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Theatre Director Ansley Valentine

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(MUSIC PLAYING)

ASHLEY CHILLA: Welcome to Profiles. I'm your host this week, Ashley Chilla, the co-host of "Journey Indiana" on WTIU. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Ansley Valentine.

Ansley Valentine is an actor, director, choreographer, playwright and theater educator. If there's a job in the theater, Ansley has probably done it at some point in his career. He is currently a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographer Society, as well as Actors Equity Association. Ansley holds an MFA in directing from Indiana University and a B.A. in theater from Wabash College.

He is the co-founder and producing artistic director of Ohio Youth Ensemble Stage, a professionally managed summer youth theatre program that celebrates diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity for all students, no matter their ability. More recently, he directed a Zoom production of "Big Breath," starring Tony Award nominee and fellow IU alum, Elizabeth Stanley. He is currently an associate professor in directing and acting at Indiana University.

Our conversation was done virtually, not in person. And our first topic, naturally, was the state of live theater in a socially distant society…

…So I'm just going to dive right in. We are living in some strange times right now. We aren't gathering in large crowds to watch live theater. Zoom theater is very popular and you have been extremely active in that area, directing for productions on Zoom. What has that been like?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Wow, that's a great question. You know, I think working on Zoom has been a great adventure and a huge learning curve as well. Actually, I've been reading quite a lot about what people are saying about Zoom, Zoom theater and of course, there are those out there that say, well, you know, it's not really theater if we're not together, live in a space, it's not theater and it's not quite film, but it's its own new thing. So for me, the process has really been trying to embrace the new thing of it and trying to figure out how to make the best use out of the medium to still tell stories and still engage people in our artistic process.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Now, I know that there are some productions that are rehearsing live with masks and then filming it and putting it on Zoom. And sometimes people are directing via Zoom. Is that what you did with "Big Breath?" Were you directing via Zoom with Elizabeth Stanley?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Yes. Yes. So she was in New York. She was in - like, yes. By the time we were rehearsing, she was in New York, our playwright was in San Francisco and I was in Bloomington at that point. So yes, we did the whole thing via Zoom, which was kind of a trick because we were trying to figure out how to use the green screen and, you know, what to do with our setup. And you know, obviously, Elizabeth had to be her own crew for the filming as well. So it was a bit of a process but a lot of fun.

ASHLEY CHILLA: And how does directing through a screen differ from your normal in-person process or are they somewhat similar?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: They are somewhat similar, I would say. I think one of the things that I do in the room is trying to create a particular atmosphere so that people can be as creative as possible, that they feel safe to take risks and try things and feel safe to have conversation about what the artistic product should be or how best to get there. So I think you're still trying to create those kinds of things in a Zoom space. But obviously, the output or the product is going to be different. You know, so on one side, perhaps what it is that you need to do for the actors from a theoretical sense is the same in making people feel safe to do the work they need to do. But on the practical side, it's much more like directing a film in that I, as the director, have to be much more in control over what the image is and perhaps how to be, you know, twice or three times as discerning about that image because we don't have, like, even a film, you don't have the kind of control that you would. You know, if we were on a film set, you know, I have Grip's and, you know, director of photography. And you know, there'd be a lot of people there to help us make that image the way that it needs to be in this situation. It's like, well, you've got to angle your iPhone in a different way or, you know, that fat lamp over there in the corner, can you bring that a little closer so that we can get the right shadow? You know, so it's a little bit of guerilla theater-making or guerrilla art-making. But certainly, you know, I have to rise to a different challenge than when I'm making something with people in the room or that's going to be seen live.

ASHLEY CHILLA: And "Big Breath" was a one-person show. Have the other productions that you have directed been multiple people? And what's the challenge in that?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Yeah, they - all the other things that I've done have been fairly decent-sized groups of people even. And the biggest challenge really is the fact that we don't have a shared language or understanding about what this thing, this new thing is. You know, the thing that's most interesting to me is that I think we take for granted what it is that we do when we do it in the theater. I never really have spent much time, at least not lately, thinking about how special that interaction is, that that thing that happens in a space. You know, you just take it for granted. I've been doing this for so long, since I was in eighth grade, you know, so you just sort of, you take some of that for granted. And when it's gone, you go, huh? I see what that thing is. I see what that thing is that's so special. But I think the other thing that goes with that is that, you know, you have a lot of people who are like - when you're making theater, it's like, oh, I've rehearsed plays or I've rehearsed musicals and I know how this is supposed to go and I know what to do. When you're working on Zoom, your actors may not all have a shared vocabulary or a shared understanding of that. I sort of liken it to probably when the talkies came to Hollywood. You know, suddenly you have a bunch of people who are very skilled at what they did in silent film, and then this technology disrupts all of that. And some people were able to adapt and adjust and other people, they just didn't have it in their bandwidth to do that. So again, you know, like that thing of like, oh, what makes this different to be a director in this space is that you also are having to help your actors, your company, navigate creating a shared dialogue or a shared vocabulary to be able to do the work.

