Lisa Portes on displacement, belonging, and the American Dream

Acclaimed Chicago director Lisa Portes visited Cal Shakes this spring for auditions and meetings in anticipation for her upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie. She sat down with Alicia Coombes, Publications Manager, to discuss her preliminary ideas and thoughts—what follows is edited and condensed for clarity.

Alicia Coombes: Why The Glass Menagerie, right now? What make this particular production special?

Lisa Portes: When Eric asked me about it sometime last summer, I was very excited about it. I’ve always loved Williams, and what I love particularly about this play is that it’s about a group of people who are displaced in their time and in their place.

In terms of [the matriarch] Amanda, she came from an elite family in the south, ran off with the wrong guy, and now finds herself a single mother in St. Louis in the middle of the Depression. Laura has a disability, Tom is gay, and there’s no place for any of them in the world that they live in. Yet they’re all dreamers. Amanda’s dreaming of past glory, Laura miniaturizes herself into a world where a unicorn lives with horses and “they all get along perfectly, Tom is dreaming of a world where he can be who he is, —actually all of them are dreaming of a world in which they can be who they are, but who they are doesn’t fit the American Dream.

So I was interested in that idea, and then the election happened, and then I became even more interested in the idea of people who are displaced against an American Landscape. In this production, Amanda is played by an African-American woman. The story that we’re working on is that the kids’ father was Mexican (in the play he runs off to Mexico), and so we’re pushing what Williams was already doing by exploring who is displaced in this landscape right now, in a very real way. What I love about doing it here is that we are literally doing it against an American landscape: it’s outside, up against the California hills, which I love.

In terms of telling the story, [I’m interested in] who has access, who belongs, who is trying to find their way in a world that is often hostile to who they actually are. All of the characters are dreaming of a world in which they can be their authentic selves. I already felt that way, and after the election it only became more pressing, especially with the rhetoric that was coming out of the campaign.

AC: Regarding your casting choices: is this something you’ve wanted to explore in The Glass Menagerie in particular?

LP: All of my work puts women or people of color or women of color at the center—it’s just part of my personal mission as a Latina director, moving stories of women and people of color to the center. So when I started thinking of The Glass Menagerie, I began to imagine who Amanda might be. The tradition of African-American debutantes dates back to the turn of the last century, early 1900’s. So I began to think, she could exist: Amanda as an African-American woman could exist, and that she ran off with the wrong guy (and that he left her) puts her under even greater pressure to try to set things right. I became interested in that story; I became interested in her husband being Mexican (because as described he leaves them all and runs off to Mexico). The idea of that coupling, and the children that came out of that relationship, became very interesting to me.

AC: Dramaturgically, because you can’t change any of Williams’ words, are you running into anything that’s problematic, that you and the actors will need to solve in the rehearsal room, with regard to the text?

LP: Amanda as an African-American woman is tricky perhaps for some. On the one hand, folks might think there couldn’t possibly be a black former debutante in the U.S. in the 1930s.

But the thing is she could and did exist. Our cultural brainpan mistakenly associates color with class, and assumes that color always [signifies] working class, poor, impoverished. Elite African-American culture has existed primarily invisibly since the late 1800s. One of the first black millionaires was actually a woman, Madame C. J. Walker! It’s important to know that, yes, an African-American Amanda Wingfield who came from an elite upper-class community in the South in 1910’s is absolutely viable.

On the other, Amanda says some racially problematic things in the text and they are indeed problematic. Every elite class has its appropriate and inappropriate ways of thinking of the folks that enjoy less privilege. There is colorism in the world of this Amanda Wingfield. What we do know is elitism in any culture comes at a cost, and she’s not above it. I don’t want Amanda’s problematic elitism to be the obstacle for ever casting a brilliant black actress as Amanda.

Another question I’m exploring in this production is: how do we reimagine who Americans are when we think of The Glass Menagerie? How do we reimagine the classic American landscape? How do we re-envision who is at the center of our classical canon in this country? That’s exciting to me in thinking of who Amanda could be, and who her kids could be, and who the Gentleman Caller could be.

AC: How do you see this play engaging with the idea of “The American Dream”?

