A Conversation with Diana E.H. Shortes
What sparked your interest in the Baroness Pontalba?
I had been working with the Living History Project, which portrays historical characters around the city during holiday seasons. I began researching the Baroness Pontalba and had all this information about this incredible woman, but the reality of the History Project is, you just end up posing for a lot of pictures with tourists. I was getting a little frustrated. Here was this powerful woman who was shot in the chest three times by her father-in-law and survived … I guess it’s kind of a downer for the holidays.
Anyway, I decided to write this piece as a part of the “Women at War” performance art workshop last fall. I have found local audiences very receptive to the story and interested in learning more about the baroness.
What struck you as most compelling about her?
Her strength and resilience. The fact that she endured what she did and not only survived, but returned to New Orleans and had the Pontalba Apartments built. A part of the piece is about comparing the city of New Orleans to the baroness. I find that she’s kind of a symbol of the resilience of the city.
That was, in part, the basis for “Ventriloquist Verses” as well, right?
There is a theme of resilience and coming back from the ashes stemming from my own experiences of the Katrina tragedy. I was here for 12 days after the levees broke. After that, I went into a very introspective place, and it took me several years to come back out of my shell. What has come out of that period is a lot of productivity. I was so positively influenced by the citizens of New Orleans and how everyone has really done what, historically, it seems people in New Orleans have always done — not allow their struggles to squash them.
Do you feel you’ve found your niche in this type of work?
I am a trained actress and have worked as an actress since I was very young. But writing my own work has always brought me a lot of satisfaction. Since Katrina, my confidence in that regard has really developed. I’ve sometimes relied on the words of other people, feeling that I didn’t have much to say myself. But especially as I tap into other strong women’s stories, my story becomes clearer. I think I have a little bit to say, and as I get older, I think my role is not just to tell my own story but to help other people come in touch with who they are.
Teaching also seems to be a priority for you, correct?
I have taught in many schools and programs across New Orleans, mainly in after-school and summer programs. New Orleans students are very receptive and ready to learn. I find that they have much more to teach me than I have to teach them. They’re just incredible.
You’ve spent only a part of your life here, but you seem to feel at home. How did that come about?
I feel I have been really, truly accepted here. The arts community has embraced me in a way that’s really encouraged me to call this my home. I’ve lived in New Orleans since 2001 — that’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I was born in Texas, and we moved around a lot.
I had the sense that New Orleans was a place where, as a performing artist, I could create my own destiny. I have many friends who went to New York or Chicago or Los Angles. That didn’t appeal to me. It seems like in New Orleans, something new is always happening, and I wanted to be a part of that. There’s also a very rich literary tradition here, and artistically, it is a very inspiring city. •