ASHLEY CHILLA: And you talked about, you know, bringing in the actors and making sure they all feel comfortable in the space and valued, is that the same with other members of the creative team? Are there other members of the creative team when you're doing Zoom? Is there a lighting designer? Is there a costume designer?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Well, there certainly can be those other folks who are part of the process. You know, the other thing that's so interesting about all this is that everybody has to solve these problems in radically different ways. So you know, I've worked on, you noted I've worked on quite a few productions and they've all been very different just based on how it is that other folks have wanted to address this process. So yeah, I mean, I think yeah, you're trying to bring all of your collaborators together to see, like, well, what is it that we can do? I have found that it's best to have fewer people involved. You know, not so much that it's like, oh, you know, I just can't stand to have a big tent of folks. But you know, we really are in the process of creating something that's wholly new. And it's very challenging to get everybody on the same page. And so the fewer people you have to navigate, given the amount of time also that we're often having to work on, on these things, the fewer people you have in the room, I think the more successful you can be in getting to a shared understanding and then moving forward.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Do you know what audience responses have been? Is that even part of the equation when you're doing Zoom theater?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: You don't know. You know, I realize that that's perhaps the thing that I miss the most, is getting that, I won't call it validation, just getting some sense of like, oh, did that land? Did that make people feel like something? You know, I've done - worked on two Zoom productions with our youth here and, you know, I really miss hearing from the parents, you know, hearing from the kids and their excitement and the audience. And you just think, well, I think it looked good. So hopefully, other people did, too. But sometimes you do hear and sometimes, you know, people do write comments or post things up. And one or two of the things that I worked on, there have been talkbacks or things after the shows, you do get some opportunity to hear from people and see like, oh, the work that we've done really has had an impact and it hasn't been a waste of time.

ASHLEY CHILLA: I've noticed that in the past decade, that the theater has been, as a whole, bringing in technology. You know, we've always sort of set ourselves apart from television and films by saying, you know, we are a live experience. But do you see some sort of fundamental change in aesthetic happening when we do get back to normal?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Absolutely. I think - well, one, I don't think that all of these new things are going to go away 100%. I know there are people who are always wishing for, like, oh, that moment that we can come back and be together, but there are so many new and wonderful things that actually have come out of this process or out of these times and new discoveries that people are making, I don't see all of that going back. In it's like the cat is out of the bag. I, you know, for one, you know, just having the opportunity to work with people who are not in the same geographical location that you are. You know, that for me is perhaps the number one advantage, to think, wow, we put on a show and the three main, four, plus our editor who was involved, we're all in different cities at the same time. To be able to do something like that is huge because often, you know, we haven't been able, you know, you might not be able to do work or you might have to put off a project because we can't get together to do it. Now we can. I foresee that folks will start to think of other ways that they can use this medium as an opportunity to do something different, to not replace the live experience by any means. I think perhaps people will appreciate the live experience even more than they did before. They won't take it for granted. But I also see that people will be looking to see how they can integrate technology, integrate things into that live experience that perhaps just hadn't been thought of before or hadn't been particularly acceptable before.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Well, and I've noticed that people who maybe weren't all that keen on technology in the first place now have to be keen on technology. It was a very steep learning curve. So you definitely see that being part of the equation moving forward?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Oh, yes. Yes. You know, it really has I feel challenged a lot of people and their creativity and forced them to reexamine their processes. That you couldn't just say, well, I'll do this Zoom play like I've done every other play. And it fundamentally is a different thing. And so you have to approach it from a different theory base, a different set of practices. You have to have a different discernment about it.

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ASHLEY CHILLA: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Ashley Chilla. Our guest is IU theater professor, Ansley Valentine.

