On the Merits of Jumping First

by Lisa Portes

in SpotlightOn

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For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.

TCG: When was the moment that you decided to take on an executive leadership role in the field?

Lisa: Leadership seems to find me, as I am continuously driven to leadership by folks who have yet to be seen. In 1993, fresh out of grad school at UCSD, I founded Theater E in San Diego because I believed passionately in the work of my colleagues, playwrights Naomi Iizuka and Karl Gajdusek. I felt it imperative that their plays be seen. I figured out how to raise funds, talk real estate agents into letting us use abandoned spaces, pull together a madcap creative team, and Voila!  We were able to reveal the astonishing new worlds of Iizuka, Gajdusek and many other writers produced during Theater E’s short, but successful three-year tenure in San Diego.

It’s always been like that for me. I’m motivated to leadership when I feel that someone needs to be seen—their work, their face, their voice, their story. In New York in the late 1990s, as Associate Artistic Director of Soho Rep, I championed the lady writers of the downtown scene:  Erin Cressida Wilson, Migdalia Crúz, Madeleine Olnek, and Neena Beber. Currently, as Artistic Director of Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences, it’s Chicago’s children that fuel me. When I took over in 2002 I created a new mission:  to produce work that would reflect Chicago’s specific audience of contemporary, urban, and multi-ethnic children. If the first time a Chicago kid goes to the theatre, it happens to be ours— a big, impressive, 1300-seat theatre—I want her to see herself onstage. My core belief is that when you see your story, you know that you, yourself, are seen.

This summer I am spearheading the Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Plays (Carnaval 2015). Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in the nation and yet our work is woefully underrepresented onstage. You see the pattern?  The work needs to be seen!  Along with my venerable colleagues in the LTC—Abigail Vega, Juliette Carrillo, Diane Rodriguez, Olga Sanchez-Saveit, Kinan Valdez, Jose Carrasquillo and so many more—we are shining a great big spotlight on some of the most important voices in the American theatre.  Please see the Carnaval 2015 Announcement and Presente: A Roll Call of New Latina/o Plays for more on that.

As head of the MFA Directing program at The Theatre School at DePaul University I’ve made it our mission to seek out and train directors-of-color. In the five years I served the program prior to becoming its leader, we accepted three directors-of-color out of fifteen total directors. Not bad… But since becoming head, we’ve accepted eight directors-of-color out of sixteen total. I am committed to creating plurality in artistic leadership. I believe doing so organically expands the kinds of stories that get told onstage. I want to see a bigger circle of Americans reflected in the American theatre.

Portes2 - Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West - Timeline Theatre

TCG: As an executive leader what issues in the field do you hope to address?  How would you like to do so?

Lisa: I’m interested in courage in our field. I think of trailblazers like Zelda Fichandler, Joe Papp and Lou Bellamy, Anne Bogart and Liz LeCompte, Amiri Baraka, Luis Valdez, Frank Chin—so many in the latter half of the 20th century when the field was inventing, rather than maintaining itself. I’m looking for the next frontier of invention. I suspect it’s in the land of diversity and inclusion. My hunch is that we haven’t made great progress on this front, despite the many (many) forums, meetings, conferences, and initiatives intended to create progress—because we have great fear.

My mentor, Des McAnuff, taught me that you should never ask an actor to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. If you ask an actor to do something scary, you need to be willing to do it first. That lesson has had me jumping through traps, baring a breast, scaling ladders, and burying myself in sand. I’ve learned two things testing the theory:

1. You have to really believe in the choice to be willing to be the first to step into a 4×4 hole and drop twelve feet…
2. People will follow if you do it first.

It’s that first part we need to think about—in order to be the first to jump, you must really believe in the idea. You have to believe the idea is important enough to risk your own safety and, quite often, your dignity in order to pave the way. The secret to changing the face of the field is the same as the secret to taking your clothes off onstage: You have to believe in it enough to overcome the fear. There is no other secret.

