The first theater director to win this award.
Chili, Facebook, golfing.
"Find the fear in the room, because it's always there and it's always an obstacle to moving forward—and when I'm stuck, I know I must have missed it."
Unlike so many people who wind up working in theater, Valerie Curtis-Newton did not feel the gravitational pull of the stage as a child. She was dragged into theater first by an acquaintance at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts who heard her and her roommate playing guitar and singing in their dorm room and insisted they audition for a production of Godspell. The experience was a struggle—"People don't get this, but I'm an introvert," Curtis-Newton says—and she didn't get the part. (Her roommate did.) She says she thought to herself: "I am never doing this again."
Soon enough, she was dragged to another audition and landed a three-line role in Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan. There, she says, "I found a community that was important to me." Growing up as an air force kid, she had learned the rhythm of ephemeral friendships, which helped her negotiate the intense but fleeting bonds of theatrical collaboration.
By 22, she was making plays in church fellowship halls with an ensemble in Hartford, Connecticut, that was supported by Operation PUSH—the social-justice and empowerment organization founded by Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1971. "I complained about the shows they picked," Curtis-Newton says. "They did two kinds of plays: the protest play with heavy social-issue drama and the caricature-and-stereotype-laden comedy." She got a little pushback from what she calls the "everything-doesn't-have-to-mean-a-bunch" crowd, but was eventually told that if she didn't like what was happening, she should pick a show to direct.
Fatefully, she chose Alice Childress's Wine in the Wilderness. "In that play, she takes on the stereotypes and chastises the community for how we bought the stereotypes," Curtis-Newton says. It was a big success. Soon she was running the company. She quit her day job as an insurance underwriter and decided to go to graduate school. She landed at the University of Washington, where she now teaches.
During her time in Seattle, she has had a subtle but deep effect on the way we make, think about, and talk about theater—especially how theater connects with the city at large (or more often doesn't). "When theaters do playwrights of color," she says by way of example, "the way they talk about it is—I don't know, sociological, anthropological. The poster doesn't say, 'This play is freaking exciting.' It says, 'The African American family finds the strength to deal with the la-la-la.' It doesn't say, 'Joe finds love.' It's always the African American family 'struggles' or 'wrestles with' or 'fights for.' We seem to 'wrestle' a lot." And she's frustrated with theaters that think putting up plays by writers of color isn't worthwhile unless they're attracting audiences of color. "If not a single black person comes, that doesn't mean it wasn't worth it," she says. "It was still a valuable thing to have happened. That's where empathy comes from—being able to look at the other and feel something."
Empathy is a keystone in Curtis-Newton's work. She directs plays about difficult subjects, but, as one member of the theater company Satori Group observed during a forum at the Frye Art Museum, she steadfastly refuses to pick heroes and villains. "I don't believe there are villains," she responded. "The most vile, virulent form of racism... I look at that and I think, 'Why must they do that? What is it that they're terrified of?'" Then she tries to get at that in her work so the malignant behavior is, in her words, "understandable—not necessarily acceptable, but understandable."
The result, in recent years, has been a series of powerfully resonant productions that have shaken audiences with their insight into the relationships between people as individuals and between peoples as groups. A few years ago at Intiman, she set Arthur Miller's All My Sons in an African American household in Seattle's Central District without changing a single word. ("That's how you know that All My Sons is a play that's universal," she says.) More recently, she set audiences back on their heels with her version of Childress's Trouble in Mind, also at Intiman. The play is about the barely suppressed racism in a Broadway rehearsal room where a white director who thinks of himself as a do-gooder urges his actors to play broad stereotypes of Southern black people—and what happens when one actor refuses.
Trouble in Mind is 60 years old, but the production seemed eerily contemporary. "People kept saying, 'How old is this play?'" Curtis-Newton says. "It's because she wrote the fucking truth and didn't apologize for it. People who had never heard of Trouble thought it was a palatable way to tell a contemporary truth. No. It was revolutionary in 1954. She was crazy-stupid brave."
Curtis-Newton is also known for bravery and forthrightness—she's the kind of conversationalist who makes you feel like you're getting smarter just listening to her—but bridles at the perception she's only interested in race and racism. During a forum on race and theater at Seattle Repertory Theatre this August, she noted that she'd been working as an out-of-school director in Seattle for 20 years and has only been asked to do what she called "the not-black plays" five times.
"In my brain," she says, "I make work with the idea that a whole bunch of people who have almost nothing in common will sit together and watch it."
Inspiring a whole community to show up—not just some narrow demographic of theater aficionados or feminists or people of color—has become one of her benchmarks for a successful production. Her work wants to start conversations, even if they're uncomfortable. Perhaps especially if they're uncomfortable. "I just want to get people in a room, talking to each other," she says. "If we all agree and sing 'Kumbaya,' we're not going to get anywhere."