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ASHLEY CHILLA: Ansley, how did the theater find you? What got you involved?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: (Laughter) Oh, the first play that I was in was "The Beeple" at Indianapolis Junior Civic Theater. I was in the eighth grade. I had - well, the first big play, I'll say it was the first big play. I think when I was in the first grade or I was in kindergarten, I was a raindrop. And we did "Raindrops Keep Falling on your Head." And I still remember having this construction paper raindrop on a headband that I wore. But the first like real theater play was "The Beeple." And I saw something in the paper and I said, oh, I want to go try out for that. And that was it. I was hooked. I went to Performing Arts High School. I started taking Saturday classes. And actually, you know, truth be told, I am still friends with a lot of the other kids who were in that show a thousand years ago, who are still professional actors and directors and writers and broadcasters. So it really was a life-changing event for me.

ASHLEY CHILLA: So acting was the first thing that drew you in?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Yes. And then once I got into acting, then I was like, oh, wow, all this other stuff is really fun. And also because, you know, my friends were all so talented and I thought, oh, I don't have the same level of acting ability that they do. So I kind of got into some of these other things because I just wanted to be in the theater. I just - I wanted to stay in the theater every day, all day. If I could have, you know, not gone to school at all and just been to the theater, then I probably would have done that, too.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Yeah, I was just about to say, I mean, you are a jack-of-all-trades. I mean, in full disclosure, I have known you for quite a bit of time. And in doing the research for this interview, I learned so much about you. I didn't know that you did as many things as you do (laughter).

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Yeah. Yeah. And there was a time when I got shade for all the things that I did. You know, people always say, well, you should focus on one thing or, you know, jack-of-all-trades and master of none. And you know, I just did not accept that narrative. I felt that, you know, perhaps that could be true for some people, that they really just need to do one thing. But for me, I just - I had a genuine interest in a lot of different things. And truth be told, when I started working in the profession, I needed to do all those things to make a living. So you know, sure, I felt like, oh, you know, maybe I want to focus on my acting, my acting career, but I wasn't always getting cast. And I thought, you know, I'd rather be in the theater than standing out on the sidewalk. So can I be on the run crew? Can I work in the costume shop? Can I do something else so that I could be connected and be in the place to be able to say, but what I really want to do is direct or, you know, whatever that might be. And so for me, it has allowed me to actually have a life and a career almost solely in the theater because I did have this variety of experiences.

ASHLEY CHILLA: One of the other things that really surprised me about you, Ansley, is that you are also a film producer. Can you talk more about that?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Yes. I thought that perhaps I wanted to make film part of my directing portfolio and that I would pivot in that direction. And so I actually went to film school at the Maine television and film workshops up in Camden, Maine. For two summers, I went up there to study and started with documentary and moved on to some other things. And I would love to do that a whole lot more than I've had the opportunity to do. But I did. I wrote - I've done a couple of documentaries. Actually, my one, it's on YouTube, won a Telly Award. That was - I had written a piece about Sigma Chi fraternity, the history of Sigma Chi and also the impact of that organization. And you know, I would love to do more narrative work, but it certainly has come into play with my teaching, acting for the camera. So being able to work with the actors and figure out like, OK, what do you need to do? You know, as we've noticed, you know, those skills actually have been the thing that's informed my work on Zoom theater the most because I understand, I think I understand what the camera does or doesn't do and how it is that you have to change your acting to be effective on a camera. So it's, you know, it's these things that, you know, that you pick up along the way that you think, well, why do you need to know that? Well, I don't know. You know, you're preparing yourself for something that you didn't know was going to happen 15 years into the future.

ASHLEY CHILLA: One of the things that I found while doing some research was that you wrote a rock musical based off of "Antigone." How did that come about?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: (Laughter) Well, when I worked at Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo as part of our theater school programming, we wanted to have a show that we could take out to schools in western New York and have something that tied to the curriculum. And so working with my collaborator, Dan Acquisto, we came up with this idea to turn "Antigone" into a rock musical. And Dan wrote the music. I wrote the lyrics and the book. I can't say that I'm the best lyricist in the world, but it was actually a really wonderful process to work with him and collaborate. And now he's in New York and has, you know, written lots of other really great shows. But it was, you know, for me, it was a great opportunity to collaborate with a bunch of people to make something that was sort of unusual at the time, at least.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Yeah. I've played "Antigone" and the fact that a rock musical exists of the show, I want to seek it out now to be in it.