This begs the question:  Do we as a field believe in diversity and inclusion enough to risk something of our own to make it happen? Are we willing to name the fears that stand in our way?  Are we committed enough to overcome those fears?

Courage is contagious. When Des jumped into a 4×4 hole, his courage inspired others to follow.  Not only did I as a young director learn that I could jump into a hole and not DIE—but I learned the power of being the first to jump. I keep thinking about all those pioneers who invented the field as we know it; the shoulders of the giants upon which we can continue to build. I think of the folks that are building now—Joe Haj, Sarah Bellamy, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Chay Yew, Bob Falls, Michael Garces, Wendy Goldberg and Bill Rauch, to name a few. I do believe in a bold, aesthetically and culturally diverse American theatre. I believe in it so much that it guides every choice I make as a director and as a leader. I will scale ladders, jump into holes, chop through the wilderness, and risk my reputation in order to create a theatre that reflects the multiplicity of our nation. And I hope, in so doing, to join my brave colleagues in reviving a culture of courage.Portes3 - Ski Dubai - Steppenwolf Theatre

TCG: Talk about a game changing moment in your career—a “big break” where you felt you could create a lasting legacy through your work as an executive leader of color.

Lisa: I am a Steering Committee member of the Latina/o Theatre Commons and the lead champion of Carnaval 2015, a celebration of new Latina/o plays. Through our work together, my LTC colleagues and I have created a new producing model that I believe will have a lasting impact on the field.

The LTC is a movement, a network of passionate theatremakers from across the country who donate time, knowledge, and social capital in an effort to create national events that promote Latina/o theatre as integral to 21st century American theatre. We formed in May of 2012, when playwright, Karen Zacarías invited eight Latina/o theatre artists to Arena stage in Washington DC. Since then, we have produced two national convenings, co-produced a month-long festival of over a dozen Latina/o productions, launched an online platform, and will open Carnaval 2015 in Chicago this summer. In the process, we have created a new model for the promotion of Latina/o work that circumvents traditional processes and pipelines.

While I serve as the lightning rod for Carnaval 2015, the event will ultimately be produced by a collective of twenty LTC steering committee members, eight Chicago Latina/o theatremakers, The Theatre School at DePaul University, and seven Chicago theatres; let’s call it a producing web. The Carnaval collective includes Selection, Outreach, Programming, Resource Generation, Casting, and Host committees. Each includes the input of 5–7 different theatremakers from at least a dozen different cities, of various areas of expertise, (directors, writers, designers, scholars, dramaturgs, producers) and at different points in their career (emerging, mid, or veteran). The LTC has only one paid staff member: LTC producer, Abigail Vega, who keeps the LTC, the producing web, and the committees all connected and on task.

The web model:

  • Creates a big brain trust, taking advantage of a multiplicity of points of view,
  • Organically expands the reach of the event—each person involved brings his/her network,
  • Creates a broad base of investment—each person who puts in their time invests themselves in the success of the outcome,
  • Promotes local and national connectivity: Chicago theatremakers are working with one another and with colleagues in a dozen other U.S. cities,
  • Circumvents dependency on any one institution and promotes, instead, collaboration across many.

For me—as a traditionally top-down leader with little trust in consensus—the model has been a revelation. It is the model upon which I intend to build.


LisaPortes HeadshotLisa 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.

Photo 1 –  Jerry MacKinnon, J. Salome Martinez & Jesse D. Prez in This Is Modern Art by Idris Goodwin & Kevin Coval at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo credit: Michael Courier

Photo 2 - Tiffany Villarin in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West by Naomi Iizuka at Timeline Theatre.  Photo credit: Lara Goetsch

Photo 3 - Hillary Clemens in Ski Dubai by Laura Jacqmin, Steppenwolf First Look.  Photo credit: Mark Campbell

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/ralphstalter/ Ralph Stalter, Jr.

    What a wonderful web model, Lisa! Those of us building collaborative theatre alliances in other cities can learn a lot from your success — and from having the courage to “Jump First”!