Four Lessons for Changing the Game

by Lisa Portes

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

LISA PORTES: The most game-changing production I’ve seen is actually a juxtaposition of two: Spanish bad-boy, Calixto Bieto’s explosive Camino Real, followed directly by Bob Falls’ wrenching The Iceman Cometh—both at Goodman Theatre, both in its large Albert Theatre. Camino Real was fantastic—terrifying, insanely theatrical, highly aggressive–people were walking out in droves! Iceman Cometh was devastating and five-hours long and that huge theatre was completely sold-out! I thought: how the hell did they do it? How the hell did they follow a completely audience alienating deconstruction of Tennessee Williams with a five-hour long Iceman Cometh and sell out?! Now, yes, Iceman Cometh starred Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane, but it was still FIVE HOURS LONG.

To me it’s a lesson in artistic cojones. Somehow Bob Falls and Roche Schulfer have enlisted their audience in an audacious artistic mission. In a reversal of the norm, Goodman Theatre, Chicago’s flagship theatre, is perhaps the boldest in the city—the most diverse, the most artistically hard-hitting. Goodman has produced Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men by Dael Orlandersmith, Mary by Thomas Bradshaw, Ghostwritten by Naomi Iizuka. These are not easy plays—they challenge the audience in real and deliberate ways. And while the seasons are balanced with productions that allow the audience to breathe or laugh, the theatre is brashly art-forward and financially more than sound.

Sure, we can look at the ways in which a theatre like the Goodman reaps the financial benefits of a funding culture that rewards large, stable institutions over fleet, alternative theatres. But traditionally regional theatres that benefit from that funding flow tend towards the artistically conservative in order to maintain stability. Goodman Theatre is not careful. It appeals to the artistic pride of its audience. Under Falls and Schulfer, Goodman Theatre uses its privileged position to forward rather than maintain audience expectations of what might happen in a theatre.

Game Change Lesson 1: Lead with Audacity

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

LP: I’m going to cheat again and name two: Maria Irene Fornes and Anne Bogart. It is hard to be an artist—a singularly minded visionary making highly personal work with a fierce and exacting aesthetic. It has always been hard. It is especially hard in the United States. It is nearly impossible as a woman. To be an artist means to be selfish with your time. And to be a selfish woman is taboo.

It is, however, impossible to argue that either Bogart or Fornes are selfish. Their artistic generosity—the sheer number of pieces they have created and gifted to us over time—is trumped only by their generosity as teachers. Bogart and Fornes have shaped a generation of artists. Think for just a quick second of all the directors Anne Bogart has taught. Add to that all the writers whose work was born in workshops with Irene Fornes. Then add all the actors, dramaturgs, designers who have worked with both or either. Then add to that all the artists who have worked with Fornes’ or Bogart’s students. The reach is astonishing.

And yet, while teaching all those young and vibrant artists, both women continue/d to produce stunning, inimitable pieces of theatre. How have they done it? I can only imagine that the power of their vision breached the walls of their own artistic space, radiating outwards and igniting the imaginations of small armies of young artists. Fornes and Bogart—through their fervor for the art, their curiosity about what’s possible, their continued search for the form to articulate complex human content–have indelibly impacted the form. Their passion for teaching others has forever changed the American Theatre.

Game Change Lesson 2: Lead with Generosity

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

LP: Speaking of Anne Bogart, I recently watched the Howlround video of her keynote at this year’s Humana festival “What’s the Story? The Role of Storytelling in the Twenty-First Century and Beyond.” I watched the talk and then went to watch a bunch of final scenes performed by our BFA III actors (I teach at The Theatre School at DePaul University). All the scenes were from Athol Fugard’s plays. And something in the juxtaposition of the two awoke in me a question:

What about size?

We seem squinched: by the media in our hands, by the busy-ness of email, by the financial challenges of making theatre that reduces cast sizes and scale of the worlds we put onstage, by trying to make work that pleases enough people to get a coveted production slot…

But as Bogart says in her talk, that’s the story we tell ourselves.

Watching Fugard’s Boesman and Lena–two people with nothing, nothing onstage and yet absolutely Shakespearean human proportion—I wondered if we haven’t become shy.

How can we use our spaces—these rare and unique spaces where people gather and breath the same air–to expand outwards into the full breadth and depth of our experience? How can we give ourselves permission to eschew the plausible for the formidable? How can we challenge ourselves as to articulate the epic?

Game Change Lesson 3: Size Matters

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

LP: Yikes! That’s a big question, Jackie! In a digital, globally connected world we are perpetually challenged with difference. When we lived on our own land and didn’t much see other kinds of people and weren’t much asked to deal with other kinds of people (unless we were conquered/enslaved or trying to conquer/enslave), you could just pretty much put together a code that worked for you and your kind. Then came airplanes and tv and then the internet and now constant and perpetual encounters with difference, variously mediated towards this or that narrative.

The role of theatre in this moment is to give people the mic—to provide a space for citizens of the twenty-first century to encounter one another in all our myriad difference. I admire Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani who, in the face of 9/11 and the ensuing Islamophobic storm, created Silk Road Theatre Project (now Silk Road Rising). In that moment they sought to “counter negative representation of Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples with representation that was authentic, multi-faceted, and grounded in human experience.” We have the opportunity in the theatre—that most human of spaces — to problematize dominant narratives surrounding difference, to promote recognition within multiplicity, and to build bridges of empathy and insight.

Game Change Lesson 4: Share the Mic

Lisa Portes is a director, educator and leader dedicated to creating a 21st century theatre that incites our curiosity about this great, big, poly-cultural world. Lisa heads the MFA Directing Program at The Theatre School at DePaul University and serves as Artistic Director of Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences.  She is a founding member of the Latina/o Theatre Commons and a lead producer of the LTC Carnaval 2015, a festival of new Latina/o plays. She has directed and developed work at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Guthrie Theatre, McCarter Theater, Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theatre, Sundance Theatre Lab, the Eugene O’Neill National Playwright Conference, and South Coast Repertory Theatres Hispanic Playwrights Project. Lisa received her B.A. in Theater from Oberlin College and her MFA in Directing from the University of California, San Diego. She lives in Chicago with playwright, Carlos Murillo and their two children, Eva Rose and Carlos Alejandro.

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.