures, the men they love, to sacrifice themselves for their roles.
In her one-woman show, Renunciant, Jennifer Chase voices the stories of students from all over the world whom she’s taught in her English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, students like Mohamedali Mohamedali of Eritrea, who kept telling himself, when he reunited with his wife in Jacksonville for the first time in nine years, “I don’t have to cry today, I’m just happy. I don’t have to cry today.”
10. Working for Andy
Barbara’s brother Bob eventually changed the spelling of his last name to the way everybody misspelled it. Instead of Colaciello, he changed it to: “cola” + “cello.” Then Andy Warhol waddles into the discussion.
“Because I mean Bob and Andy were that close, it was like family. So that’s really when I got to meet Andy and spend time with him. And at first, I was not that impressed. As Andy became more famous, you know, and there are people fascinated by the ’60s and the ’70s, with New York’s developing underground, and there are so many things that came out of that time period and Andy was right in the center of all of that. And Bob was sending me Interview Magazine at college, you know, and I thought it was graphically great.
“So Andy and Bob stop by to see me when I’m visiting my mother for the holidays. And Andy’s like, ‘Oh, your sister is so funny, you know, she’s just like a Colaciello. She loves to tell stories just like you, she’s so funny.’ But then, you know, then when I started working for Marina, he was so jealous.
“And that was, you know, Marina Schiano. She was VP of the Yves Saint Laurent boutiques in this country. She was Yves Saint Laurent’s muse.
“Andy would come to Saint Laurent and I would help him buy things. He says to me, ‘You are working so hard here. You could be working hard for me,’ and he said it like between friends, you know. I said, ‘Andy, I don’t know anything about publishing.’ I never thought about how an ad got into a magazine.
“The first year was miserable and I didn’t have any training and I was going to advertising agencies on Madison Avenue. It was 1977, same year that Studio 54 opened up. These men on Madison Avenue, they would stand behind their desks, they would not even sit for the meeting and they’d be turning the pages, like, ‘Huh? This rag?’ The colors would bleed so it didn’t look that good so these agencies don’t want to be in there, you know. But we knew enough not to have cigarette advertising and things like that. We didn’t want to look like a Village Voice.
“Even in, you know, in Idaho, the fashion kids or anyone in design and fashion was following Interview Magazine. And we were the ones who discovered Robert Mapplethorpe and Fran Lebowitz and were the first to publish them. Andy would get jealous because he didn’t like Robert Mapplethorpe. It was like a competition.
“It’s 1977. Son of Sam. The garbage strike. There’s the blackout, the whole city, no electricity. I took turns at the door at Studio 54 to make sure Andy’s clients got in. He’d be selling a portrait and they would come from Germany or wherever. And they’d want to go to Studio 54 and they’d be like these little conservative German people and get turned away. So I had to make sure that didn’t happen. I didn’t like it.
“I worked for Andy at the magazine for six years. And Bob worked for Andy for 13 years and started becoming really unhappy. You know, no one ever left Warhol. Bob was the only one who ever left the Tribe of Warhol. But Bob had these misgivings. Especially when he got sober. The money wasn’t that great and Andy would play these games, you know.
“Bob didn’t even tell me he was going to quit because he didn’t want me to know. He starts his book, Holy Terror, the first page of Holy Terror, with that day when he packed up his things and is going and I’m following him. We went out the back because the, The Factory ran the length of the building and Union Square, so the front was like Andy’s main area, like with the reception, where people would come in. And then you could go to Interview. But in the back was like, where the time capsules were and where Andy painted and storage and there was a freight elevator.
“Bob’s taking me back there and we go down the freight elevator and he says, ‘I quit.’ I’m like, ‘You quit? What do you mean you quit?’ And he’d left a letter for Andy and quit without telling anybody. Including me.
“I wasn’t there that long after that. Andy took the first mortgage in his life, he didn’t like owing money, and we moved from the old Factory to this old Con Edison Building on Madison. I hated the feel of that building. And I hated my office. It was small, with this low ceiling, and very Alice in Wonderland. I moved to the new building and I gave my notice.”