LP: There have always been marginalized people in this country. The relationship to the American Dream is tenuous. Things have been shifting toward greater inclusivity and an awareness of equity and inclusivity, certainly in the American theater. I thought as a nation we were all moving towards greater equity, inclusion, and access to everything the American Dream has to offer. I mean, it hasn’t been perfect, God knows; when I was imagining this play, Obama was still our president and we were still deporting people, there was still racism, the Black Lives Matter movement began under his presidency. BUT then came this wave of campaign rhetoric, which deliberately targeted, othered and threatened very specific groups of people . And immediately post-election, we really began to see who got a seat at the table. Literally, who’s in the Cabinet? Well, the false sense of safety about an inclusive future certainly shattered.

So when it becomes as profoundly and visually apparent that certain people get access and certain people don’t, despite the fact that we’re all Americans. When you see folks now literally in fear for their lives and their livelihoods and their children—well many folks’ connection to the great American Dream is quite fragile. That to me is the center of the fragility in this play.

AC: Amanda started with way more choices than she ended up with.

LP: Yeah, as an African-American woman, her class buffered her, but since she no longer has class in this play, she no longer has access to those resources. Her access to the American Dream as a single black mother in the 1930s in the north, Laura’s access as a young disabled woman of color, Tom’s as a gay man of color—they’re all compromised. Jim, an able-bodied, straight man of color in this production, has found a way in, actually. He has a kind of optimism, but he also understands what it means to be othered. He’s not just a dorky guy going “all you gotta do is believe,” in this production he speaks to Laura from a place of connection.

AC: How are you addressing The Glass Menagerie as a “memory play”?

LP: I think when we think of Tennessee Williams we have this cultural archetype of gauziness, and sentimentality—and Tennessee Williams says himself, through Tom, that it’s a sentimental play. But I’m keyed more into the idea of memory. For myself and the designers: when you think about how you remember, you don’t remember “gauzily.” If you think about how you remember, you remember this detail on a blurry landscape, but this detail is very distinct.

So two things have affected the design: the idea of displacement, and the idea of memory as a memory-scape on which certain objects—pieces of clothing, people—appear. So you’ll see in the design that it’s quite an abstracted space like the plane of memory. It starts blank, and is formed as Tom begins to form his memory and as Amanda begins to try to shape the world around her. The actors are pulling pieces onto the set, so by the end you get a sense of most of the pieces, but they’re the pieces as Tom remembers them. The clothing they wear is not realistic with costume changes: he remembers this sweater that his mom used to wear, or that hat. We’re really using that idea of memory, instead of gauzy memories. It’s not like Salvador Dali, because that’s surreal, but think of that landscape, and objects on that landscape.

And then displacement: everything moves, all the pieces move, there is no resting place for anything, the father’s portrait isn’t hung on the wall, it kind of is picked up by Tom and then is set against a wall, so nobody has a place, everything can easily come out from under them.

What Annie’s come up with is a quite surprising [scenic] design in that it’s just not what you expect when you think of Williams. There’s nothing on the stage when you come in. You see pieces on either side, and then those pieces as they come to life in Tom’s memory, coming into the playing space.

Also, I wanted to highlight the hills behind the playing space, so we didn’t want to create a wall. I do believe that Tom shares the same space with the audience. He’s not in another space when he’s talking to us.

AC: Thanks so much for talking with me about The Glass Menagerie! I’m looking forward to seeing it as it develops. Any last thoughts for us?

LP: It’s a real science project, as I keep referring to it. Both in terms of the casting process and the design for this play plus performing outside! How do you do a four-character play on a big huge outdoor stage!? There have been a number of really fascinating challenges to try to create this Glass Menagerie— and I’m really excited to see how it all turns out! I have a series of hypotheses that we’re testing, and we’ll see, but I’m very thrilled about it. If it comes together like I think it will it’ll be a really fascinating production.

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Stay tuned for further details about casting and creative team for this production. The Glass Menagerie plays from July 5-30. Tickets available here

Lisa Portes is a Chicago-based director. She is a co-founder of the Latinx Theatre Commons and serves on the board of Theatre Communications Group.  Portes heads the MFA directing program at The Theatre School at DePaul University.

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Arden: coming home through where we’ve never been before

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

Decades ago my husband bought some land with a bunch of fellow-hippies in Mendocino, and we often go up there. When you wake in the night, the sky is coal-black, studded with stars. You might be surprised at a steady thud in the air, until you realize that in the unfathomable quiet you are listening to your own heartbeat. We are very solitary there —it’s a place of peace and renewal for us both, where we read and write, plant vegetables and harvest them, if the mice don’t get to them first.

We wonder—if we lived there permanently, would we shift from our state of intense privacy to share in the intrigues, news, gossip, community byways and through-lines, that are a part of any human group? But for now, what we feel there is the brief retreat from one world we love to another quite different one.