(LAUGHTER)

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I think you'd be great. He wrote some real whaler's for "Antigone." He wrote great songs and Antigone had, you know, as one would imagine, you know, she really would get up there and kill, not quite Elphaba in "Wicked" kill, but she had some whalers up there. So it was a good process, a good product.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Good. This is exactly what I was imagining (laughter). So you talk about, out of necessity, really, getting into all the different areas of theatres that you could keep yourself in it. Is there one direction that you find the most stimulating or fulfilling?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I would say directing for me really is that because I have the opportunity to work with all the pieces and parts in the process and help facilitate and inspire people to do great work. I think the older I have gotten, the less all of this has gotten to be about my ego or wanting to prove something. I think I'm - I feel like I'm largely past that and now it really is, what do I want to say or what I want to help other people say or can we explore a new way to say this? And so being a director allows me that opportunity. And you know, knowing about all those things serves me really well because I actually - I can have an intelligent conversation with everybody on the production team because it's like, oh, no, I've done that. Oh, yeah, no, I've been paid to do that. So I know what you're trying to do and we can really talk about it, where I think a lot of directors, they're like, well, I know there's clothes. You take care of that. Me, I really can have a true collaboration with all of those people and understand what it is that they're talking about and talk about it in detail to make the best production that we can.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Is there a particular production that you've directed that really made you realize that this was your passion?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Wow, I don't know. I feel like, you know, I've always wanted to direct really, like, from probably, like, the first show. I just thought like, oh, well, this is really cool to be able to bring all the pieces and parts together on something, but it's really hard to get work as a director. So that was another reason that drove me to like, well, I better learn about all this other stuff or I'll do these other things until those opportunities start to come along.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Well, speaking of other stuff, is there any element of the theater that you've tried that you didn't like or that you weren't very good at? I have a hard time believing it, but is there one that you weren't very good at?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Oh, my goodness. There - yeah, there are things. Sound design, I would not say is like, oh, that's my strong suit. And I don't like building scenery. I mean, I know how to use the tools and do those things. You know, I gravitated towards costumes because one, I liked, you know, I liked the camaraderie that happens in a costume shop. But also, like, when the show is over and you do strike, you just put the clothes away. It's not - not everything goes into the dumpster. And you know, strike is always a little sad for me, less sad now. I mean, I've done so many shows like - but, you know, at least costumes felt like, OK, it's over, but it's not done. You know, we might come back to this at some point.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Is there any other job in the theater that you haven't tried that you'd like to?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I don't know that there's anything in the theater that I haven't tried yet that I'm like, oh, I'd really like to do that. You know, sometimes, especially when you have a smaller company or you're doing your own thing, you really do have to do all the jobs even when you are, quote, "important," you have to do all the jobs. You know, when I was working at the Forest Roberts Theater up in Michigan, yes, I was the producer of the theater, but I also had to take out the trash or mop up when the toilet overflowed or there was nothing glamorous about any of those things.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Well, there's one thing that's missing from your bio, that I wondered if you've ever been a theater critic?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I have done that every once in a while, you know, and certainly being an educator, you feel like you're often in the process of critiquing or responding. You know, I've been - have done a lot of work with the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and going around to different colleges and universities and seeing their productions and then giving them a response afterward, sort of immediately. And that often feels like the same as a critic of like, OK, I just watched this show, what do I think about it? What was - what worked and what didn't work and what do you want to think about? But you know, I've never - it took me a long time to reconcile myself somewhat to that process because sometimes looking at, for me, early on, like looking at, oh, how was this made, took some of the joy out of it. Now, again, I feel like now I'm at a different place in my life where now I really am more actively parsing out. How is this made and why is it made this way and why is that a good thing or is there a better way to make this? So now I'm like, yeah, OK, I could - I probably should write more about that.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Well, and probably with your background of having your hand in a little bit of everything, you can really speak to a lot of different aspects of a production.

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Sure, and I think in doing my response work with the colleges and universities, for me, sometimes it's really having the insight to ask good questions, because part of that process is not just to tell the students, wow, you were great or oh, that was terrible. It's - you're trying to help them develop their artistic voice and trying to support them in creating their own discernment about what is art? What is my theater going to be about? How can I be the best craftsperson possible? And so, I sometimes think it's better to say, well, what are the questions that you should be asking yourself about your work and what it is that you've done? As opposed to somebody saying, you know, that was really terrible, you should not do this ever again.

