Catherine Porter hesitated to take the job that changed her life. Originally from Texas, she always knew she wanted a theater career. But when she got to New York a few years out of college, she found herself in an experimental play — something much different than what she had done before. That risk opened new doors for her, and led to years of experience in every aspect of theatre you could imagine. Now the co-president of the League of Professional Theatre Women, she has some advice for younger women pursuing any type of professional dream: "be bold."
We asked Porter about how she made it in the notoriously difficult New York City art sphere. Then, she shared the importance of female mentorship, following your passions and, of course, taking risks.
Fairygodboss of the Week: Catherine Porter
Co-president, League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW)
Tell us a little about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
When I was in 3rd grade, my grandmother enrolled me in Saturday morning acting classes at the Lubbock, Texas Little Theater and I was immediately hooked! I acted in plays throughout high school and college, and knew I wanted a theater career. After college, I also ran the box office of a regional theater for several years, before following my sweetheart — and my childhood acting dreams — to New York.
I’d been in NYC three whole days when a friend called and asked if I wanted to be in the ensemble of a play he was stage managing. Looking back, I can’t believe I hesitated (even if I only hesitated briefly). The production was a whole new world. I’d never heard of site-specific theater before, I’d never read or seen anything like this experimental play and I’d never imagined exploring every nook and cranny of a former Broadway theater. The production became a huge hit, and had celebrities in the audience every night. I met wonderful folks, I got my union card and it entirely changed the kind of work I wanted to do.
A few years later, I founded Peculiar Works Project, a site-specific performance company, with two partners. Not long after, I started working for the venerable downtown performance venue Dixon Place, and then later at the fabulous space HERE. I worked in just about every aspect of those organizations. I joined the League of Professional Theatre Women in 2011 and served with the welcome committee as treasurer. Now, it's my great honor to be co-president.
What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?
I am particularly proud of the Obie Award that Peculiar Works Project won for creating, developing, and producing the performance event OFFSTAGE: THE WEST VILLAGE FRAGMENTS. This performance paid tribute to the pioneering artists and spaces of off-off broadway in the 1960s. Peculiar Works commissioned more than a dozen directors to tackle short excerpts of groundbreaking plays that had premiered in the West Village at that time, and then we sculpted a walking tour to take audiences on a journey back in time and to each of the locations (most of them no longer theater venues) where they saw parts of shows that they could have seen there 50 years before. It was huge — there were more than 75 artists involved — and I acted in it as well!
What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
I worked at Dixon Place for more than 18 years, starting out as an assistant, then the development director, then even filling in for the executive director when she went on sabbatical. I loved the organization — and still do. But after working there for all that time and helming a big capital campaign to build a new theater, I had to come to terms with the fact that I needed to take the plunge and move on to find a new work challenge.
After so many years of asking for money as a fundraiser, it occurred to me that I might like to work on the giving side. I began perusing job listings and applied to work as the administrator at The Scherman Foundation. I hit it off with the staff, and now I've been at the Foundation for over four years. I'm the director of operations, and I love the work. Plus, there's great overlap with the work with the League, especially the focus both organizations have on equity and inclusion. I'm really glad I took the plunge.
Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? and Why?
Heavens, there are LOTS! But I guess I'd say Kristin Marting. Not only is she Artistic Director of the downtown performance venue HERE — where she presents and produces hundreds of artists each year in two different theater spaces — but she is also an amazing director and a mom! She was my boss for a few years, and she was great; she is so positive and forward-thinking. She was co-president of LPTW several years back as well, and was great at that, too, moving the organization forward at a time when it really needed it. Big shoes to fill!
What do you do when you're not working?
Well, since I'm at the Foundation during the day, and doing the League of Professional Theatre Women and Peculiar Works Project at night and on weekends, there's not a lot of time when I'm not working! Mostly, it's hanging out with my husband - we could be sitting around reading the paper (or our phones), or going to see performances (okay, that's sort of working), going to one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants or bars, or just walking around the city we love.
If you could have dinner with one famous person - dead or alive - who would it be?
Wow, so many! Ok: the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the German avant-garde poet and libertine from the early 20th Century whose entire life was a performance. She's sometimes been credited with having the original idea for Dada artist Marcel Duchamp's infamous sculpture, "Fountain" (a urinal with a fake signature on it that was famously rejected by an important exhibition). Even if that isn't true, Duchamp said of the Baroness, "She is the future."
Lightning Round: What is your karaoke song?
"Nothing Compares 2 U" — the Sinead O'Connor version.
Lightning Round: What is your favorite movie?
Ok, it's a bit of a cliche, but "To Kill a Mockingbird." For all of the issues that we're more aware of now around race and the "white savior complex," it's still such a sublime film from the moment Elmer Bernstein's gentle score begins playing over the first shots of childhood toys. Perhaps even because we're more aware now, the film (and the book before it) seems to capture the ugliness, the innocence and the yearning of our country and culture.
Lightning Round: What book would you bring with you on a desert island?
Well, my favorite book is probably still John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany." I read it when I first moved to New York, and it made me sob on the subway. That's a good one. But I think I'd take "Don Quixote." It's got everything: it's comic, it's tragic, it's an adventure, it's a love story, it's experimental and it's good storytelling. Peculiar Works did a big performance piece based on episodes from "Don Quixote" a number of years ago and I just adore it.
Lightning Round: What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?
I really like hanging out on those second-hand clothing websites like ThredUp and The RealReal. I could spend a fortune there given half a chance. If I won the lottery, though, I'd buy my husband and I airline tickets for all of my bucket list trips: Macchu Pichu, Angkor Wat, Karnak, Petra, Easter Island, the list goes on. I wanted to be an archeologist as a kid and still have a strong pull toward that kind of adventure.
What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you?
Be bold. Go out and join or volunteer for different organizations in your field or your community. Do anything that interests you, even if you don't know anyone already involved. If you find that it's not a great fit for you or that you don't have time (here's where it's important to know your limits!), you'll at least be able to cross that off your list. Plus, you'll probably meet some interesting people who could be great as either friends or connections along the way.
Why do you love where you work?
I love working at the League because I am surrounded by strong, committed women who are making a difference in the world of theater. They are the self-starters who have the energy and ideas to change the industry at every level. They have the desire to support each other through programs and networking, plus they have the passion to advocate for women throughout the theater field. Therefore, my job is to facilitate their work and sort of get out of the way!
I am also really grateful to my co-president, Kelli Lynn Harrison, whose term precedes me by a year, meaning she has the knowledge to help me figure out how to do this. And I'm grateful to our Administrative Director, Lizzy Bryce, who actually does everything for the League.