The woods in Boonville are our forest of Arden of sorts—but you don’t need a forest to make an Arden. Arden is a place, but more truly it’s a state of being. In As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is a place of exile, for some a banishment and for others a place of escape: for characters turned out of home, or alienated from it. But the amazing thing about dramatizing exiles is that they are on their way to being something else.

The figure of the “stranger in a strange land” haunts us from Exodus through to The Odyssey (look out for this theme in black odyssey, our stunning third play of the season) through to As you Like It. And as exiles, our characters search for home—whether it’s the place they once knew, or a new home, a self and relationships that are in some way recreated, resolved or renewed. This is what they dream of, anyway, as exiles. In a way I think the whole of America is currently in exile—many more people are literally turned out of their homes, lined along the street, huddled under blankets, whether in shame or despair or sheer escape from the cold. And there will be more. It is dangerous and frightening; the promise of renewal seems distant and faded. All the more reason to evoke it, to remember what it looks like, to insist on its possibility, through art.

As You Like It begins performances May 24 and continues through June 18.
Click here to learn more and buy tickets!

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Ask Philippa: As You Like It

ask-philippa-othelloAs You Like It is in some ways Shakespeare’s most ambitious play. It follows a group of exiles—some banished, some running away—all of whom leave home to journey to the forest of Arden, finding en route a new home of sorts.  And then there are the banishers in whose hearts “exile” lives: they are given a chance for renewal and a kind of plentitude that they didn’t know existed. Written in Shakespeare’s mature years just before the great span of tragedies, As You Like It features Rosalind, perhaps his greatest female role to date, a character who would, in another age and time, make a very effective lawyer or theatrical director. Rosalind provokes the other characters —and herself—to consider unshackling themselves from social straitjackets: what’s left behind? What is revealed?

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

As You Like It begins performances May 24 and continues through June 18. Click here to learn more and buy tickets!

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A Sunny Day in Ashland

by Philippa Kelly

A sunny day in Ashland, Oregon. A cup of black coffee (director Desdemona Chiang) and a pot of tea (me). Two people sitting in a café, brainstorming about what kind of infant is to be born, raised, and, within a month, sent out into the world as a full-grown being: As You Like It, Shakespeare’s mid-career exploration of greed, abandonment, ambition, the gift of contemplative peace, and the mysterious fact that no human being is beyond redemption.

“I’ve got two big ideas,” says Desdemona, “And I want you to talk me off the ledge or help me jump.”

So, while the sun filters out over the hills of Ashland, we talk about how these ideas might shape what we are about to prepare for our season opener at the Bruns. Desdemona’s first question: “Who is Rosalind in 2017? Who can she become? I want to have her do something more interesting than stepping back into a dress.”

Four hundred years of history have had Shakespeare’s Rosalind breaking out of the restrictions of court life into the Forest of Arden—in boy’s clothes, as Ganymede, Jove’s beautiful male page; using her newly-engendered (and regendered) freedom to go for broke, quickly arranging four marriages (including her own) with wit and wisdom. I’m intrigued by Desdemona’s question. Why must Rosalind step back once more into those old girl-clothes, content to live as wife and mother, looking back at the character of Ganymede as a brief dream of borrowed power? How about we consider that Rosalind actually likes her inner Ganymede? Enough to want to embrace him, to be both Ganymede and Rosalind? Why must she choose? Can she have both?

And what might this vision require of Orlando, Rosalind’s lover? Perhaps he can “come home,” too, to a place he’s never been before. Because despite all the long-winded poems he writes to Rosalind, Orlando does love Ganymede, his rubious lips and excellent complexion, his wit, his playfulness, his lawyer-like precision.

“I’ve always wondered why Rosalind suddenly jumps at the idea of dressing like a man”, says Desdemona. “It’s as if she seizes this surprise moment as an opportunity for liberation, something that feels inspiring to her.” So, as we kick back in the sun, Desdemona and I talk about what this can mean: what we can gain by keeping Ganymede with us; and what we might lose. Duke Senior, banished to the forest, can get his longed-for daughter back again—but not as she was. He’ll get Ganymede. And if, with him, we’ve been through the Forest of Arden—a symbolic “everywhere”, where the mind is opened and expanded, enriched and deepened, where the thrumming heartbeat of humanity replaces the drum beat of the city—“now” can be even better.

