Episode 5 - Dropping the Pebble in the Lake
In this episode of Under This Light with Valerie Curtis-Newton we rediscover our cultural legacy, wade through the quagmires of academic Shakespeare, and are stopped on the way to the bathroom by our favorite Civil Rights leader.
Valerie Curtis-Newton is the Head of Directing and Playwriting at the University of Washington’s School of Drama, Valerie also serves as the Artistic Director for The Hansberry Project. Her recent work includes The Guthrie Theater, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Intiman Theatre, Denver Center Theatre, West of Lenin, ArtsWest, Taper Forum, New York Theatre Workshop, among others. Valerie holds a BA from Holy Cross College and an MFA from the University of Washington. She has been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group Career Development Grant for Directors, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation’s Gielgud Directing Fellowship, Theatre Puget Sound’s Gregory Falls Award for Sustained Achievement, Seattle Times’ 13 Most Influential Citizens of the last decade, the Seattle Stranger Genius Award in Performance and the Crosscut Courage Award for Culture.
Lamar Legend (00:00:06):
You are listening to Under This Light a Revelation of Shakespeare and Self brought to you by Seattle Shakespeare Company. Our guest today is the legendary Valerie Curtis-Newton. Val, I’m just going to read off some of your amazing credits. You are the head of directing and playwriting at the University of Washington School of Drama, artistic director of the Hansberry project. You’re working includes work at the Guthrie Theatre Seattle Repertory Theater, Intiman theater, Denver Center Theater, West of Lenin theater, Arts West, Mark Taper Forum, New York Theatre Workshop. You hold a BA from Holy Cross college and an MFA from the University of Washington. You have been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and career development grant for directors from TCG that’s Theater Communications Group, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundations, Gielgud Directing Fellowship, Theater Puget Sound’s Gregory Falls award for sustained achievement, Seattle Times 13 most influential citizens of the last decade and the Seattle Strangers’ Genius Award in performance and the Crosscut Courage Award for culture. My goodness. How do you feel about all of that? First of all…
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:01:30):
You know, I, I told my students that it’s what happens when you just do your work every day? You know, you look up and suddenly maybe you’ve accomplished some things. So I didn’t set out to do most of those things, but I just do what I do every day. And then people recognize…
Lamar Legend (00:01:49):
Would you say it’s that old adage of, you know, of black folk? You know, you keep your head down and do your work.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:01:55):
Yeah, I think that’s true. And, and I think that it’s also the only thing you can do is the work that’s in front of you. Right? You don’t really have a lot of choices. Otherwise things are not going to add up. You’re not going to accomplish anything. You’re just spinning your wheels. So, but yeah, I guess now I’m at a place in life where I’m proud and I’m also a little bit embarrassed
Lamar Legend (00:02:19):
And why, why the embarrassment
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:02:22):
Because, you know, there’s a way in which when people recount your accolades, that it feels like an, an accusation of arrogance, like you think you’re all that. And I was like, Nope, I’m not all that, but those are all the things. Those are many of the things I’ve done.
Lamar Legend (00:02:41):
Okay. Well, facts are facts. Yeah. Well, let’s rewind back a little bit and start with how did your relationship with theater begin?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:02:54):
Well, I, I loved it as an art form as a child. I remember like being five or six years old, and my mother taking me to the top of the Traveler’s Tower in Hartford. And there was like a Snow White or something like that. And it was outdoors on the roof and it was a day with my mom. So I was very happy and I liked theater from that moment. And my parents were really good about taking me to see things. Then I went away to college and my roommate and I would say, I played the guitar and we would sing in our room. And one day one of our neighbors said, oh, you guys sing so beautifully. You have to come with me. And she dragged us to an audition for like the equivalent of a student organizations, production of Godspell. And I promptly did not get cast. And my roommate did. And I thought, oh my God, I have never doing that again.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:03:58):
And she said, yes, you are. There’s an audition for this, for the drama department. So she dragged me at 19 years old. She dragged me to this audition for The Good Woman of Szechuan. And I got cast at 19 to play the old woman tobacco shop owner. And I had to take an acting class and I got coached into doing the part. And, you know, every night I had to put shoe white in my hair and learn how to walk like an 80 year old. But I found community, you know, I was an air force kid and always an outsider. And suddenly I was in the group and I got to go to parties and sit around and sing and drink and explore and curse and all that. So I fell a little bit in love with it. And then when I got out of college, my aunt said to me, there is this group operating out of my church, called the operation push, performing ensemble. And you like theater, you should come and see it and maybe do a play with them. And by the time I showed up, my aunt had already told them I was going to be in this play. So I did that. And then I was with the ensemble from the, from the time I was 21 until I left Hartford at 33.
Lamar Legend (00:05:24):
Oh my goodness. That’s fantastic. So he now values strike me as someone who’s an introvert. Is that true?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:05:32):
Very true. Yeah.
