INTERVIEW: Lisa Louttit for [PORTO]


Alicia Osyka and Joe Lui, image by Simon Pynt at Cork & Bottle, Bassendean

Perth independent theatre is at risk of being swamped by foreigners. American theatre maker Lisa Louttit has come to Perth via California, New York, and Singapore, and makes her Blue Room directorial debut with a play called [PORTO] by New York writer Kate Benson. Not only that, but the show features Singaporean-born wunderkind Joe Lui in the cast, and there are probably other nationalities involved in the production who are actively and aggressively taking all those theatre jobs away from our independent artists. So in the spirit of vigilance, we’ve decided to profile Ms. Louttit, and find out a little bit more about her theatrical activities here in Perth.*

Lisa Louttit, image supplied

Originally from Florida, Louttit is a Yale graduate in literature and theatre, which is an impressive credential to boast, but it was her extra-curricular theatre experience that really informed her education. “They had a really amazing fund there so that you could get a few hundred dollars, and every weekend there’d be 3-5 shows in dining halls and attics and squash courts, so that was my main focus rather than phenomenal academics,” she says with a laugh.

After graduating she spent a dozen or so years in New York doing experimental (devised) and traditional theatre, but she then decided to further her training, so set off to grad school at California Institute of the Arts. She said transitioning from the Northeast, where the colder climate makes for more direct, faster culture, to Southern California where things are a lot more laid back, presented a little bit of a challenge, but even more challenging was what came after. “I graduated right into the recession,” she says. “So I was still performing a lot but it was rough.”

Lisa Louttit in The Seagull, Arkadina

She managed to find a way out of the recession through a fellow CalArts friend in Singapore, who gave her a heads up that the Singapore government was investing heavily in the arts sector and suggested she come out to see what was happening. “I had a couple of interviews there which was more bites than I’d had for a long time back in the States.” Singapore opened a national arts high school, so she came on board to develop its interdisciplinary arts curriculum.

While in Singapore, she met her partner who was raised in Perth, and just before she was about to move back to the states, he suggested she come see Perth. As coincidence would have it, her boss in Singapore, Sean Tobin (who runs the M1 Festival), was also from Perth, “so I had already had this really great feeling about it. I visited here for a while and have been here two years officially.”

She started ‘poking around’ the theatre scene, seeing as much as possible, and says “I was really excited by all of the programming. It’s such a vibrant community, and so much more international than any city back home this size.” She prefers the more independent work that goes on, so she of course was interested in The Blue Room. “I’d come across Tim Minchin‘s work, and he was so great, so I was like, I’ll check that out!”

Eventually it was time for her to get her hands dirty and get involved, so she thought of her New York friend Kate Benson. “We’ve been collaborators for a long time, and she started writing maybe five years ago. She’s got a phenomenal intellect; she’s very rigorous in her work and I have a great deal of respect for her.” Benson sent her the script for [PORTO] which she read while sitting in the Blue Room bar and thought, “Ohhh, I feel like this fits. I was really interested in the possibility of the site-specific aspect.”

Joe Lui in Letters Home, image by Simon Pynt
Joe Lui in Letters Home, image by Simon Pynt

She had seen Joe Lui in his solo show Letters Home, and spurred by the coincidence of his Singaporean roots, Louttit thought he would be perfect for the narrator in [PORTO]. “The character has no name, it’s just ‘the square bracket’ [] and Kate describes him as ‘a lesser god or a person of many genders who owns a bar…[] gives people stage commandments, not stage directions,'” Louttit reads. When Louttit approached Lui about the role, he told her he wasn’t really a performer, which she says she still doesn’t believe.

In the end, Louttit says that worked in his favor because she’s interested by Lui’s non-performative qualities.”It’s not theatre-y. I’m interested in the pedestrian but also fabulous (because he is fabulous) quality that he brings.” She held auditions for the rest of the cast, which she describes as “a really cool way to meet people,” but she also went and saw a wide range of shows to find different performers. There’s a really interesting mix of performers, but it’s a very character-driven piece, so the actors she approached were really taken with the script. “That’s awesome, you know? When they feel psyched to bring something to life,” she says.

Alicia Osyka and Joe Lui, image by Simon Pynt
Alicia Osyka and Joe Lui, image by Simon Pynt

The title character [PORTO] is played by Alicia Osyka. “She’s the bomb. That’s a very American thing to say, ‘the bomb,'” she laughs again. [PORTO] is having a mid-life crisis, but since Osyka is a little young for that Louttit jokes it’s maybe a ‘quarter-life crisis.’ “I’ve been saying it’s a dramedy. It’s pretty dark. But then there are moments of overt theatricality that are a bit over-the-top. There are these naturalistic bar scenes, then there are these meta-theatrical devices. Some of those moments I find incredibly silly, but the naturalistic bar scenes, there’s an awkwardness, and people aren’t necessarily saying what they mean. I find it interesting and funny. Maybe half the audience will think it’s a drama and half the audience will think it’s a comedy. The cast asks me ‘Should I be playing it for the drama or playing for the comedy?’ and I say ‘Yes, both!'”

Sounds pretty tricky, don’t you think? Better keep an eye on Louttit and her crew.

[PORTO] opens 18 October and runs until 5 November at The Blue Room. For more information and tickets, visit the Blue Room website here.


*Author’s note: this paragraph was meant in jest. Pauline Hanson is the real culprit.