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Artists in their own words: Valerie Curtis-Newton

Valerie Curtis-Newton (Photo by: Josh Brasted)

Who: Valerie Curtis-Newton

What: Director

Where: Based in Seattle but living in Uptown during the pre-production of Southern Rep’s Father Comes Home from the Wars (Part 1, 2, and 3).

 

Q: What do you think about rules?

VCN: Most of the time, they are a good thing. Rules help us reach agreements, but we always have to be checking the rules against their intended purpose.

In a way, how I see life is reflected in how I direct plays. For instance, there are rules about spacing on stage--there are some areas that are stronger when it comes to spacing and other areas that are weaker on stage. When I am aware of that rule and concept, I can use it and manipulate it in order to make people feel and see what I what I want them to feel and see moment-by-moment. I can’t be rigid; I have to look at the intended result of the rule.

In life, if I don’t feel like a rule is serving the people or the community that it is supposed to be helping then there is a reason to break it. Just like on stage, if something is not helping tell the story, then what is the point of that rule?

Although, with this connection between the stage and life, there also comes the fact that life becomes research for a director. Seeing how people behave and how they relate to each other in time and space is observed by a director. Then you translate that back in stage work.

Q: What do you wish we could live without?

VCN: Garbage trucks. They always come super early in the morning. They block the traffic flow. They are disruptive on a lot of levels. Ultimately, they do a really great thing, but their presence is really annoying.

Where I live in Seattle, the streets are really narrow, so if you get between a parked car and a garbage truck, you are stuck. You are not getting out.

Q: Who is someone you wish you could take skills from?

VCN: I love photography, but I’m not great at it, and I wish that I was better. Photographers like Margaret Bourke-White, who was a famous women photographer from the 30 and 40s, or Gordon Parks, who was an African-American photographer, and Roy Decarava are all historical photographers that I would be interested in having skills from. Oh, and Annie Leibovitz is awesome.

There’s something about viewing the world through that lens and composition that feels connected to what I do and also differs from what I do.

I would love to have the skill of how they see the world. They see it a little differently, and they are intentional in how they make compositions. Ultimately, I am fascinated with storytelling, and photography is another artistic mode for doing that.

In the contemporary world we have almost stopped valuing study and virtuosity in the way we used to. Everyone has a cell phone and everyone has a camera, so we say that everyone is a photographer because they take hundreds or thousands of pictures a year. People don’t often understand the art of it, and there’s something lost when we don’t see that.

Q: How do you like to introduce people to each other?

VCN: When I get together with actors, I meet them in auditions first. That is very brief, but you can get a small sense of their personalities. If someone is walking around dark and brooding like Hamlet, you know that when they walk in the room. When we all get together for the first rehearsal, I trust them to do a lot of the introducing among themselves. My job at the first meeting is to introduce my vision for the play, and they all share conversation about that.

When I’m out in the world, I try to think of a connecting point to begin a conversation. With the actors, they already have a common factor, so they can start off right away.

Q: When have you completely changed your direction with directing?

VCN: I have changed my direction, but in a limited way. The director’s prep time happens before rehearsal starts. There are some things that I’ve already committed to before rehearsals start, and I cannot alter them. If a scenic design has been chosen, and people have already bought material and are building the set, I can’t decide that we want to change the open stage to a three-room house.

I do tell the cast that the staging will change up until opening night because I am still working. I am still making discoveries about their relationships, and maybe I will change someone from being at the window to being on the couch.

There can’t be a fear in doing that. We have to be free enough to make change. We can make things more nuanced in that way. Also, I am not above trying an experiment, realizing that it didn’t work, and going back to the way it was before.

There’s a famous director named Peter Brook. I did a workshop with him, and he said that the director’s job is to be the stand-in for the audience at rehearsal and to not let the production be boring. If I am watching a rehearsal and I either don’t understand it or am bored by it, then I know it needs to be changed.

 

Valerie Curtis-Newton is directing Southern Rep’s play Father Comes Home from the Wars (Part 1, 2, and 3), which is playing at Marquette Theater from May 31 until June 25. For information about the play and tickets, check out Southern Rep’s website.

 

Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at kelley@nolavie.com.