Lamar Legend (00:05:34):
So,ucommunity finding community in, in theater, you know, having them, as you just said, like bring them out of your shell. I mean, like, was that invaluable to you? Was it scary? I mean, like, what was your journey there?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:05:49):
It was, it was both those things. You know, it was a way like many actors as a director. What I, I recognize that there are some actors who got to get on stage and get bigger. And there are some people who get on stage and play small. I was one of those people that played bigger. So the theater made a space where I could take up more room than I did normally in life. And I, I, it, it was very helpful because it allowed me to know that there was a persona inside me that could take up space when I needed to. And so that became a kind of therapy for me. And also at ease, the, the loneliness of the introverted kid who was always the new kid, you know, as an air force brat, I’d roll up and I’d be the old, the new kid almost all the time. So to actually have a space that I could feel like I owned was very reassuring and it carried over into, into my everyday life, even as an adult.
Lamar Legend (00:07:11):
And so you left acting since true or false,
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:07:20):
It’s mostly true.
Lamar Legend (00:07:24):
So I’ll be, where do you get to be big again? I mean, would you say that that’s, that’s where you, you put that space or hold that space for yourself in directing, or is it another art forms and how does that exist now?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:07:36):
I think it is in other art forms. I think it’s a bit in directing and I’ve started to be more of a writer. I’m a little more generative than I have been in recent years. And I’m also, you know, teaching is a place where I can take up more space because I feel really driven to help people improve themselves as artists and to develop a relationship with their craft. And maybe more importantly for me these days, I’m teaching young people how to be resilient and courageous and and all of those things feel bigger than me. W when you have a vision or a mission or a purpose, that’s bigger than yourself, it’s easier to step into it with comfort. And I know myself now, and so I’m a lot less embarrassed just generally in the world. So all of those things, I think, collaborate together to make me a little bit dangerous.
Lamar Legend (00:08:38):
You’re a lot dangerous in the best way possible. So taking up space, do you think that comes with age too?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:08:47):
Absolutely. When I was in my thirties, I I was working really hard and working all the time. Like I was afraid I was going to be forgotten, lost, or ignored. And then I got into my forties and I realized that I knew some things and that I could lean on the things that I knew. And I got into my fifties and I decided that I could speak some true things and that I was not going to die by telling the truth. And then I got into my sixties and I had I I’ve had a little bit of a crisis of identity because, you know, all those accolades you’ve listed at the beginning. I was thinking now, what do I do? I have achieved this thing and that thing, and the other thing now, what do I do? And and there are younger people coming up and this is really their time.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:09:59):
So it’s like, when do you sit back? And when do you go forward? When do you lead when you change direction? So I had to go through a bit of a identity crisis of a pandemic was the beginning of that. But in the middle of it, I was like, oh, let’s celebrate all the things you’ve accomplished. And then your new things will come, you know? And it’s a little bit of a tangent, but I’ve been living a lot these days in the words of the song, Order My Steps in Your Word, and thinking about my connection to something bigger than me, a higher power and and how I’m going to live out the rest of my days with that sort of, as my mantra,
Lamar Legend (00:10:45):
Sounds like a balancing act.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:10:48):
Yeah. I think life is that, you know, when you’re in your twenties, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing thirties. You’re able to like stand up and walk forties. You’re starting to run fifties. You’re like, and where am I running to? And sixties, you’re like, I’m tired. I need a rest.
Lamar Legend (00:11:08):
It doesn’t help that the body is telling you that too.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:11:12):
That’s really, that’s some, that’s some truth right there.
Lamar Legend (00:11:37):
This is basically… Foundationally, a Shakespeare podcast. Will you tell us the interesting trajectory for yourself in relationship to Shakespeare, please?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:11:50):
I began with Maya Angelou and I read her poetry and then I read her autobiographies and I just basically followed in her footsteps. She loved Poe, then Poe led her to Shakespeare. I loved Angelou. And she led me to Poe and Poe led me to Shakespeare. And so when I was like in the third or fourth grade, I memorized bunches and bunches of Shakespeare monologues. I knew like almost all the lines, all of Juliet’s lines from Romeo and Juliet. And and then I got into the murderous bloody ones, you know, Titus Andronicus. And you know, when I was telling my mom, mom, they cut out her tongue. And then she wrote with these little stumpy arms, I was like, well, what are you reading like that Shakespeare? And then there’s, you know, feeding Tamra feeding the, the, the boys to their father and all of those. So and then there were the fun ones, you know, Midsummer’s and 12th night and and all of the pants roles for women, you know, as a queer woman to get the idea that you could play opposite and other woman, and have love and real love, even though you weren’t going to end up with her, but you could have real love for her. All of those things. And then I got into college and I got pissed off at him.
