"For most of my career as an artist and teacher, I have held firmly to the belief that Theatre's fundamental function is to put us in relationship with one another, inspiring a sense of community. As current events shake the foundations of communities around the world, I find myself increasingly committed to Theatre not only as a means of self-expression but also as an essential condition for the creation and rejuvenation of community."
Valerie Curtis-Newton is currently the Head of Performance - Directing at the University of Washington School of Drama, and serves as the Founding Artistic Director for The Hansberry Project, a professional African American theatre lab. The Salon’s Artistic Director, Margaret O’Donnell, interviewed her for this article.
Salon: When and why did you choose directing as your primary theatre art?
VCN: I was a sophomore in college and a professor suggested I try directing. I thought for a while that acting would be my way into theatre, but my mind was constantly working to solve the larger puzzle. Once I got a taste of directing, it sort of took over my creative ambition.
Salon: You list “passion projects – the ones I’d kill to do” on your website. What draws you to these plays? Is there a common theme, style, or language?
VCN: I have come to realize that I am drawn to pieces in which a character, usually a woman, finds her voice. I also get excited by people or communities holding on to each other through adversity. You might say that I'm a sucker for resilience.
Salon: You write that “I want my community to … sit together and hear some new stories… I want them to be changed…I want them to really see each other and to move through the world with greater kindness, greater compassion for each other. And because kindness and compassion in action look like courage, I want to make my community brave.” How have you seen this work in your life and career? When has it worked best? What does a play need in order to begin this transformation?
VCN: There is a saying that courage is the virtue that makes all other virtues possible. One can't exercise any virtue without a modicum of courage. Through art, I have seen work create conversations where there were none. Dialogues across difference taking place to open the lines for communication, persuasion and debate. All of these are conditions necessary for change to occur. It has worked best when the work was most honest. WEDDING BAND and TROUBLE IN MIND are two examples of powerful, truth-telling plays that had an impact in the community. The audiences were as diverse as any I've witnessed here in Seattle. The post show conversations were rich. I think a play requires courage, truth-telling, accountability, craft, and intentionality.
Salon: What are you looking for when you read a new script? What makes you say – this has promise? What makes you say – I’ve got to direct this! What makes you toss it aside?
VCN: I like messy plays that ask tough questions about how we take care of each other as human beings. It doesn't need to be perfect but rather, it must hold its characters to a high standard of humanity.
Salon: What are your tips for new playwrights just learning how to work with directors? How can newcomers find the directors that not only are competent to direct their plays, but wildly enthusiastic about doing so?
VCN: See everything you can and then be brave enough to ask.
Salon: As a director, what is the advice/guidance you’ve given most frequently to playwrights who are working with you? What do playwrights who work with you well have in common?
VCN: Say what you mean. Put it on the page. Accept that there may be multiple ways to get there and trust the team. They have a tremendous passion for stories and openness to collaboration. Then, we can we can find the true thing which may differ from our initial imaginings. The whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Salon: What kinds of plays do you want to see more of?
VCN: I’m always interested in seeing plays that make us examine how we are living, how we are connected and how we disappoint each other.
Salon: You are the artistic director of The Hansberry Project, with the mission of “celebrating, supporting, and presenting the work of black theatre artists.” Since the project began in 2006, what’s changed, if anything, in theatre – are black artists getting more productions? Better productions?
VCN: There is greater interest in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. In some ways that is a wonderful thing. There are more opportunities in venues with more support. In other ways, little has changed. The number of people of color with meaningful season planning input remains small. We still don’t have tremendous say in which stories about our community are told. Many communities still lack substantive relationships with the communities they serve. The budgets don’t determine the quality of the productions but the support and agency of the black artists involved makes all the difference.
Salon: You directed a group of community, mostly non-actors in “Every 28 Hours: 76 one-minute plays focused on the policing of black bodies” in December 2017. I was stunned by the quality of the acting and the power of the performances. What was your experience of working with this group? I heard you had one rehearsal.
VCN: Most of the actors for that project were actors I knew or had worked with mixed with some community members. The only one rehearsal is because my experience is that sometimes less is more. The spirit of the improvisation is palpable and creates a special energy. Everyone involved in that project was there because they wanted to be, the issue was important to them. They inherently understood the stakes and mission of the project.
Salon: As an educator of directors, what qualities, skills, and attitudes are you looking to enhance and cultivate you in your students? When you direct, what are the qualities, skills, and attitudes that attract you to an actor? What kind of actors are your favorites to work with?
VCN: The answer to these questions is the same: Resilience, Perseverance and Courage. A willingness to try without guarantee of success. The ability to recognize there is value in every effort. The intention/drive to be compassionate with collaborators and faithful to our audiences.