DePaul University Theatre School > On Stage > Current Season > In the Spotlight: Chicago Playworks

In the Spotlight: Chicago Playworks

Lisa Portes

Lisa Portes

ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, CHICAGO PLAYWORKS & HEAD OF MFA DIRECTING


What is the mission of Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences?

We seek to create dazzling theatre for Chicago's contemporary, urban, and multi-ethnic young audiences and their families. This series was founded as the Goodman Children's Theatre in 1925, and is the oldest continually producing children’s theatre in the Midwest. We're proud of our tradition of offering excellent programming for the children of Chicago—for almost 90 years now!

What makes it unique?

Three things make Chicago Playworks unique among Chicago's TYA (theatre for young audiences) producers. The first is our building: DePaul's historic Merle Reskin Theatre is a 1,300-seat former Broadway road-house. It was built to provide all the magic a big old Broadway musical has to offer. Therefore we are able to create larger-scale, visually dynamic productions for thousands of children and their friends who come through our doors. The second is our ticket price; because we are produced by DePaul University we are in the very fortunate position of keeping our ticket prices extremely low—certainly less than a movie. Guided by the Vincentian mission of the University, it is more important for us to provide access to theatre for as many children as possible than to make a profit. Therefore we are proud to be able to welcome children from all walks of life and to provide what is often a child's first experience in the theatre. The third thing that makes Chicago Playworks unique is our talent; with the exception of the directors (who are all professionals), all artists involved in a Chicago Playworks production—actors, designers, stage managers, crew—are students seeking their BFA or MFA degrees from The Theatre School at DePaul University. Our audiences get to see young artists at their most eager and daring tackle their craft and expand their expressivity in the unique worlds often explored in theatre for young audiences. As part of their training, our students learn the importance of inspiring young audiences and the importance of arts in education for Chicago's youth.

What is your role as Artistic Director? How might this be different because it is at a university?

As Artistic Director of Chicago Playworks my role is twofold: to curate our seasons and to represent the organization locally and nationally. Curating the season involves seeking pieces that fit our mission—which is to specifically reflect Chicago's urban, contemporary, and multi-ethnic audiences—and putting together a balanced and exciting three-show season that energizes our audiences and works with the rest of the season planning at The Theatre School. Where my role is different as part of a university is that I work with the Dean of The Theatre School, as well as the heads of Performance, Design/Tech, and Theatre Studies to ensure that the plays we select not only reflect our mission, but provide exciting opportunities for our students.

How does the city of Chicago and its people impact this series?

The city of Chicago and its people are, frankly, our primary influence. The mission of Chicago Playworks is directly defined by the community of which we are a part. When we look at potential projects, we ask ourselves: does this speak to a Chicago audience? Does this reflect our children's experience or that of their peers? Rather than perform Cinderella, for example, we put our weight behind Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans: A Salsa Musical. We look for projects that deal with issues Chicago's children may be contending with right now—a parent who has been deployed overseas, divorce, financial troubles, immigration, or just the lively life of the city—and we seek to provide opportunity for children to see themselves and their experiences reflected on our stage. In doing so we intend to communicate to Chicago's children that they and their stories matter, that we see them, that theatre is a place where we as a community wonder about and celebrate what it means to be alive in this place right now. We produce work that is relevant to Chicago's 21st century community of children and their families.

Does your professional directing experience impact your vision and work within this series? How?

My professional work impacts my vision and work within this series in so many ways. I have a great love for the buoyant experience musical theatre offers—I cut my teeth as the Associate Director of The Who's Tommy—and love to include fun and contemporary musicals within our season. I am also drawn to visually exciting and kinesthetically dynamic theatre and stories that are not always told straight on. I'd say my own aesthetic predilections are readily satisfied in Theatre for Young Audiences, which demands by its very nature visually and kinesthetically lively story-telling. And, of course, stories for children are rarely told straight on. They're always falling through time, or the fish talks, or they turn bright pink!

What is on the horizon for Chicago Playworks?

Within the next decade I'd like to see us producing more new work. Addressing a 21st century audience means creating and producing plays written for 21st century children. I'd like to see Chicago Playworks contribute to the vibrancy of the contemporary canon of work for young audiences by offering opportunities to today's playwrights to create work they might not otherwise have the means to create.


Lisa Portes serves as Head of Directing and the Artistic Director of Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences for The Theatre School. Her Chicago Playworks credits include: Barrio Grrl: A Musical by Quiara AlegrÍa Hudes, Pinkalicious by Elizabeth and Victoria Kahn, Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans: A Salsa Musical by Karen ZacarÍas, and Highest Heaven by José Cruz Gonzalez. Other recent projects include Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West (TimeLine Theatre Company), Ghostwritten (Goodman Theatre), and After A Hundred Years (Guthrie Theatre) all by Naomi Iizuka; Night Over Erzinga (by Adriana Sevahn-Nichols), Ski Dubai by Laura Jacqmin and Spare Change by Mia McCullough (First Look Repertory of New Plays, Steppenwolf Theatre), Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue by Quiara AlegrÍa Hudes (Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre at Steppenwolf), Permanent Collection by Thomas Gibbons (Northlight Theatre), The Piano Teacher by Julia Cho, Far Away by Caryl Churchill and In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks (Next Theatre), Undone by Andrea Thome and Seven Spots on the Sun by Martin Zimmerman (Victory Gardens, Ignition Festival), El Grito del Bronx by Migdalia Cruz (Latino Theatre Festival, Goodman Theatre), Offspring of the Cold War by Carlos Murillo (Walkabout Theatre), and Wilder: An Erotic Chamber Musical by Erin Cressida Wilson, Jack Herrick and Mike Craver (Playwrights Horizons, NYC). Primarily a director of new plays and musicals, her work has been seen regionally at the Kennedy Center, South Coast Repertory Theatre's Hispanic Playwrights Project, McCarter Theatre Lab, A Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Sundance Theatre Lab, the Cape Cod Theatre project, the Santa Barbara Theatre Lab, and the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference; in New York her work has been seen at Playwrights Horizons, Soho Rep, New York Theatre Workshop, the Public Theatre, the Flea Theatre and the Cherry Lane Alternative Theatre. Lisa Mounted the international productions of the Tony Award-winning musical The Who's Tommy, as its Associate Director, and also served as Associate Director for the 1st National Tour of Titanic. DePaul Showcase Series credits include Hamlet, Cloud Nine (by Caryl Churchill), Three Sisters (by Anton Chekhov), and Polaroid Stories (Naomi Iizuka). Lisa is an artistic associate at Next Theatre and Chicago Children's Theatre. Lisa lives in Bridgeport with her husband, playwright Carlos Murillo, and their two children Eva Rose and Carlos Alejandro.

  • Awards/Distinctions:

    Drama League and NEA/TCG Director's Fellowships, Fulbright/Hays Fellowship, Illinois Theatre Association Outstanding Contribution Award. Grants: DePaul University, University Researcher Grant; DePaul University Public Service Council Grant, (3) DePaul University Quality of Instruction Grants.

  • Degree/Education:

    BA (with Honors) Oberlin College; MFA in Directing, University of California - San Diego

  • Member of the DePaul faculty since:

    2000