On October 30, 2016, SDC Foundation proudly presented the Zelda Fichandler Award to director Lisa Portes. Below are Ms. Portes’s remarks given at the awards event in Chicago.
First of all thank you all for coming out. I’m turning a special birthday this year and it looks like I won’t even have to throw a party—all my favorite people are here tonight! I’m so happy you all came. Thank you to Laura Penn, Danny Gorman, Peta Coy, Adam Levi and all the good people at SDC. Thank you to the SDC membership. And THANK YOU to the Fichandler committee: Casey Stangl, the chair, Kimberly Faith Hickman, Aditi Kapil, KJ Sanchez and Roche Schulfer who had the kooky idea to give this award to an odd-ball free-lancing, bi-cultural, professor director. I am honored to join the illustrious list of past recipients, including Michael Halberstam and Charlie Newell from Chicago and to share this award with Eric Rosen and Aimee Hayes, who change their communities every day.
I want to thank Chay Yew for stepping in to save the day. As you all know, Anna had a sudden emergency. Chay and I first met at a TCG Cpnference in San Francisco. I was recently out of the gate and mouthing off at a very well- known and powerful Artistic Director at a session. When we left that session, Chay pulled me aside and said “You are right, BUT….you need to be a little more subtle. about it.” Great advice that I keep trying to take.
I also just want to say a word about Anna Shapiro. She and I have known one another since we were directing toddlers just out of grad school. She was the education director at the La Jolla Playhouse and I was running an alternative site-specific theatre company in San Diego. One of the great things about reaching this special age is seeing my peers, like Chay and Anna— take on the reigns of leadership and shape the national conversation. And can we say, um….Anna and Chay SLAY?!
Shortly after I met Anna, I had the pleasure of meeting Martha Lavey. She was adjudicating the NEA/TCG Career Development Grant for Directors (and can we all make a commitment to help TCG refund that grant? It’s really important for young directors) Anyway, I was a finalist, and then a recipient and that was the first time Martha gave me a leg up. When I moved to Chicago, she was the first call I made. And from that point onward, Martha shaped me. Not so much because she hired me, which she did and for which I’m grateful, but because she answered EVERY email I sent and met with me whenever I asked. Literally, WHENEVER I asked: offering invaluable guidance, frank (I mean really frank) feedback, and genuine advocacy. I can honestly say that I—amongst so many here in this room—owe my artistic life in this city to Martha Lavey. Thank you, Martha.
And can I just shout out for a second to Hallie Gordon? The Artistic Director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults who brought me in to direct that most infamous play: This Is Modern Art? Hallie, you are the bravest, most unrelenting and mission-committed Artistic Director I know. You’re a rock star.
Man this is a theatre full of the NASTIEST WOMEN!
Speaking of nasty women: let’s talk about Zelda Fichandler: A restless woman who, in her 20s, looked at the world around her, decided it was ridiculous that professional theatre was centralized in New York, founded Arena Stage and pioneered the regional theatre movement which would create professional theatre for communities across the nation. Not only that but she was the first to integrate audiences in Washington, D.C. and integrated the Arena acting company in the early 1960s. Todd London calls her “a genius of inclusion.” She was a true game changer. One of the things that previous recipients of this award said they valued most was getting to spend an hour with Zelda on the phone or in person. I’m sad I will have missed her, but deeply honored to carry forth her legacy in every way I can.
I’m going to give some more thanks and then share some thoughts.
First of all, I want to thank my family: my husband, the brilliant Carlos Murillo and my two amazing children, Eva and Carlitos, whose love, patience and support give me something to live up to every day. I want to thank my mom (who is here) my dad, and my step-father and step-mother for giving me the wild-ride upbringing that made me who I am—more on that in a sec.
I want to give thanks to The Theatre School at DePaul University and especially to our Dean, John Culbert who has fervently supported mine and so many of my colleagues’ professional careers while equally fervently advocating for the excellence of our students’ training. I don’t know how he does it, but in creating that balance he has created a culture of artistic excellence all the way around. I want to thank my colleagues on the faculty and staff from whom I have learned so much over the years. And give a special thanks to my students and alums who inspire me every time I join them in the classroom or the rehearsal hall or hear about their wild successes.
This is the first time this award has gone to a free-lance director, so I want to acknowledge all the free-lancers: those of us who like hermit crabs, carry our missions on our backs looking for a host. And hats off to all the artistic directors like those here tonight: Martha, Anna, Hallie, Chay, Tim Sanford, Charlie Newell, Michael Halberstam, Eric Rosen, Aimee Hayes, Sean Graney, and Tara Mallen—who make room for kooks like me who forward our beliefs one show at a time.