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ASHLEY CHILLA: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Ashley Chilla. Our guest is IU Theater Professor, Ansley Valentine.

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ASHLEY CHILLA: Ansley, you are a graduate of the Arts Midwest Minorities and Arts Administration Fellowship, a program funded by the Ford Foundation to increase minority representation in leadership roles at American non for-profit organizations. How did you get involved with that program?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: When I was working at the Indianapolis Civic Theater, I had started moving to the side of management and was a company manager for our Theater for Young Audiences group, which was Kid Connection. We traveled around to elementary and middle schools presenting a show. And so I heard about the program through Arts Midwest and thought I should apply because I, again, was at that point of thinking, well, maybe I need to move into a space where I can facilitate the art for people as much as I'm making it myself.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Was there something about the minority representation part of it that really drew your interest? And do you find that that has continued throughout your career?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Well, certainly being a minority, I was interested of like, oh, I will need a job, I need a job and I need to be able to do this better. And certainly, looking around at the professional theaters that I knew, to say that there wasn't much in the way of minority representation in leadership or in senior leadership, which I think is why Arts Midwest and the Ford Foundation and other people got together to help change that because, for many artists of color or administrators of color, they simply had not had the opportunity or the access to some of these institutional organizations. You know, this - working in the arts and the theater, in particular, it's a very small community, that everybody sort of knows everybody else. And moving up in leadership or advancing really is built or based on relationship. And so if you don't have the opportunity to have those relationships or to be mentored or to observe those sort of higher-level interactions, then your ability to move up into the executive suite is hampered. Now, I think the program was wonderful, and I think the people that it was able to help certainly have made an impact on the industry. But you know, here we are more than 20 years later, and I don't know that it's that much different than it was. It's certainly better. So I don't want to say, oh, it's just the same. But is it equal? Is it comparable? No, I don't think that it is. And I think that's evidenced by some of the movements and things that have occurred recently of artists really calling out the institutional organizations across the country to say you could do better. And what are you doing to make it possible for people to move up? And I don't think that it's just about, oh, well, you have to have diversity for diversity's sake. I think there's really something quite meaningful about having other voices at the table and other people who are in the leadership because it has an impact on the programming and it has an impact on, you know, how it is that you interact with your community and it has an impact on what you know about your community?

ASHLEY CHILLA: Did you find that that fellowship changed your approach to theater?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: One hundred percent, 100%. I think what it gave me was a real insight into the practical or the business side of the process. And also, it gave me other language to be able to talk about the things that you wanted to do. I worked with Judith Pascoe, who was in the development department at the Cleveland Playhouse. And Judith was or is I mean, she works elsewhere now but, you know, Judith is one of the greatest grant writers that I've ever known. She raised millions of dollars by herself just in writing grants, grant proposals. And to see the power of language and to see how it could be used on paper and how it is, you would take the idea of the artist and turn it into language that speaks to the people with money was very powerful. I think I knew that in the back of my mind, but I didn't really know how all that worked. And so seeing that, seeing how Judith went about her work, having the opportunity to do some of that myself, that was transformative.

ASHLEY CHILLA: So after that, you served as the theater school director at Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo, where you oversaw a wide variety of youth arts programming. How did you end up finding yourself in Buffalo?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Well, as I was coming to the end of my fellowship at the Cleveland Playhouse, you know, suddenly now I had access to a lot of other theater organizations that I didn't before. And the position at Studio Arena seemed to fit my education bent as well as it would certainly give me an opportunity to use the things that I just learned as part of my fellowship program. And so I think they took a chance on me, which I really appreciate because, again, it - you know, it was a great time. I think I was able to do a lot of things that I'd never really been able to do before, and I think hopefully had some impact on a lot of lives of kids in western New York.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Well, a lot of your work has been based around youth-oriented theater. You co-founded a summer youth theater program, the Ohio Youth Ensemble Stage. You've done extensive work with Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. You've been the director of the Midsummer Theater Program out of IU. What about youth theater keeps you coming back?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I have seen the power of arts experiences for kids and whether they decide to become performers or work in the arts themselves, I see and have seen the impact that these kinds of experiences have on their self-confidence, on their view of the world, their ability to work with other people. You know, it's been really important to me. I feel like it's great if I can put on a good show and entertain people, but to know that I've done something or I've helped facilitate something that actually had lasting impact on somebody's life, that's huge. And I feel like I do it well and it's important to me. And so I feel like I have a responsibility to do those things. You know, is it advancing my personal career? No, you know, maybe not, I don't know. Is it a lasting legacy for me? Absolutely. Absolutely.