11. Mission Statement
“And we moved to Florida. Nobody in Ponte Vedra even knew who Andy Warhol was. And when I was 45, I started teaching because someone told me something that changed my life. It was a woman who was 50 and she said, ‘Make sure you write a mission statement for yourself for what you want to do regardless of your children, because your children are going to leave. And what are you going to be doing?’”
12. Place Giving
When the photography stock company Superstock moved its New York workers to Florida in the 1990s, Barbara came to the wealthy conservative enclave of Ponte Vedra Beach with her kids and her husband. She’s now divorced and her kids are grown. Though she started teaching at home in Ponte Vedra, the city kept pulling her in. So she moved downtown to The Carling in the old 1920s Roosevelt Hotel.
She’d called her space at Players by the Sea at Jacksonville Beach her “laboratory.” When she did set design there, people told her you can’t do Passing Strange in a blackbox theater. She did. She lives for the transformation of space through story. For decades, this actor-writer-teacher who started in The Factory was looking for the Lab.
When she found it, she found out she’d need open-heart surgery. That was five years ago. Babs’ Lab is so central to the arts in Jax it’s hard to believe she didn’t open it years earlier. Her most recent play / installation, necessarily titled Open Heart(ed), transformed Babs’ Lab into the four chambers of her heart.
13. Opening Her Heart
“I was born with a bicuspid valve, but no one detected it. My aortic valve had just two cusps instead of three. Two of mine were fused together. My doctor sent me for the echocardiogram. And then I had stenosis that blocked the blood flow. So the blood would push and create this great pressure. So what happens for it to flow, it balloons into an aneurysm. When it gets big enough, they start to look at the risk of it rupturing.
“My girlfriend saw it and said, ‘That’s her lung.’ The doctor said, ‘That’s not her lung, that’s the aneurysm.’ And I said, ‘I want that thing out of me.’ I would visualize every single cell of my body was in acceptance of this decision, that my heart was going to open, it was going to open literally.
“And what they do, they saw right through your sternum, the hardest bone in your body. They cut through the shield of your heart. My heart is no longer shielded in that way so I hear my heartbeat differently now. At first it drove me crazy. But I prepared myself for that because I just knew energetically I had to welcome these things and I think that helped me.
“They have only a 30 minute window to do the procedure. They’re taking out your aorta and replacing it with Dacron. That’s a fabric sleeve that they’ve measured you for. You have it tailored for you. It’s an incredible, incredible kind of surgery. And your brain is on a machine and you only have this short window. So all kinds of shit could happen. People have strokes. So what am I supposed to do? What can you do if you worry about it? My cells were in acceptance.”
14. Are You Afraid to Die?
“My mom was a happy person. She always wanted to look at the happy side of things. Her sister had three nervous breakdowns. So she did the opposite, right? She became the denier. Just recently I was thinking how I could never could bring, I could not bring anything to my mother, even her own death.
“The nurses said, ‘Your mother has such a strong will,’ you know? And when I talked to her, I said ‘Mom,’ you know, ‘you need to let go.’ Yeah. Yeah, a hundred years old. ‘Been in this bed for two years.’ And she said, ‘I don’t want to die.’ I said, ‘That’s obvious.’
“I asked my mother, ‘Are you afraid to die?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ All her years of being a Catholic, praying to the Virgin Mary. She would go to confession, the priest would ask, when she was younger, ‘Are you practicing birth control?’ and she’d say, ‘We’re using the rhythm method,’ and they would be like, ‘Well then we can’t give you penance,’ you know, and she would say to them, she told her girlfriends, this is how I know it, I heard her say, ‘I told the priest, “After you have the three kids, you can tell me what to do.”’ And then she’d take communion anyway. That was her. So how did that affect her being afraid to die? What, what was she taught? Because that was the way it connects. She, I would say to her, ‘Mom, you’ll get to be with Dad again,’ and she would go, ‘I don’t know about that.’