Lamar Legend (00:13:37):
That sounds about right. What happened?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:13:39):
I got off because he got elevated in a way that made him seem better than Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Lamar Legend (00:13:49):
So, so elevated by whom?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:13:52):
Lamar Legend (00:13:55):
And specifically, you know, are you talking about white institutions?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:14:00):
Yeah. when I was in college, you know, there was that, that sense that Shakespeare had things to say, and everyone else was less than. And then, you know, it proved out in that the way that there was always more money for Shakespeare than there was for every other kind of theater which was the opposite of Shakespeare’s time. Right. Cause there was no money in Shakespeare’s time, they were broke asses, you know, as broke ass. So I found that really interesting, you know, to watch people spend hundreds of dollars on yards of fabric to make costumes. And I’m like, well, but what if you just want to, you know, so-so fabric and work from there.
Lamar Legend (00:14:49):
Joanne’s is right down the street.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:14:52):
You don’t have to have hundreds of thousands of dollars in that robe. And so I rebelled instinctively against the Euro centricity of the elevation of Shakespeare. I don’t want to deny the craft of it. It’s not easy to write in iambic pentameter or specific blank verse. And I rec I learned, they taught me that Shakespeare wrote stories that weren’t even his. Absolutely. So he went back in, in his tradition and found stories to tell, told them artfully, but they weren’t original. They weren’t new. And somehow that got elevated and no one was ever teaching us about the roots of black theater or even how Western theater began out of an African tradition through Greece to Rome and so forth. So yeah, it just pissed me off and I took it personally against Shakespeare himself. Like he had stolen something from me and I realized it wasn’t Shakespeare who was stealing from me. It was his acolytes.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:16:10):
And and so I worked really hard to have my own thing to learn about my own people and the old, my own history of theater to know how far back black theater goes. And in the United States, particularly like what its, what its trajectory was, what its seeds were. And so I became sort of self-taught in the history of black theater because of William Shakespeare. So I know all my Shakespeare stuff, why, because I was educated in this country through our educational system. And and I wanted to know the sort of lingua franca of the industry, but it was more important that I know myself, that I got to know my own history and understand the tools that were used by my predecessors and successors to allow our art to survive.
Lamar Legend (00:17:06):
So would you say that you then at that point moved away from Shakespeare to find yourself to find your own voice through your artistic predecessors?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:17:18):
Yes, absolutely. And I, I sort of rebelled both against Shakespeare and against opera for the same reasons that there was, there was so much money being thrown at them that it just made me angry that we were in doing our work so underfunded and so under supported I didn’t quite know what to do about it, but I knew that it wasn’t fair and it pissed me off and that, that I was supposed to do something about it.
Lamar Legend (00:17:52):
And what was that?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:17:54):
Um I got to be a part of a small black owned companies in Hartford. I was part of a company called the performing ensemble that, that grew out of operation push to become its own thing. We made productions and we also traveled choreopoem projects around the city and state to familiarize young people with black poets that would go all the way back to Phillis Wheatley. And we would make these collages out of all of these poems and tour them and introduce students. And then we make enough money over time that we be able to put on a, a project production. And and even then, you know, the idea that we all believe the same thing or see ourselves in the same way I was working with people. And we were working on a comedy called Living Fat and yes, it was that kind of comedy. I was going to say, that sounds like a brown play.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:19:01):
And it it was, it was funny. It was a satire about folks who suddenly got this windfall of money and what did that money do for them? How did it corrupt them and how did it reveal who they really were? But it bordered on stereotypical, lots of characatures and high farce. And I was like, not having it. I was 23 and I was like, oh my God, why are we doing this? And finally, some of the elders in the company looked at me and said, if you want to do something different, you should do something different. What play do you want to do? And I said, I think we should do Wine in the Wilderness by Alice Childress. And so we did it, I directed it. And it was a small production that we did in the church fellowship hall where most of our plays took place.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:19:55):
And after it was over that elder came to me and said, oh, now I see what kind of theater you want to make. Now I understand. Right. So it, wasn’t just, you don’t, you don’t get to just bitch about it and not do something about it. If you’re dis disgruntled, you need to take it in your own hands to make something that you’re proud of and that you can lean into. And so that was like a really formative and important moment in my life as an artist. I do think that that that’s the beginning of a, of a kind of activism. And it’s gotten me in trouble a lot over my career.
Speaker 1 (00:20:44):
Lamar Legend (00:20:54):
I want it. Wow. I’m split for it in two ways. I kinda want to walk down one path, but you’re leading me down another and so well, trouble is just too tantalizing to pass up. So tell us about the trouble you’ve encountered.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:21:09):
I, you know what, Lamar, I have a nasty habit of telling the truth.
