Lisa Portes heads the directing program in The Theatre School. She’s also the artistic director of the university’s Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences and a co-founder of the Latina/o Theatre Commons. In 2016, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation gave Portes the Zelda Fichandler Award, which recognizes “an outstanding director or choreographer who is transforming the regional arts landscape through singular creativity and artistry in the theatre.”

Is a director born or made?

I’d say both.

I do believe that the impulse can begin when you’re very young. When I was five, I was putting on shows in my neighborhood; directing has always been ‘true’ for me. 

Of course, having a calling doesn’t apply only to the arts. When my brother was a kid, he’d buy a pack of bubble gum for a quarter and then sell the five pieces for a quarter each. Now, he’s in finance: That was his passion. 

But even those ‘born with’ a desire to direct have to learn the craft. Some things work on a stage, some things don’t, no matter what you might envision. 

So, a director is a twinned artist: an analyst who brings a personal aesthetic to the play’s requirements, and a craftsman who interprets the text, teases out the story, understands movement—from ignition to climax—and then conceptualizes a vision. Hamlet is about many things; the director gets to decide a point of view, and then has to communicate it.

Imagination—the impulse—without craft is hooey; craft without imagination is pedantic and boring. We help our students develop both.

What qualities make a good director? 

Elinor Fuchs, who taught drama at Yale, wrote an essay “A Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play,” in which she argues that each play is its own universe, with its own rules about time, space, and social behavior. A director wants to make a whole world.

So, the first quality of a good director is imagination. You can’t teach someone to have a theatrical imagination, but if someone has it, you can encourage it, cultivate it, and grow it. And, just as important, you can teach him or her how to ‘own’ it—how to have the confidence to embrace a vision and then blow it up times 100.

Second, a director needs to master practical skills, just as a painter learns color and composition. How do you make an imaginary world ‘real’ in a restricted space? Is the stage a proscenium space, a traverse space, or an in-the-round space? Are there windows or high ceilings? How big is the audience? Each answer suggests a different approach to everything from costumes and scenery to sound and lighting. Hamlet could be staged in a glass box: Just imagine the implications! Then, during previews, the director has to be ready to adjust anything and everything based on audience reactions—that requires ‘fast-on-your-feet’ thinking and decision making.

Third, a director has to be a leader and a hustler. You have to convince a lot of people to do your version of Hamlet—the producers, designers, actors, technicians—they need to share your vision. Then, you then have to make stuff happen. But leading also means collaborating, especially in the theater; the director’s goal is to enable each person to be his or her most creative. At the end, when everything comes together, alchemy happens. 

Are these skills hard to teach?
Well, we certainly don’t do it all at once; our MFA in directing is a three-year program in which we teach skills intensively, one at a time, with some, such as leadership, woven into all the classes. We begin with text analysis because that’s when the world is imagined.

Our students get a lot of one-on-one mentoring and trial-by-fire experience. You can’t learn directing without an audience! Academic programs in directing started just about 30 years ago; before that, you learned as an apprentice. So, our students put their stories in front of people, right from the start. Doing is still the best way of learning in the theater.

Photo: Joel Moorman

The My Art series showcases the work of artists teaching at DePaul.