Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1994
Talk about strange bedfellows. It’s the most eyebrow-raising theater coupling of the year: the Sledge-men and the E-woman. The often-accused-of-misogyny Sledgehammer Theatre is co-producing a San Diego premiere with the feminist-leaning Theatre E. The play is written by a woman, directed by a woman. And, considering the circumstances, it has an appropriate title: “Cross-Dressing in the Depression” (opening June 16 at St. Cecilia’s on Sixth Avenue).
Lisa Portes directs. As artistic director of Theatre E, Portes clearly stands behind her two year-old company’s mission statement: “We are committed,” it reads, “to a new diversity.”
“I think it’s a good thing for women to be in St. Cecilia’s,” says the black-clad, petite Portes, who, at 27, has the smart, saucy look of a gamine. “It’s kind of a kick. I think the Sledge guys are great. We have different interests. But they’ve been promoting alternative work in town for years. They laid the groundwork for us. I have a lot of respect and admiration for them…. But guys are guys. They’re entitled to the way they think. In theater, it’s not about competition. What’s important is to have a wide array of possibilities. And there’s a lot of juice here right now. A strong desire for a strong arts community in San Diego.”
Portes has contributed to the growth and diversity of San Diego theater. She arrived here in 1991, to attend the MFA program in directing at UCSD. Before she formed her own alternative theater company, she worked under some very impressive director/mentors: Des McAnuff, Walton Jones, Robert Woodruff, Athol Fugard, Andrei Serban, John Tillinger. During her training, she was assistant director to Des McAnuff on “Elmer Gantry”, “Three Sisters” and “Fortinbras”. After graduation, she was on a Drama League Director’s Fellowship in New York when McAnuff called her back to assistant direct “The Who’s Tommy”. She was re-engaged for the Broadway production and the First National Tour. Not bad for a first professional job.
It was actually a kind of fluke that Portes came to San Diego. Fresh out of Oberlin College (with honors in Theatre), she was awarded a Fullbright-Hays Fellowship and was scheduled to go to Colombia, South America. But the drug wars broke out and the State Department canceled her trip. She came to UCSD, where “Walt (Jones) was my major supporter. Des (McAnuff) and Robert Woodruff were my major influences. They’re so disparate, but both are tremendously insightful and specific thinkers. From them I learned that, whether you’re doing hard core alternative theater or musical theater, you need a heightened creation of moments in telling a story.”
Portes has definitely shown that she can create moments. Her 1993 Theatre E direction of “Carthage/Fire” by talented local playwright Naomi Iizuka, was inventive, kinetic, exciting.
“I feel that, in Southern California specifically, and in most of America, theater is a big question mark right now. People associate it with opera — intimidating, expensive. “Carthage” drew a lot of people who don’t go to the theater, because we brought it to them… We have to go out into the community, keep ticket prices down, convey the idea that theater is part of everybody’s world. I want to be able to pop up anywhere.”
Now she’s popping up at St. Cecilia’s, directing a dreamy, non-linear, three-character memory piece (“Cross-Dressing in the Depression”) that’s been on her mind ever since she saw it in New York in 1992. When she met with the playwright, Erin Cressida Wilson, Portes learned that, at first, “Erin thought cross-dressing meant something different. As a child, she had seen a Playboy picture of a man and woman exchanging clothing. She thought of it as a metaphor for love, of merging with another person. That’s a beautiful metaphor.
“I found the play to be an incredibly moving celebration of contact — physical, emotional and spiritual. It’s a very sexual piece. And I really want to play with the idea of merging. I’m interested in seeing if these three people (a woman/girl; a man in his younger and older incarnations), these three identities, begin to merge and become confused, into one identity. It’s not about cross-casting one specific role, but allowing for actors to move through.”
Moving is something Portes knows a great deal about. She’s lived in five states and two South American countries. Her father, a sociology professor, was a political refugee from Havana, and her mother, a psychologist, was an American Air Force brat. Moving from parent to parent (they divorced when Lisa was seven), she grew accustomed to “very intense encounters with people over a short period of time. That’s why I’m in theater. It terrifies me to stay in one place. It’s a big step to plant my feet in the ground with Theatre E.”
Her goal for the company is “to continue to promote and foster challenging, innovative work that’s grappling with difficult and crunchy things… Dive-bombing the world, not ghettoizing alternative theater. I want to continue to do theater in big, aggressive ways… Theater E and Sledgehammer? I hope we feed each other. Right now, both genders are strong, with powerful points of view. I’m psyched for “that” human race.”
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.