Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week's Chicagoan is Lisa Portes, theater director.
"My mother is an air force brat from Nebraska, and my father is a Cuban exile. He was 15 when he left Cuba. He was pro-revolution but anti-Castro, and he was tipped off that he was going to be hauled in and put away, so his mother put him on a plane and he came to Miami with a violin and a suitcase. Now he's a Princeton sociologist.
"He met my mother at college in Omaha. Later my folks split up, so I lived between the midwest and Latin America. That's why I tend to be most comfortable in transition and least comfortable in spaces. I've been in Chicago 15 years, and it makes me crazy, even though I love it. My restlessness is slightly pathological.
"I don't remember a time I wasn't in theater. My dad, when I was growing up, was very, very busy. I found out early on that if I put on a play, I could get his attention. And then around high school, I started acting. But when I wanted to go to grad school, I didn't get in anywhere as an actor. My father said, in his Cuban accent, 'Well, actually, you are a director. Apply as a director.' I did, and I got a Fulbright, and I got into the MFA program at UC San Diego.
"I liken being a director to being the captain of a ship. You choose a play and you set the course for that play. Say you're doing Hamlet. You may decide you're gonna do a straight-ahead, Shakespearean-period Hamlet, or you may decide to do a Hamlet that focuses on the generational battle between Hamlet and his stepfather, or you may decide it's about political corruption. And then you work with a team of designers and actors to flesh out that conceptualization.
"I don't think you can be a director unless you really, really love actors. The courage it takes for an actor to go onstage and represent us . . . Like a shaman, they embody some tremendously difficult aspect of being human. What they do with their emotional lives and bodies and souls and psychologies is more than most of us do.
"You can always tell we're getting close to production, because at least one actor will start to freak out about a prop. 'I can't work with this stupid chair!' Or: 'The wig is too tight!' What I teach younger directors is, that moment is not about the wig or about the chair. The show's about to open, and the actor is freaking out and taking it out on something. I love that moment. I go, 'I see you. I got you.'
"I'm spearheading the Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at DePaul July 23—25. Latino writers tend to be at least bi-, if not tricultural, and the plays themselves reflect a narrative structure that isn't necessarily your point-A-to-point-B narrative, because if you grow up in the interstices, that narrative doesn't quite make sense. I couldn't direct a play about a family living in a house to save my life. And I don't really like upper-middle-class marriage plays. I am married, so I don't really need to see a play about it."