ASHLEY CHILLA: What do you find most fulfilling about working with young people?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: They just grow so fast, you know, they get stuff so quickly. And you know, you can really see when you're - you can see like, oh, wow, you know, you got so much more confident there. You see the lightbulbs go on. And that's just exciting for me, you know. And the other part is the long game, you know, having a kid, you know, years later that you had as a student write you a letter and say, you know, hey, you really helped me come out of my shell or you helped me to be more confident in myself. You know, to see the kids who were squirrelly, you know, out - now out in the world as adults doing things, you're like, oh, wow, you know, that's really wonderful, you know? So that's what keeps me coming back.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Has that happened to you, if you had a student write you a letter 10 years, 15 years later?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. You know, I have one student, I won't call her out here but she, I think was in a show, maybe her first show with me, maybe when she was 10 and she was very shy and not a really outward type of person. You know, not a kid who would be like, oh, I've danced all my life. And she stayed with me and, you know, came back every summer and did stuff. And now she is about to become a teacher. So she did actually write me a letter, I think in her, maybe it was her freshman year at college and say, you know, how much those experiences had meant to her. And so I'm like, you know, all the blood, sweat and tears, that's what makes it worth it.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Well, we've both worked, I think, quite a bit with youth theater, and it is very fulfilling, but there are also challenges. So what do you think are some of the biggest challenges with working with young people in that theater?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I think the biggest challenge is remaining calm and patient. That is sometimes the biggest challenge because they can be so frustrating, because you're like, why don't you just be quiet so we can get this show together? And I think sometimes, you know, like the other challenge for me is knowing well, what's the right thing to say at the right time that's going to have that - going to flip that switch or make that difference and what it is that that they're trying to do so that they can be successful in creating this production? It takes a lot of patience and a lot of focus, probably a lot more than people appreciate that it does.

ASHLEY CHILLA: I know that you said that you tend to ask more questions than give statements to these young people. Do you find that to be true when you're doing a summer youth program?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I start with the questions because I think if they can figure out the answers for themselves, that the result is going to be more honest and more true and more lasting. But if it gets down to the wire, then I will just say no, just do this. Don't ask questions. Just do this. And then, you know, next time we'll deal with questions. We'll start with the questions again.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

ASHLEY CHILLA: You're listening to Profiles on WFIU. I'm Ashley Chilla. Our guest is IU Theater Professor, Ansley Valentine.

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ASHLEY CHILLA: Ansley, you have a lot of credits to your bio, both acting and directing, so many productions that I could hardly believe it. Was there a period in your life when you focused just on acting or just on directing? Or have you always been an educator and an artist?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Early on, I did more acting. And then I really got to a place where I realized the characters and roles that I was getting, it's like, oh, you know, I'm going to have to wait until I am much older before I really start getting cast in what seems right for me. I think a lot of people think that, OK, well, you know, you're going to get out of college and go to Broadway and you make it big. And you know, if you don't make it big in the first year or two years, then you're a failure and you should give it up. And I find that really, you know, we live in seasons. You know, according to our identity or personality or our talent, there are different points in our lives when yes, this is your time to work and maybe this isn't your time. Sometimes it's about being patient. And so I recognize that, oh, I would have to be, you know, much older to be playing the kinds of roles like in August Wilson that suited my personality. So during that middle time is really when I focused a lot on my directing, much more so. And I had almost completely stopped acting until actually one of my professors at IU, Bruce Burgund, called me up and said, hey, would you like to be in a production of "The Boys Next Door?" And that was transformative to me because I had not - I had stopped acting but hadn't realized how much I missed it. And Bruce doing that, you know, calling me to be in that show actually just sent me on a whole other journey. You know, it really turned the tide for me to say, oh, you know, I need to really turn my attention back to doing more things in the profession.