Lamar Legend (00:21:14):
Okay. That’s beautiful. So you’re a soothsayer.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:21:18):
Yeah. I have a nasty habit of telling the truth
Lamar Legend (00:21:23):
In rooms where they don’t want to hear it everywhere,
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:21:26):
Everywhere. I say it in rooms where they don’t want to hear it in other rooms where they think they want to hear what I have to say. And then I tell them the truth and then they have issues. So, you know, I decided I was going to quit my job in insurance and do theater full-time and I came to Seattle. Basically they paid me to come and and that was awesome. But I started doing the plays I was interested in. And one day the head of the program said, you know, this is really wonderful. Your work is really wonderful, but you don’t have to do only black plays. You can do any play.
Lamar Legend (00:22:14):
What progam is this specifically?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:22:15):
University of Washington program. And I said to him don’t tell me I can’t do black plays. Tell me what the lessons are. You want me to learn? And I will go find the material appropriate. So tell me the skill you want me to get. And I will find the right play because I didn’t want to give in to this idea that only Shakespeare was going to be the only one who could teach me verse. Right. I didn’t believe that was true. So I thought, well, let me, let me stand up for that. And then I got out of school and I sort of had that same mentality. Why can’t we do a black play? And then I got hired at University of Washington on the faculty. And when I was hired, I said, this is the kind of work I make. Can I be tenured here? And they hired me. And then in the middle of my first term, before you get approved for tenure, they said, the college is not going to know how to read your body of work.
Lamar Legend (00:23:21):
What does that even mean?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:23:23):
So when you go for tenure, you put together a portfolio and it goes through your department through the school, to the college, to the college council and the college council looks at your portfolio and your outside reviews and decides whether your research is worthy of tenure. Right? So the year that I got tenure, we were like black tenured folks were like 3% of all the faculty in the country was black and tenured. And the majority of those were black men. So it was a big deal, but they said to me, you know, you have to get some credits that the college can recognize.
Lamar Legend (00:24:09):
That’s the word I was looking for,
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:24:11):
Which, which meant they needed me to get regional theater, lower credits. And because,
Lamar Legend (00:24:19):
Because correct me if I’m wrong, this review board is white
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:24:24):
Primarily. Yes. Yeah, yeah. Primarily. And so they wouldn’t know, you know, they wouldn’t know some of the people that are essential to black, the black theater cannon. And they also wouldn’t know that a venue like in the community is as valuable as a LORT regional theater gig. Right. so that, that put me on a different path wanting to make LORT professional work and then I got on fire for the idea that all of our work should be, have as much money spent on it as white people’s work, which meant then I did want to work in the LORT gigs. I did want to work at Seattle Rep and I did want their shops to have to figure out how to make whatever it was, the world, make it beautiful and make it urgent. And I wanted us to have that black folks to have that I wanted the actors to make equity money. Right. It doesn’t mean that I discount the, the less professionally compensated, but I wanted as much money spent on us as was being spent on other kinds of art, how yeah. But you know, that becomes, that becomes another thing. Lamar, when you do that, when you make that step, people in your community look bad and looked down on
Lamar Legend (00:25:59):
Now speak about that.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:26:00):
You sold out.
Lamar Legend (00:26:01):
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:26:03):
You’re not, you’re not in the community anymore. You’re not one of us. You’re one of them.
Lamar Legend (00:26:09):
Why do you think that exists? Because it’s not just, you know, that’s not just, you, that’s every, you know, that’s every black artist, that’s every black athlete, you know, that’s anyone who achieves a certain level of level of status.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:26:28):
Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t hurt that our field is highly Euro-centric that entering the edifice requires a certain kind of cultural education because the building itself is racialized.
Lamar Legend (00:26:48):
Right. Set up that way,
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:26:50):
Just the building itself. So I understand why some black folks don’t feel like it belongs to them, but that’s the problem is that we let white people believe that it belongs to them. It doesn’t guess whose tax dollars all go up in there. Ours too. So we don’t, you know, our donor class maybe doesn’t give quite as much to theater as, as white donor class does, but as long as they get a government grant of, of a dollar, some pennies in there belonged to black folks, belong to Latin folks belong to Asian folks, belong to indigenous folks. So it’s all ours. And that’s the thing that’s really frustrating is you become sort of special to white folks. And when you’re special to white folks, you’re suddenly not of the people to your own community. That’s that can make for a, a lonely, a lonely journey and leading is inherently lonely. So that’s that’s, and that’s a lesson that no one teaches you when you’re 20. Yeah.
Lamar Legend (00:28:12):
That’s part of the job description.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:28:15):
Nobody teaches you that when you’re 20.
Lamar Legend (00:28:19):
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:28:22):
So it took me, it took me 10 years to get people used to the fact that, yes, I’m going to talk about race and I don’t think everyone is racist, but I do think that people are intentionally oblivious to the role that race plays in so many of our decision-making processes. So for a good 15 years, I’ve been whining about the fact that there were no people of color in decision-making powers in any of the major theaters in the city. It’s beginning to change. But I was, I was saying it, you know, the, the minute I got out of grad school, 1998, and there’s a reason, I think that I did not work at Seattle Rep until 2019. And there’s a reason that once the Hansberry project left ACT theater in 2012, that I haven’t worked there. And I may, I’m doing work on some things there now, but it was eight years without a job not being asked to direct a play.