“But she was having visions, I mean, you know, part of the dying process. I’d walk in and she was having seven conversations with Beverly and Buddy from the 1950s, accurate conversations. She’d say, ‘I feel bad. They sold the store,’ the delicatessen on 40th Street.
“‘Now,’ I said, ‘you could talk to anybody you want, you have that gift. All the ancestors. They’re here for you. Everyone’s here. That’s why they’re visiting you.’”
15. Jax X Jax
In hindsight, whatever happens looks inevitable. How, however, could Babs’ Lab as the inter-sampling, cross-pollinating cultural crossroads it is not intersect with the literary arts movement called JaxbyJax, based on the concept of Jacksonville Writers Writing Jacksonville? (The Writers are the City / The City is the Subject / The Subject is the City / The City is the Stage)
JaxbyJax X, the 10th iteration of JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival, takes place in the fall of 2023. Meanwhile, Last Sunday Sessions take place at Babs’ Lab every last Sunday of the month under the new directorship of Erica Saffer.
My wife and I started JaxbyJax in the coffeeshops and galleries and bars and magazine offices and tattoo studios along Park and King Streets. When Darlyn and Brad Kuhn took it over, they professionalized it, bridged it across the Covid-19 Pandemic, moved it to the Jessie Ball duPont Center downtown. Now Erica, no stranger to Babs’ Lab story slams, a featured writer at previous JaxbyJax events, sets up her new office at the Babs’ Lab street entrance. Johnny “Chicago” Masiulewicz, he of the duck stepping on toes, hosts an open mic on Sunday afternoons.
Writes Johnny Chicago: “The first time I was ever stung by a bee — hasn’t happened yet.” / Writes Sohrab Fracis: “A great crack of thunder broke across the landscape, and it seemed to say: I Am Chance.” Writes Erica Saffer: “The evening would stretch out in silent secrets with each woman playing captive to their own captor, being held within fragile universes that spiraled around their fabricated stories, each revolution pushing farther away the ones they’d left untold.”
I tend toward the dark. I’m comfortable there. The dark doesn’t have to be a frightening or sad place, though I allow it to be when it needs. It’s a contemplative space, meditations in the calm of shadow and minor keys.
I do love to be lost in the moment, though I’m also wary. I tend to be observant of the loss of my own self there. The observation counteracts the loss. The word “ecstasy” comes from an old Greek notion of being made to stand outside ourselves: [from existanai, “displace, put out of place,” also “drive out of one’s mind” (existanai phrenon)].
I most love the theater, the space itself, when it brings together very different people, then lets them lose themselves together in story. Surely it’s an ancient rite, Dionysian, and it’s the way I see the city, the ghost compost of all our stories commingled, creating an organic gestalt larger than and different from our individualities. And that’s a ghostly structure in and of itself, symphonic and transcendent, so that we never know in our loneliest moments who we are, but sometimes, when the theater goes dark, we sense that we’ve sensed it.
In Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts, Mrs. Alving says, “Whenever I take up a newspaper and read it I fancy I see ghosts creeping between the lines. There must be ghosts all over the world. They must be countless as the grains of the sands.”
I hear the gunshot at the end of Ibsen’s 1890 play Hedda Gabler, echoing up and down the stairs at the center of the story. I head up and down the stairs at the center of the stage. I head up and down the stairs that wrap around our spines. Surely that’s the space the theater occupies in the city. We chase our stories from our heads to our tails and back up again where we shape and narrate and sample and reorchestrate them in our brainpans.
And then we’re back to Barbara’s mother’s death last January, 99 years old, and I realize two hours have gone by, and Babs says, “I think I’m dehydrated,” says her “head’s doing a thing,” that sometimes she talks until she gets anemic. She needs some water. She usually does fish for Christmas, but this year, she’s doing tacos with a friend. We make our way down from the Lavender Lounge. Offhand eye contact. Casual non-sentences, briefest of hugs, meaningful asides toward love. It’s time to start writing this story.