PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Portia

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Portia It's not easy to assume a leading role in a play that has already won every prize in the book.
Portia
Portia

But Portia, the single-named actress most familiar to New York theatre audiences from her work with the LAByrinth Theatre Company, has taken on the challenge. The Drama Desk Award nominee joined the cast of Lynn Nottage's oft-extended, Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined May 26 at New York City Center – Stage I. She talked to Playbill.com about her latest challenge.

Playbill.com: How did you come to be cast in Ruined?
Portia: I auditioned. In fact, I had done a reading of Ruined as part of LAByrinth's Barn Series, and right away I knew the power of the play. I remember saying, "This has wings! I have to do this piece." Though I wasn't cast originally I still felt a deep connection to the play. The window of opportunity opened when the role needed to be recast and I was asked to come in and read.

Playbill.com: Were you familiar with Lynn Nottage's work before this?
P: Oh yes!! I did a production of Crumbs from the Table of Joy, directed by Reggie Montgomery, that was produced by Arizona Theater Company and Dallas Theater Center. I played the role of Lilly Ann Green, and I believe that was when I started to come into my own. I understand the women that Lynn brings to life on the page. Her writing is so accessible and layered and beautiful and very, very familiar to me. Everything you need is on the page.

Playbill.com: Is there any added pressure for you as an actor taking up a role in a play that has won the Pulitzer Prize?
P: Yes and no. I knew that I needed to step in and tell the story and not drop the ball. I also needed to bring me to the piece as well. I had seen the play several times, and the ensemble work was so tight and on point I knew I couldn't bring anything less than my A game. The most important element is the story... it's not an easy story to tell. The ensemble made it look effortless. So I had to release the fear of all that surrounded the piece from the outside and take a leap of faith. I also had to trust that [director] Kate [Whoriskey] and Lynn knew what they were doing when they hired me.

Playbill.com: As an actor, is it difficult to place yourself in a culture and place so distant and different from our own?
P: No, it all begins with the human condition. My job as an actor is to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances... the beauty in this piece is that the circumstances are not imaginary. In truth the culture and place are not so far from us — I think that is a comfortable place we go in order to not take responsibility for what is going on in the world. Playbill.com: Is a production written by and directed by women a different experience for you as an actor than one written and directed by a man?
P: Not really. Genius, brilliance, understanding, sensitivity and the ability to communicate are not defined by gender. I have had the opportunity to work with amazing writers and directors men and women.

Playbill.com: You're a member of LAByrinth Theatre Company. Do you anticipate any changes in the company with the arrival of the new artistic directors?
P: Certainly. The company has chosen three of its family members to lead us in the next leg of our journey. It isn't the first time we've had a "changing of the guards" and now Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and John [Ortiz] can go back to being part of the family unit and assist those who are taking on these roles as head of the family. I anticipate wonderful things; they all have an intense love and commitment to the company/family which is why they were chosen.

Playbill.com: Some members of LAByrinth do more than one thing with the company. Do you have any desire to direct or write plays?
P: I have dabbled in directing some scenes for the company and love it. I have a secret desire to write but haven't quite found my voice just yet. I really enjoy coaching and often lead some of LAByrinth's Master Classes and when time allows you can also find me at Black Nexxus. In all honesty though, I still get a bigger thrill out of giving voice and breathing life into what someone else has written on the page.