Our next big question…but we’ve run out of time. And so, after I’ve finished rehearsals that day with OSF’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, we plan a 5 pm meeting on my way to the airport—this time at our Ashland’s Liquid Assets, to lubricate, via wine, our expanding imaginations. “I’m interested in what the forest can mean,” says Desdemona. “Celia’s line: ‘I willingly would waste my time in it.’ It’s as if the forest is a place out-of-time.’” What if we invert the play’s city/vernal opposition, making Arden a place of transformation that speaks to our Bay Area today? Oakland is where Desdemona’s imagination has landed: not Oakland the place of gentrification, a cheaper real estate for urban dreams and aspirations; but the place of exile, the 24-hour hum of the streets, people surviving on very little under freeways and in abandoned lots.

Can Oakland be our Arden? We need a world where we can invite our audience into mystery and transformation—a place both familiar and strange, a place within whose rhythms the straitjacketed world of business and finance feels like a dream, far away. Money has no value in the forest—you can’t eat it. But love does. Compassion does. And a simple banquet, open to all, at a makeshift table under a bridge or in a park with rusty swings.

As You Like It begins performances May 24 and continues through June 18.
Click here to learn more and buy tickets!

Posted in 2017 Season, As You Like It, By Philippa Kelly (dramaturg), Main Stage | 6 Comments

Announcing the Cast & Creative Team of As You Like It!

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We are pleased to announce the full creative team & cast of As You Like It.
Rehearsals began Tuesday with introductions, designer presentations, and the first read-through.

Click below to see photos from the first rehearsal! AYLI MG wDes

CREATIVE TEAM
Director—DESDEMONA CHIANG
Scenic Designer—NINA BALL
Costume Designer—MELISSA TORCHIA
Lighting Designer—MASHA TSIMRING
Sound Design—SHARATH PATEL
Resident Fight Director—DAVE MAIER
Movement Choreographer—STACEY PRINTZ
Music Director/Transcriptionist—ELTON BRADMAN
Lynne Soffer–TEXT/VOCAL COACH
Stage Manager—DEIRDRE ROSE HOLLAND
Assistant Stage Manager—CHRIS WATERS

CAST
Duke Frederick, Duke Senior—JAMES CARPENTER
Audrey—PATTY GALLAGHER
Silvius—WILLIAM THOMAS HODGSON
Phebe—LISA HORI-GARCIA
Touchstone, Adam—WARREN DAVID KEITH
Oliver—CRAIG MARKER
Orlando—PATRICK RUSSELL
Celia—MARYSSA WANLASS
Rosalind—JESSIKA D. WILLIAMS
Jaques—JOMAR TAGATAC

The Actors and Stage Managers employed in this production are members of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.

Read the whole press release for As You Like It here.

As You Like It runs from May 24 through June 18.
Order Today!

 

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Othello Tour: Community Response

Last season’s Othello was one of the most talked about productions in Cal Shakes history. After 29 performances reaching almost 13,000 people at the Bruns last fall (including five student matinees), the conversation didn’t end. Othello went on to tour to 8 community sites throughout the Bay Area, including the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California. See how the show translated to these more intimate settings, and how audiences responded to the piece.

 

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Guiding Star Award Recipient Bill Rauch: Keynote Address