ASHLEY CHILLA: As an actor myself, I'm always interested to know from other actors, out of all the roles you have played, which one has resonated with you the most?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Oh, I would probably say Mr. M in "My Children! My Africa!" You know, one, he's an educator himself, so I certainly can identify with that and the passion that he has for his students is also something I can identify with, and the fact that he is flawed in his love for his students and trying to know or tell them what is the best thing to do. You know, that he accepts that I don't know - I don't have all the answers. I don't know all the right things, but I'll tell you how I feel. I'd love to do that show one more time before I retire.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Well, you've acted. You've directed. You spent quite a bit of time as an educator. You came to IU, you got your MFA in directing. What brought you back here as an educator?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: You know, I had always wanted to come back to IU because it was really such a wonderful place for me, challenging but also very wonderful place for me. And I wanted to have an opportunity to give back. And so I was fortunate enough to be asked by Dale McFadden, who was the previous head of acting and directing at IU, to say like, oh, would you be interested to come and have a conversation with us? As Dale said. And I said, of course, I'm always happy to converse. And you know, it seemed like the right thing to do. And again, you know, you step off into these adventures, you know, that you never - you think, we'll see how this goes and we'll see where this takes you. And I feel like I have - again, it has opened up so many opportunities and possibilities for me and created so much new thought for me and how it is that I approach my work. You know, it's really been - it's been a fantastic opportunity to be back and to be in this place and being able to do my work.

ASHLEY CHILLA: So as an educator here at IU, what are some of the challenges facing theater education today?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I think one of the biggest things that we are dealing with is the change in society and how we need to change, adapt, refocus how it is that we do what we do. You know, I would say that, you know, a lot of our acting training is based on theory that was developed over 100 years ago. And for many people, like the way that we teach, is pretty much the same way that it was taught, maybe not quite 100 years ago but certainly 50 years ago. And you know, we're now - we're in a different place. You know, there are so many things that have changed. Our cultural identities have changed. Technology has changed. If I'm doing Zoom, you know, does that mean that I have to train you to do your acting in a different way? You know, certainly, there was a time when people are like, either I'm a stage actor or I'm a screen actor. And now it's like most people have to do both to be able to make a living or to have access to the most opportunity. So I think our challenge now is really, not so much how to remain relevant, but how to still connect the basic truth of what it is to be an actor or to make theater, but to also embrace the world that's new and helping our students to have a voice or creative voice that's going to be able to move forward into the 21st century.

ASHLEY CHILLA: And do you notice any specific challenges facing theater students in today's society?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I think the thing that I see the most that students are challenged by is how to be authentic in their presentation. You know, we've always worked on how to be real or how to be truthful, you know, even Shakespeare talks about that. But I think this notion of being authentic has taken on a completely new meaning today in our very mediated experiences and social media. You know, what does it mean to put something out there? Who should put what out there? How do I say what it is that I want to say? I think there's a lot that are - a lot more that our students are trying to navigate than, you know, back in the day when it's like, well, how do I best play, you know, Biff Loman and make him seem like a real person? Now it's like, should I play Biff Loman? You know, is that a play that we should do? You know, am I the best person to do that? Should somebody else do that? You know, there are I think a lot more moral and ethical questions tied to the work than there were before.

ASHLEY CHILLA: And you talk about students needing to learn how to be authentic and how to be real. How do you approach teaching a student how to be their most authentic self?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Well, that is the thing I feel like I struggle with on a daily basis. You know, that for me is the toughest question. It's hard to do that in a classroom setting of 20 people. You know, I think I feel that I'm most effective in that, when I'm talking to somebody just one-on-one and trying to mentor them through that, and also trying to model that myself. You know, if I can't tell you, like, what's the best way for you to do that, I can at least say, well, this is how I'm struggling with all of this or this is how I'm approaching this, or this is what I think I should have done. I did this, but I maybe should have done that. And again, it's like, let me model for you the questions. And I think taking a humble attitude to say, I don't know. I don't have all the answers. You know, you will have to figure out how to fish for yourself, but I can show you how I made my pole. And if that's helpful for you, then great. If you're like, no, that's dumb, I don't want to make a pole out of that. I need to make a new pole, at least you're like, OK, well, I know pole making. So now let me go figure out a better way to make a fishing pole.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Earlier, you had talked about the need for diversity and representation within theater as a whole. Do you find that is still needed within the educational setting as well?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I think so. I think, again, we need to have a variety of opinions and a variety of outlooks, and we need to model for our student's different ways of doing what it is that we do. And having a variety of people and perspectives and backgrounds coming together in the educational space, I think is important for our students to be able to see that it's not a monolith. There's not just one way to do this. And there are lots of people who are very successful, perhaps in part because they don't do it in the monolithic or canonical way, the way it's been done for 50 or 100 years. So I think it's important for us to have folks who are saying, well, you know, there's a different way or here's how I did it. And for the students to see that and I think for the students to perhaps see among their faculty people who look like them. That has more importance and resonance than we sometimes give credit to. I think there is so much about what we do that is completely unspoken and representational. And if what it is that we do in theater is about making images and those images are symbolic of things, then that tells me that there are lots of other things in our lives, in our world that can also have that same power in their symbolic representation. And so to see is sometimes more important than to say.