Lamar Legend (00:29:35):
It seems like I’m curious about your thoughts on… Cause in the way that you’re describing your journey. It seems like for the, for these white institutions, these white theater institutions that we, our work isn’t ready until they’re ready.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:29:55):
Yes. Yeah. Well, and that’s the thing about, I’m learning how to, I maybe wasn’t working in some of these places, but I was getting people into work. And some of those places, like in not hiring me, some theaters had to find other people to hire. And sometimes there are people I knew sometimes there are people I mentored.
Lamar Legend (00:30:24):
Did that make you feel a certain way?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:30:28):
Sometimes, sometimes I felt discouraged like my work as an artist lacked value, and then I started to learn that adage that, you know, that you’re always appreciated more abroad than you are at home. So
Lamar Legend (00:30:46):
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:30:49):
So I started to work around the country.
Lamar Legend (00:30:52):
Talk about that for a minute.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:30:53):
It was glorious, glorious. Oh where’d you go first? The first place I went was Alabama. I went to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with Kia Corthron, on a new play. And then we went to the Center Theater Group, Mark Taper Forum Actors Theater of Louisville.
Lamar Legend (00:31:20):
And was that your first time down south?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:31:24):
To work? Yes, I have. My relatives are from North Carolina or South Carolina. So I yeah, so I had been down for family reunions and that sort of thing, but to work. Yeah, it was when I, when I started to like realize I wasn’t going to work in Seattle, so where else could I work?
Speaker 1 (00:31:58):
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:31:59):
I love the, the fact that theater is ephemeral and it’s also the downside.
Lamar Legend (00:32:07):
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:32:07):
Right. It’s that you, it’s ephemeral, you, you set up that community. You’re having good vibes. You’re feeding each other spiritually and then it’s over.
Lamar Legend (00:32:16):
Yep. You can’t pin it down.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:32:18):
Lamar Legend (00:32:19):
And you can’t get it back.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:32:20):
Lamar Legend (00:32:22):
Now it sounds like no, it seems like there’s, there’s, there’s a lot of women who’ve been hugely influential in your, on your path in your family. You’re talk about your mother, your aunt your colleagues, and of course playwrights artists, other artists that you look up to and have been inspired by how has that played a role in the founding of the Hansberry project?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:32:57):
The Hansberry project was my attempt to stay home. Right. I needed to have a way to make work at that level and not travel and also to redirect money and resources into the community here to support artists. So Kurt Beattie, who was artistic director at a contemporary theater at that time, had an, an impulse to do more diverse work through that theater. And he asked me to curate some plays. This story is often told. And I said, no. And I said, I would not curate some plays, but I would partner with him. And so Vivian Phillips and I agreed to work with act and they would give us a play in their season every year that we would choose cast help market and in exchange Vivian and I would participate at the decision-making level in that organization. So we were in management meetings.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:34:20):
We were on a periodically on board meetings. And we basically worked for the theater and they had the only people of color on their staff for the five years that we were there. And in that time we did productions, we did community conversations. We did panels, we did events. We hosted Juneteenth events for four years. And they were formal events, you know black tie and all of that to try to sort of open the community up. And and it went really, really well. The problem we had is that our intention was always to get our work in front of as large and broad an audience as we could to get black theater artists working out in the world. The way that I put it now is I’m so in love with black people, I want to give other people the chance to fall in love with us too. And we were doing that, w we were in folks were used to our being there and interested in our being there, but we weren’t making money. Oh, we were getting, helping them get some grants and so forth, but we weren’t making money and they were going through a different, difficult financial time. And so the metric slipped from our stated goal of a broad, diverse audience to their needed goal, which was how many black and brown bodies can we get in the audience
Lamar Legend (00:35:53):
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:35:54):
Yeah. So we had very different goals and they decided they could not afford us. So we were cut loose. We left with our, our mailing list and $2,000 and we were on our way.
Lamar Legend (00:36:12):
And you became an independent body.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:36:13):
Yes. Yeah. But, but we’re not 5 0 1 C3.
Lamar Legend (00:36:21):
So you’ve moved on since, I mean, well, you’re still working with the Hansberry project, but you, in terms of directing you also, you’ve been writing you teach obviously before we get to writing, how, what brought you to teaching? What made you decide, you know, I’m ready to teach.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:36:41):
It comes all the way back to that. When I got out of college and I was working with the performing ensemble, some of the people in the company were trained that went to grad school and all that. But the rest of us were not, we were just doing the work. We were developing a, a work ethic, a process, a craft. And and we got better. Each of us was getting better by working. So when I got in a position to give people work, I’m like, this is my chance to grow. But folks who can do the professional work that I want to see done. And so it became really important to me to do some projects that I could take someone who like, who had never done theater before and put them in a project and mentor them and teach them the craft and give them their own way of working. So then they could work with someone else on material without me, again, it felt to me a lot, like just dropping the pebble in the lake, right? So teaching became the second leg of the stool, if directing and owning the means of production is one growing the talent to do excellent work is the other, the second leg. And the third leg is the writing is the creating texts is to not having to wait for someone to give us a play.