The following is the text of Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch’s acceptance speech, given at our Inaugural Guiding Star Awards Gala, on March 4, 2017.

~~~~~~~

Thank you, Eric, for that beautiful introduction. I am so grateful to you and Susie and everyone from Cal Shakes for this honor. It’s a special treat to be here tonight along with my colleagues who are the recipients of the first-ever Luminary Awards.

I want to acknowledge my colleague Alison Carey, who is here tonight. When the two of us co-founded Cornerstone Theater Company over 30 years ago, we had a hunch that we wanted to test: we would make better art and become better artists ourselves if we created our work in collaboration with communities. We spent our first five years adapting some of the greatest hits of the Western dramatic canon including several Shakespeare plays to the realities of isolated low-income rural communities across the United States, involving 20 to 50 first-time actors onstage alongside our small ensemble. We then moved to Los Angeles to begin to build bridges within and between diverse urban communities. This work was life-changing for all of us, and completely made me the artist and arts leader that I became.

After 20 years as Cornerstone’s artistic director, I realized that I wanted to contribute to an institution that worked on a larger scale for a larger audience, but that once again had classics and new work and an acting company at the heart of the work. I was blessed to find all that I was looking for when I was appointed the fifth artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

This is my tenth anniversary season as the Festival’s artistic director. As we’ve tried to shift our large-scale classical theater into being more inclusive, more equitable and more dynamic, we’ve tried many experiments. We’ve built on OSF’s long-held tradition of casting diverse actors (in fact, our acting company is currently 62% actors of color), experimenting with culturally-specific approaches to Shakespeare texts including a largely Latino Measure for Measure, a Comedy of Errors set in the Harlem Renaissance, a Trolius and Cressida with production parallels to the Iraq War, and a Winter’s Tale set in Dynastic China as well as a mythical U.S. West Coast. We have expanded our very definition of the classical canon to include Sanskrit, Nigerian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican and Korean dramatic and literary traditions. Inspired by the scale and scope of Shakespeare’s history plays and the number of plays in the canon, we’re commissioning 37 new American plays about moments of change in United States history; in less than a decade, that cycle called American Revolutions has yielded a greater bounty of influential new plays than we ever dreamed possible.

We’ve also tried to take the time to reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing and to write it down. We’ve created a values statement for our repertory acting company. When some of our colleagues sensed that our executive director and I were not on the same page about OSF audiences, we challenged ourselves to create an Audience Development Manifesto, spelling out the four pillars of new audiences that we wanted to reach to strengthen and build on our core audience.

And a few years ago, with the help of a lot of my smart colleagues—including our extraordinary Repertory Producer Mica Cole, who’s also here tonight– I wrote a set of guiding principles for how we approach our namesake playwright at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I wanted every artist working at our theater to be able to see spelled out clearly in black and white what the assumptions are that we make about Shakespeare, and to understand our ‘house style’ when it comes to producing his work.

Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to capture the human experience with his characters, themes and especially his language may mean that he belongs to all ages and cultures, but the fact is, we are producing him in the United States in the 21st century. We need to be rigorous in our efforts to make connections between the plays of this radically populist author and the messy experiment that is our American democracy. And how do we reconcile the paradox that Shakespeare is often used as an elitist tool to make others feel intellectually inadequate, that the Shakespeare industry has been used too often to uphold the white supremacy that continues to hold back our country from achieving its full potential, with the equally true phenomenon that no writer in the English language has ever more fully explored the breadth of society and the complexity of the human heart, that in fact a spirit of aesthetic and spiritual and even political revolution seethes under the very words of his plays?

Dr. King talked about “the fierce urgency of now.” Whatever your political point of view, I imagine that most if not all of you will agree with me that we live in a moment of increased polarization, often destructive rhetoric and with desperately high stakes for the future of our democracy and even our planet. WWWSD: What would William Shakespeare do, right now? The good news is that we don’t need to waste a moment mourning his death four hundred and one years ago. William Shakespeare is right here with us, at the institutions that Eric and I are lucky enough to lead and that you are lucky enough to support.

I understand that Cal Shakes is in the midst of a strategic planning process to further refine your mission and vision. My brilliant husband Chris, who is here tonight and to whom I owe most everything good in my life, has directed two shows at your fine institution. I have long enjoyed conversations with Jon Moscone and now Eric, admiring your past and current artistic leaders as profound thinkers and innovative artists. From all these experiences, I know that OSF and Cal Shakes share an ever-growing understanding that social impact must be on equal footing with artistic excellence. Our fears may sometimes make us want to artificially separate them, but if my 30-plus year career has taught me nothing else, it is that social relevance and artistic achievement are inextricably tied, are two sides of the same coin.

In fact, as you endeavor to weave more inclusive voices from your communities into the very fabric of your art-making, you are pulling off what my teenage son the soccer player would call a hat trick: you are simultaneously being more responsible stewards of a literary legacy that is now in its fifth century, you are protecting the foundations of our own country’s democratic traditions that are approaching the 250 year old mark, and you are actively strengthening the foundation of the future for all our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will see the triumphs and disasters of their times accurately reflected in the glorious words of William Shakespeare. Both our organizations’ shared commitment to education is especially vital when it comes to those future generations.

It’s pretty darned exciting, when you think about it, what we all get to do together as lovers of the classical canon and believers in the potential of our own society. I’m a lucky guy that I get to be on this journey with all of you in this room, and I feel humbled that you’ve honored me tonight for merely walking down that path alongside so many of you.

As Eric and I can both attest, what we do as leaders of non-profit classic theaters is often really hard. An acknowledgment like this award will help my heart on the most challenging days to come. For that and for so many others reasons, I thank you.

 

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