Interview with Valerie Curtis-Newton

Valerie Curtis-Newton
Valerie Curtis-Newton. Photo by Joanne DeGeneres.

The Professional Actor Training Program (PATP) doesn’t produce a “UW” kind of actor. While there is certainly a distinct UW philosophy when it comes to actor training, it has nothing to do with fitting an artist into a mold – a preconceived notion of the right features necessary to make it in the professional world. Part of that is due to the fact that the definition of “making it” has been blown wide-open by the unique vision of the performance faculty, led by Professor Valerie Curtis-Newton.

Curtis-Newton, herself a graduate of the UW’s directing program (MFA 1996), has been a faculty member in the School of Drama since 1998. She stepped into the role of head of the performance program in spring 2012. In that capacity, she oversees the PATP and Directing MFA programs, in addition to an active outside work schedule. For Curtis-Newton, the academic and professional work feed each other and she takes lessons from each into the other.

Professor Curtis-Newton recently took the time to sit down and talk about what makes the UW program unique and what keeps her invested in continuing to help develop the next generation of theatre artists.

 

Why do you teach?

I think of it as a calling. We can give our students back to their best selves. We have the opportunity to remind them of their creativity and the sound of their voices. To set them up with a kind of courage and confidence to go out into the world and to be heard and to make change – that is the gift we can give to students. I teach theatre because I believe in community and I believe we don’t have enough opportunities to share space with each other – to empathize and to discover compassion, but also to hold each other accountable. I believe in theatre’s power in the world to help us hold onto each other in a time when it would be all too easy to fracture and divide. I teach because I want the world to be better.

 

How do your teaching experiences influence your professional work and vice versa?

There was a point three or four years into my teaching career here that I really came to understand how the fear of failing corrupts almost every endeavor. Learning to figure out where the fears of failure were getting in the way of students’ progress became a really useful skill out in the world doing my professional work. I recognized that not only students are fearful, but artists in every stage of their careers encounter obstacles that keep them from moving into their fullest potential in realizing their role.

 

I make choices in the work I do which can model for students what is possible. The goal is to make work that sits at a high level and that other people can be inspired to emulate. I feel the pressure and the honor of being a role model because I’m a teacher and I think that makes me better out in the world. The action of doing work that really speaks to you is modeling something for young people who are being raised in a culture that is aspirational. The way to achieve success is to do things that you’re passionate about. Making professional work keeps me aware of the environment that I’m sending students out into – what’s expected of them and what will set them apart.

 

What sets the PATP program apart from other acting MFAs?

The fact that we are located on the west coast and have an active working faculty is very unique. The strength of our faculty is a potent thing. We believe in traditional approaches combined with more contemporary approaches. We’ve added television and film to our third year. We’ve added business classes to help students to think about their work in an entrepreneurial way. We’re not interested in making a “UW” kind of actor. We’re very interested in finding out who our students are artistically and how we can best assist them in reaching their full potential according to their own vision.

 

The vibrancy of the Seattle theatre community – from really small companies to Broadway touring houses – is a unique environment in which to train students. I don’t know of another program that has the variety of theatre spaces in which to perform. Our students here act and direct all the time. In a lot of programs, the entire first year students don’t do work for the public. That’s not true here.

 

If there’s not a “UW” actor, what kind of actor comes out of the program?

I like to think that we put actors out into the world who are a little bit idiosyncratic, pretty muscular, pretty brave, and fully capable – skilled.

 

What are the principles of the training that get them to embody those adjectives?

It’s the well-roundedness of our training. We do work in the traditional, Stanislavski-based approach; doing inside-out work. Then we do Suzuki and Viewpoints training, which is outside-in work. We work on the physical instrument of the actor, both through the physical conditioning of the training, as well as Alexander Technique, Voice, and Speech.

 

I want our actors and our directors to be ready for the world, and all the training is configured to get them there. We require that they do generative work so that they develop the skills to know that they can make work rather than wait for work to come to them. Our goal is for everybody to be working. And I don’t say “work” in the sense that they’ll get the T.V. show or movie or theatre role, but that our students are going to be able to make art – to express themselves artistically – for the rest of their lives. I don’t have a limit on what it is I think they can do in terms of their work.

 

What are your goals for the program?

The ultimate goal of all the training is to have the fundamental skills needed to do any work, to understand how stories function, and to understand how to be in relationships within a collaborative process. Our students learn how to foster their own creativity. They learn how to be brave enough to put their voice out in the world and accept the consequences of having spoken. The empowered creative voice is a fundamental element of human happiness.

 

The performance faculty really believes in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts and we want that for our students. We work to help develop smart, entrepreneurial, talented, hard-working, collaborative, creative leaders. Because we do that on a consistent basis, I want the UW to be recognized as a one of the centers of excellence in training in the country.

 

I would like our students, faculty, alumni, and perspective students to really understand us as a community and to feel a part of a community. I would like to have directors, designers, and actors from the 73 years of the program to feel more connected. I believe theatre is a connecting agent and I would love for our program – both through its successes and its strong presence – to be a beacon that calls people back home on a regular basis.