Speaker 1 (00:38:50):
Lamar Legend (00:38:50):
Who would you say was like a, I mean, was there a teacher or a speaker or a singular mentor that, that truly inspired you? That changed everything.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:38:59):
Yeah. When I was an undergraduate at holy cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, my my graduating class was 608 students. Eight of them were black. Wow. So when I was an undergraduate, I, after being dragged into that audition, I stayed because I had some community there of people who wanted to make these things. And then this young teacher came from California. Her name was Robin Hunt. She is a white woman. She was, she was a Kansas, California surfer girl. And and she was so foreign to New England. She was such an outsider that I related to that. Wow. and we had our first encounter in that I was required to audition in order to take a theater class. I was required to audition for their plays. And because I was just the kind of truth teller I was even at 19, I went to her and said you all are doing Our Town, which is great. And if I’m the best Emily in auditions, will I get that part?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:40:26):
And she said, you know, I’m new here. And they think that I am from another planet. So I think I’m going to make the play traditionally in a way that these folks will understand. And she, and I talk about this now and she’s like, oh my God, I can’t believe that you even talked to me. But but then she did this remarkable thing. She said, I won’t cast you. I probably won’t cast you. You do have to audition because that’s a policy, but I don’t know that I will cast you. And I would like you to be my stage manager slash assistant director. So now I’m in all the production meetings. Now I’m hearing how she makes a decision about this and why it’s that prop instead of this one and all of a sudden, I’m on the other side, I got pulled onto the other side. And then I took a class that she taught and if a class was all women and when I was at holy cross, my freshman year, it was only the third year that they had had women at the school. So in my sophomore year, I took this class with her. It was all women. And our final project was to make a devised piece and she charged me with directing it. Wow.
Lamar Legend (00:41:50):
So that was your first directing job. Exactly.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:41:53):
Exactly. I was like 19 years old. So yeah, she’s been hugely influential. And when I came to Seattle, actually I had decided that I was going to grad school and I was, I was going to go either to, I was going to go to Yale. I just decided I was going to Yale or I wouldn’t go. And she said to me, you know, I think it’s great that you’re ready to go. And you’re the exact right kind of student you’re, you should be for this time. But just think about some other schools and we’re doing some pretty good work out here. You might want to look at the University of Washington and, you know, the University of Washington then was a top five drama school. And it was a city where there was a Negro unit during the Federal Theater Project. Seattle had one and Hartford where I came from, had one. Wow. So that deep, rich history of black people here, there aren’t many, there weren’t many of us, but we had a history that made me say, oh, maybe I can go there. And then they paid me to come and then the rest of the history, as they say.
Lamar Legend (00:43:09):
Right, right, right. My goodness. Oh, wow. That’s fantastic. So tying it back to Shakespeare and your previous answer about moving away from him to get a deeper understanding and connection with your own culture, finding her voice within that. You’ve told me that you found your way back to his work since how did that happen and what do you feel about interpreting his work today? You know, do we, do we modify the text? Do we adapt it? I mean, what are your thoughts on that?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:43:51):
I think that any, and all of those things are good things, right? I think that, that there are people who are language purists that it’s about the turn of the phrase for them. And I think in that case, we should do the work as Shakespeare wrote it, but we should be mindful that it’s going to come through our mouths through our lives. And so we should unpack and and reassemble Shakespeare’s work in ways that are authentic us. Right. well, and I also, you know, I think that there is, there are lots of ways to do it. You know, everything from adapting, a story to really digging deep into nontraditional casting, not colorblind casting, but non-traditional casting. Some people use the phrase color conscious. I’m not sure that I’m down with that either, but I think that when you, when you decide to put a person of color in a Shakespeare play, that character is a character of color.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:45:10):
It’s not like I’m going to, that my Hamlet is going to be a white Hamlet can’t ever be, can’t ever be. So I think that, that in that, that way of thinking about it, non-traditional casting means going deep, finding all the tentacles and all the ways that race actually informs the dynamic in the play. And some of that could be done by, by an adaptation, you know, where we set Shakespeare. One of my former students, he worked on the Scottish play and he said it in the antebellum south. Right. And you know, who the, who the witches become. And then, you know, is it, is it a Confederate soldier? Is it a union soldier? And what’s the, what does that say through the lens of race? Right. So I think adapting is a good thing. I think contemporary language adaptations are also good because I want not just Shakespeare’s language to get a chance, I want the actual stories to be engaged with, by a broad and diverse community. So, you know, the OSF did a whole project about adaptations of Shakespeare work. Yeah. And some of those adaptations are absolutely gorgeous. They’re not in Elizabethean English, but they’re gorgeous.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:46:52):
So I think that they should be given a chance to be disseminated, to, to have legs, to be given voice.