ASHLEY CHILLA: And do you find that that messaging is also trickling down into the production side of educational theater, that the students are wanting to see more diversity on their stages?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Certainly, there is a desire to have more diversity. You know, the challenge is finding the people to be able to support all of that. As big as IU is, for example, I don't know that we always are attracting all the people that we would like to attract to participate and support what it is that we would like to do. So I think the students want to see it, then it becomes an issue of the logistics to be able to do that. An educational theater is not the same as professional theater. We don't have the same resources that a Broadway production might or a professional production might. And so we are sometimes hampered in our efforts. But hopefully, we still keep trying, keep trying to make those changes and bring those things into the conversation.

ASHLEY CHILLA: And because I'm really interested in this, I want to know, what is one of your biggest joys in education?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: My biggest joy, really, is seeing how somebody has gotten better by the end of a class or semester or they're four years, you know, it doesn't have to happen all at once. That, for me, is the greatest reward.

ASHLEY CHILLA: Ansley, your life has seen many acts. What act are you on right now? Is this a three-act play or a five-act play?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: I think we are - we perhaps might be a neoclassical French so this - we might be in act six (laughter). You know, I have not been on a linear journey and I have greatly appreciated that. I have always been about, let's open the door and see where this goes. You know, I feel like I am the richer for that. And hopefully, I can, you know, can pass that richness along to my students as well.

ASHLEY CHILLA: What do you still want to achieve in your career?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Well, it would be really great if I could have just one big Broadway musical that, like, runs forever. You know, like, one "Lion King" or one "Wicked" or, you know, one - I just want one. I really don't have to have, like, a thousand. Just one would be great (laughter).

ASHLEY CHILLA: And is that as an actor or a director or a costume designer?

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Like running the show for years, that would be a real challenge at this point. But you know, having something that's like, oh, yeah, that's printing money over there in the corner, that would be nice. That would be a nice way to round out things. Will that happen? I don't know. We'll see. For the time being, I think I'm just happy to know that I'm able to do some work, perhaps do some innovative work, perhaps add to our knowledge or conversation about how best to do work and, you know, perhaps have an impact on other people who are going to go out into the profession and make things.

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ASHLEY CHILLA: Well, thank you so much for joining us today and for chatting with me. I really learned so much about you. Thank you, Ansley.

ANSLEY VALENTINE: Thank you. It was great to talk to you.

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ASHLEY CHILLA: That was Indiana University Theater Professor, Ansley Valentine, speaking with me, Ashley Chilla, from WTIUs "Journey Indiana," your guest host of Profiles this week. Thanks for tuning into Profiles on WFIU.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: For more information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, go to wfiu.org/profiles. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us again next week for another edition of Profiles.

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Ansley Valentine

Indiana University Theatre Professor Ansley Valentine (Courtesy Photo)

Ansley Valentine is an actor, director, choreographer, playwright and theatre educator. If there’s a job in the theatre, Ansley has probably done it at some point in his career. He is currently a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society as well as the Actors' Equity Association.

Ansley holds an M.F.A. in Directing from Indiana University and a B.A. in Theatre from Wabash College. He is the co-founder and producing artistic director of Ohio Youth Ensemble Stage, a professionally-managed summer youth theatre program that celebrates diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity for all students no matter their ability. 

More recently Valentine directed a Zoom production of Elizabeth Gjelten's Big Breath starring Tony Award nominee and fellow IU alum Elizabeth Stanley. He is currently an Associate Professor in Directing and Acting at Indiana University. 

On this episode of Profiles, Valentine discussed his life and career, the current state of "Zoom" theatre productions, and the role of diversity in arts education.

He spoke with Ashley Chilla, the co-host Journey Indiana on WTIU.

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