Whether in Chicago or on Broadway, whether for the Steppenwolf or the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Cuban-American director Lisa Portes has developed a strong reputation as a nurturer and supporter of the works of new playwrights. Playwright and longtime collaborator Naomi Iizuka described Portes in Timeline’s study guide for their most recent collaboration, “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West,” as an “expert at inviting others to play. There’s a generosity that she has and an enthusiasm that inspires everybody else in the room…Lisa is open in a way that is rare. She will go to far-flung places with you. She doesn’t get scared away. She’s both brave and patient”.
An artistic director for the Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences and the head of the MFA Directing Program at The Theatre School at DePaul University, Lisa’s Chicago credits include: “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” by Quiara Alegría Hudes (Steppenwolf Garage with Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble), “Spare Change” by Mia McCullough (Steppenwolf, First Look Rep), “In the Blood” by Suzan-Lori Parks and “Offspring of the Cold War” by Carlos Murillo (Walkabout Theatre).
Her credits outside the Windy City include “Wilder” by Erin Cressida Wilson and the Red Clay Ramblers (Playwrights Horizons), “Fur” by Migdalia Cruz (Soho Rep), “How to Bake an Apple Pie and See the World” by Wendy McLeod and Michael Silversher (Kennedy Center), and “Eleanor: An American Love Story” by Tom Tierny and John Forster (Ford’s Theatre):
Where were you born?
Madison, Wisconsin! My father is Cuban, my mother Nebraskan. They met at Creighton University in Omaha and moved to Madison where they attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And then I showed up.
How would your grandma describe you?
Ay, que en paz descanse–my beloved Tita always said I was a sword with two sides: una, bella y graciosa y la otra, fuerte y “tough.” She liked the word “tough” in English. I can still hear her say it.
When you’re asked, “what do you do?” how do you answer?
I say I am a director and educator who champions new and contemporary American theatre and passionately invests in work that forwards our interculturality and investigates the aesthetic possibilities of the form. I am privileged to head the MFA Directing program at The Theatre School at DePaul University
What would you LIKE to answer?
What a great question! I really like what I do–the only thing I’d change is the scale: I’d like to see cool new American work that challenges our perceptions of culture and takes on the form, happen on main stages and commercial stages, rather than the black boxes and third spaces such work is generally relegated to. I’m also increasingly interested in finding out what’s going on around the world–I’d like to go to the festival in Bogota and I’d like to spend time in Barcelona.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you? Any special talents?
I sadly don’t think I have any special talents–I play guitar sometimes and I find it very soothing. I have two beautiful children, Eva Rose and Carlitos and a foxy, playwright husband, Carlos Murillo. But I think the most surprising thing about me is that after my parents divorced I divided my time between Latin America (with my dad) and, of all places, Nebraska (with my mom). So I grew up wearing AC-DC T-shirts and…tacones! Yeah, baby: Bob Seger and salsa…
What was the first piece of theatre you ever experienced?
My dad, when he came back to the States, would take me as a tweenager to see plays. I remember seeing “A Chorus Line” and “Evita” on Broadway, but I also remember seeing “Much Ado About Nothing” at Duke University where he was teaching and “Der Fliedermaus” on campus as well. But the first play I ever experienced—before I went to see any theatre—was the puppet show I created when I was five. I sold tickets around the neighborhood for a dime. Everyone bought tickets! But I was astonished and ticked off when just three kids showed up. Welcome to the world of audience development…
The play that knocked my socks off was a piece by Squat Theatre called “Dreamland Burns” and I saw it the summer after my sophomore year of college at the Kennedy Center when Peter Sellars was the Artistic Director and he had this free Lab theatre up on the top floor. That piece was a girl in a dreamscape, and mannequins with video faces projected onto them and a car and leaves and dirt and money falling from the ceiling. That piece blew my mind and stoked my hunger to make theatre.
Why do you think you got into the Theatre?
It’s kind of buried inside my answer to the last question, but let me excavate it a bit more. I made theatre early and my father, whom I adored (and still do), was a very busy professor and we only saw him part of the year. But I learned pretty quickly that if I made a play he would stop what he was doing and sit down to watch. I also learned that while my younger brother really hated my forcing him onstage under penalty of death, my younger sister loved it. She was a natural and also naturally hilarious. So there it was: a director, an actor and an audience. I became a director and my sister became an actress. We both went to the MFA theatre program at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). My dad says now that if he’d have known the repercussions of his doing so, he’d have stopped what he was doing and sat down when we were playing doctor…
What’s coming up for you? Any cool projects you want to tell us about?
Right now I’m putting up the Actor Showcase of the Theatre School at DePaul University’s Class of 2013. I’m in LA and I just love these kids. They’re crazy talented!
This fall I am excited to get back to my musical roots and am directing “Signs of Life,” a new musical by Peter Ullian, Joel Derfner and Len Schiff about Terezin–the “model” concentration camp that the Nazis filled with artists and intellectuals. Then in the spring I am very psyched to direct “Grounded” by George Brant with American Blues Theatre Company, featuring the extraordinary Gwendolyn Whiteside. It’s a one-woman show about an Air Force pilot in the Gulf War who takes a leave to have a baby and when she goes back to active duty, she’s assigned to pilot a drone. Freaking brilliant piece.
I’m also directing “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” in the new Theatre School at DePaul University’s building! I’ve always wanted to direct the play and I’m so excited to direct in our new space. And the coolest thing is that we open on Good Friday!