Lamar Legend (00:46:59):
Hear, Hear. Especially, you know, by others who are still living.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:47:04):
Yeah. And I think that there is something in that of doing exactly what Shakespeare did, taking a story and making it relevant for our time. Right. Which is what Shakespeare did
Speaker 1 (00:47:28):
Lamar Legend (00:47:40):
Do you feel you are ready and, or interested in directing a Shakespeare play today?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:47:51):
If it was the right treatment?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:47:56):
I think, I think I might be, you know, if I, if I had the right vehicle to reach that broad and diverse audience, I’m not interested in doing the play just for people who already love Shakespeare. They don’t, they don’t need me to do that. Right. They get other folks to do that. Right. But if I found the right, the right vehicle, the right approach to do the play, you know there have been a couple of adaptations recently of things, you know, how things reach out kind of, zeigeist, of course. And suddenly everyone has the same idea or working on the same idea. Yeah.
Lamar Legend (00:48:38):
And then the same Shakespeare play gets produced in all over the country in theaters.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:48:44):
So I won’t say that I will never direct a Shakespeare play. But I’m sort of liking right now that I have a foot in the new play camp and I have a foot in the classic black play camp.
Lamar Legend (00:49:01):
I love it.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:49:03):
So I’m not sure that that Shakespeare needs me as much as, as much as Childress needs me as much as Theodore Ward needs me as much as, you know, there’s a whole list of them whose names we don’t pay attention to who need to continue to live. And they’re not going to live. If we wait for white people to do them.
Lamar Legend (00:49:27):
What are you working on now that you’re excited?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:49:31):
Oh my goodness. I’m, I’m finding myself being invited to create projects. It just got announced that I’m going to direct for Arts West. Next year, create a song cycle, choreo poem, something for them. And that’s exciting to me. And that takes me back to my roots as a 20 year old to making collages and traveling with them. Then last year I got a directors commission from Seattle Rep and I’m waiting for permissions on a couple of source documents. And while I’m that, that I might adapt for my work. And I’m also writing a new play. And and we’ve just done a reading of The Rent Party, which is a play that I’ve been working on for a few years now. And now we’re moving on to The Rent Party, immersive, which is a completely different way of dealing with those characters in The Rent Party play. I want to actually have the house party. That’s, that’s at the heart of a play
Lamar Legend (00:50:46):
Let’s roll back for folks who are listening, who don’t know, tell us about The Rent Party.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:50:52):
The Rent Party is a play that began with the idea I was going to make it an immersive project. I was going to make an immersive project because all of the ones I had seen had been white led and telling white stories. And I wanted to tell a black story in an immersive way. And I started out with this idea that there was this family, it’s like three sisters. And and they were having a party to raise money to save the house. And I started meeting with the actors and the, the primary response was, so what is this immersive thing? And then someone said, you know, it’s like the dinner train you’re in the middle of the, of the mystery. I was like, yes, it is. And then I thought, oh, I think I might need to actually write more of a backstory.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:51:54):
And the next thing I knew, I had written a full length play. And then we took a few years to like hone it and make it better. But that, that idea of making an immersive work stuck with me and for a while, I didn’t know how to proceed with it because why, because I live in the fifth whitest city in the country. I couldn’t imagine making an immersive play about a rent party in a black neighborhood where all the people at the party were white. And my friend Peggy, who she passed away a couple of years ago, she said to me, well, just don’t let anybody, anybody white be in the, in the, in the, in the party. And I said, well, I live in a white place. She said, well, make them all black.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:52:47):
And I was like, yes. And so then I decided that I was going to make The Rent Party. And we would maybe on some days run the actual traditional play and then, you know, every couple of weeks we’ll do the immersive so that the people who’ve seen the play can come to the party. You get a discount if you dress in attire of 1968. Yeah. And and I decided that everyone black and white alike and everyone else as well will arrive, have their picture taken with the Polaroid. And the Polaroid given back to them will be a picture of a black person from 1968. And so when they go into the room, the cast will treat them like the neighbors at that, in that neighborhood. And a member play will unfold around them through a series of events or happenings that would be scheduled. And that the actors would both, some of it would be set texts and some of it would be completely improvised. So this year we’re going to work on making that happen, make the immersive happen.
Lamar Legend (00:54:03):
That is beautiful. I cannot wait to be a part of that.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:54:08):
So it’s going to be a whole bunch of black folks.
Lamar Legend (00:54:10):
Oh my God. And in Seattle, that really is monumental.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:54:15):
It will, will be. I hope.