I want to shout out to the Latina-o-x theatremaking community who in a
moment when Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in the nation while, at the same time being more under siege than in a very long time, have done what my people do best: grassroots organize— in this case to build bridges of empathy and understanding through storytelling. I want to shout out to the Alliance of Latinx Theatre Artists (or ALTA) here in Chicago founded by Ricardo Guttierez and Tanya Saracho, and spear-headed now by Isaac Gomez, Nancy Garcia-Loza and a whole crew of dedicated people who build community and awareness and create kickass art every day. And the impact that the national network and thinktank, The LatinA/O Theatre Commons, has made in the short 4 years since its founding is breathtaking.
So recently I was reading an article in Vanity Fair: the interview between Doris Kearns Goodwin and President Barack Obama. In it they are talking about President Lincoln, and Lincoln’s quote “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition.” And President Obama is saying that when you are young your ambition is general, it’s essentially to prove yourself, but as you get older, “that’s when your ambitions become ‘peculiar.’”
I started off as an aggressive, ambitious, show-off for sure—my Dad have given me hell for choosing this career and being a pathologically driven family I was for damn sure going to show him! At the time I was directing primarily work written by women and people of color, often women of color in fact—because, as bi-cultural woman—those were the stories and dramaturgies I was most drawn to: stories that had at their CENTER women and/or people of color and whose structures reflected the non-linear, almost cubist experience of that particular lens. What started as just an organic connection to stories, as I’ve become older has become my “peculiar” ambition: to help create an American Theatre that reflects the fullest possible “We” in “We the People.”
Ok, so that’s noble. Sounds right. Something we should all aspire to, of course. Blah de Blah. But when the rubber hits the road, it’s much more challenging: I mean when you think about it: why exactly? It seems like checking boxes–all this inclusivity. It seems political rather than artistic. It feels artificial.
So let me tell you a story: I am the daughter of a Cuban exile Sociologist and a U.S. Army Air Corp Brat Psychologist (my mom) (who was actually born in Highland Park when her dad was stationed at Fort Sheridan). I grew up between the college towns of the Midwest and the major cities of Latin America. Bob Seger and Celia Cruz, my friends. My brother and sister have blond hair and green eyes. There’s this picture of the 50th wedding anniversary of my grandparents on my mom’s side—it’s a sea of blond and way down in the down left corner there’s this dark-haired olive skinned young woman “Isn’t it nice they invited Juanita the maid” 😉 My siblings and I can’t even agree on the pronunciation of our last name: I say “Lisa Portes” or Portes depending on who I’m talking to. My brother, who has embraced the legend that we are descended from the French is “Charles de Portes” and my sister is “Andrea Portis” (like “tortoise”). My folks divorced and re-married: he to a Mexican intellectual and she to a rock-and-roll promoter from Shelby, Nebraska. I married a Colombo-New Yo-Rican, his brother married a Colombian woman, his other brother a woman from Egypt and his sister married an Irishman. My sister married a stoic Wisconsonian. Together our children are Samantha, Olivia, Kerabanía, Eva, Carlitos … and Wyatt! I grew up in the conflict and confusion, as well as the great love and empathy born of DIFFERENCE. I mean real DIFFERENCE. For me, it’s not a question of inclusion, it’s status quo.
So, ok, I get it: ok, Lisa, but you can’t just change the American Theatre because that’s how you grew up! But here’s the thing: more and more people are growing up like me. You’ve all heard the statistics: by 2050 we will be a majority of-color population. My students can’t even check the boxes any more, they’re so mixed: in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, you name it. The dramaturgy of our very country is now one of intersectionality—it’s not a sidenote, not special project. Intersectionality and Polyculturalism ARE the new status quo. If our theatre is to reflect its time and shape its future, we need to forward that reality not once in a personal or institutional season, but in some way on EVERY project we present.
Because to quote that most-quoted Puerto-Rican “this is not a moment, it’s a movement.” In this election year we are fighting for the very soul of this country. We are fighting in a very real way over the question: who are we? Who IS an American? While I understand the criticism of Hamilton that by black and brown-washing history it runs the danger of making us comfortable with how this country was actually formed, ok, fair enough. But to me the vision of this country that Lin Manuel-Miranda posits—a world in which leadership and decision-making power, the power to SHAPE THE NATION is in the hands of many kinds of people—that’s the more important thing. Because in manifesting that vision onstage in front of our eyes—that production changes our image of what power looks like. What our country looks like. The power of theatre, the power that each of us holds in our hands, is the power to make manifest our vision of who we are and in so doing …..change the game.