HAS MADE WORK IN:
Church basements, college classrooms, and 750-seat theaters.
"Theater is going to piss off somebody, so let's go ahead and piss off everybody."
An audience so diverse that "the people laughing will always be self-conscious about when the people next to them aren't laughing."
Of all the jobs in theater, the director's is the subtlest. She doesn't write the words, build the sets, or stride across the stage. The substance of her art is forging intelligent relationships between all the elements—to understand each one deeply and help them understand each other. "When I do it really well, I'm invisible," says Valerie Curtis-Newton, a Connecticut native who came to Seattle in the early 1990s and began steadily reshaping the theater community through her work as a theater professor at the University of Washington and as a director. "It's only when I screw up that people notice."
Which is not entirely true. At Intiman in 2011, she set Arthur Miller's All My Sons in an African American household—and it completely worked without her changing a single word. That, she says, shocked audiences not only into thinking about the universality of the play, but into thinking about their assumptions about what kinds of people have what kinds of problems—if audiences were surprised to find black characters having Arthur Miller–sized relationships, they'd be forced to think about a lot of other stuff, too. And her Trouble in Mind at Intiman last summer (written by Alice Childress, a play that takes place in a New York theater's rehearsal room in the mid-1950s) shook people by their lapels. It began with a mask of interracial harmony—light dialogue and warm, colorful lighting—and ended in stark white, black, and gray, with audiences stone silent as they saw the devastating reality behind that pleasant illusion. (And then, at the very end, an unexpected burst of hope. People cried a lot during the curtain call.) With its gut-level integration of text and subtext, it was a robustly Curtis-Newton production. "With Trouble in Mind, I felt seen for the first time," she says. "I have been respected, because I've been competent, but I felt seen."
She calls her advocacy for African American artists her "blessing and curse." She's fiercely committed to it, but says that "people think that's the only conversation I'm capable of having. It's not." (She also directed an ebullient Julie Briskman as Ann Landers in the solo show The Lady with All the Answers, and she dreams of directing Shakespeare and Sondheim.) But mostly, she says, "I just want to get people in a room, talking to each other. If we all agree and sing 'Kumbaya,' we're not going to get anywhere."