Lamar Legend (00:54:16):
I mean, it will be in the sense that like, when they all come together, when we all come together, we’re going to be like, oh my God, here, we all are together.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:54:25):
Yes, yes. Privileging a black point of view. So that’s The Rent Party and I’m working on The Rent Party immersive as one of my projects,
Lamar Legend (00:54:36):
Lamar Legend (00:54:42):
To excite your curiosity. And in the spirit of infusing the world with more joy, I present to you some magic questions. If you could master one skill that you don’t already have, what would it be?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:55:04):
Lamar Legend (00:55:07):
Why is that?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:55:09):
I grew up, my dad was a photographer. My grandfather was a photographer. I’ve had cameras. I do still photography. I would like to combine that visual storytelling with the image.
Lamar Legend (00:55:25):
Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. All right. Will you tell us if you can recall a time when you saved a life could be an insect, could be an animal. It could be a human being.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:55:40):
I think, you know, we began this conversation about my concern about arrogance. I think I do that every day. Lamar,
Lamar Legend (00:55:51):
I can vouch for that.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:55:53):
I think there’s something about truth telling and compassion that are lifesaving
Lamar Legend (00:55:59):
Oh, right on, right on.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:56:03):
At least I hope they are.
Lamar Legend (00:56:05):
Of course they are. I can’t disagree with that at all. All right. Here’s a, a more magical one. Okay. So, you know, when you’re at a party and there’s always one person who corners you, when you’re on your way to refresh your drink, get some more food, fix a plate, or on your way to the bathroom. And they bore you to tears and you can’t get a word in edge wise. You know, you got bait for about 15 minutes. They’re just talking your ear off. And you’re like, gosh, how do I, how do I get past this person? So you’re at a party. And the guests at this party are Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Aretha Franklin, and the Lorraine Hansberry. Who do you want to bore you to death?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:56:58):
Whoa, that might be an impossible question because I don’t know. I don’t know that any of those women are capable of being boring.
Lamar Legend (00:57:12):
That’s a perfect answer. Yeah.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:57:14):
I don’t know what any of them are capable of being boring.
Lamar Legend (00:57:17):
Then let’s let, let me reframe it. Who do you want to corner you while you’re on your way to fix your plate freshen your drink or go to the bathroom?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:57:29):
I think right now I’d be in a Audre Lorde kind of place. I’m super invested in what it is to be a queer black woman. And though Hansberry was as well. There was less focus on that, on that in her work. I want to figure out basically if, if the two of them had a child, how could I be that? Wow. How could I be the daughter of Lorraine Hansberry and Audre Lord? Oh man. That’s that’s what I would aspire to be is actually that, that the, the offspring of that Threads,
Lamar Legend (00:58:13):
Ms. Val or on your way, I think you’ve laid a path. No one, no one can doubt that your track record speaks for itself. Thank you. Last but not least our last question when you die, cause we all will. If people forget everything about you, what’s the one thing you want them to remember?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:58:35):
She told the truth.
Lamar Legend (00:58:40):
You heard it first folks.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:58:43):
Yeah. I think the more, I think that, that goes along with this other thing that you and I have talked about before, which is, I think it’s one of the bravest things that a person can do. And it’s why I don’t believe in safe space. I don’t, I don’t seek to find safe space. I seek to be brave in all spaces and to tell the truth is to be the bravest act.
Lamar Legend (00:59:11):
So true and lonely.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:59:15):
Yes. Yup. And we won’t die.
Lamar Legend (00:59:23):
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:59:26):
Loneliness. You feel like it sometimes, but we really won’t die from our loneliness.
Lamar Legend (00:59:31):
Oh my gosh. So true. You don’t know, I needed to hear that.
Valerie Curtis-Newton (00:59:41):
That’s my therapy dollars at work. There’s a couple of things that I carry with me all the time for my therapy sessions. One of them is the phrase. Oh, well. So if someone tells you that they hated something, you just say, oh well, and someone tells you they love something. Oh, well they have equal value. So, oh, well is one. And the other one is will, will you die? If it fails? Will you die? Because almost nothing we do is so life endangering that we’ll die. That’s
Lamar Legend (01:00:16):
Valerie Curtis-Newton (01:00:17):
So, so I make a bad play.
Lamar Legend (01:00:20):
Yup. I won’t die. No,
Valerie Curtis-Newton (01:00:24):
I lose an argument or debate. I won’t die. I won’t die.
Lamar Legend (01:00:32):
Well, I’ll be sure to bill your therapist. Yes. Yes. Val, thank you. So, so very, very much. Is there anything left unsaid?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (01:00:43):
No, I don’t think so. You’ve had me gathered for an hour.
Lamar Legend (01:00:46):
Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s the point? Where can people find you if you want them, if you want yourself to be found?
Valerie Curtis-Newton (01:00:55):
I have a website at valeriecurtisnewton.com and also I’m prevalent on the Hansberry website.
Lamar Legend (01:01:03):
Wonderful. Thank you so much, Val.