In talking to Distinguished Teaching Award winner Valerie Curtis-Newton, one gets the impression that her goal as a teacher would be the same regardless of what she was teaching.
“I think students should work hard,” she said, “put in all the preparation they need to tackle an endeavor, be bold enough to have ideas and believe that their ideas should be given a voice, be courageous enough to speak them or to put them into action and mature enough to accept the consequences of whatever those choices were.”
As it happens, Curtis-Newton is a professor of drama, so the ideas she’s talking about manifest themselves on a stage. But she says, “My job isn’t to make directors or actors. My job is to make really great citizens who can apply those skills to anything in life. So I think if they’ve gotten that, then I’ve done my job.”
Her students evidently appreciate her approach, as those who wrote to support her nomination show:
“Answers never come easily in Val’s classes,” said undergraduate Elaine Huber. “She insists that students develop their ideas and discover their own answers.”
“She is able to guide students to take artistic risks, while holding them accountable to learn something if they fail,” said graduate student Alyson Roux.
Drama School Director Sarah Nash Gates, who nominated Curtis-Newton for the award, put it this way: “Val teaches by laying a pathway for a student to explore. Students are allowed and encouraged to blaze their own creative path with Val staying nearby, ready to nudge or point the way only when asked or to save a bad stumble.”
In a way, Curtis-Newton is mirroring the path that she herself took. As an undergraduate at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., she was mentored by Robyn Hunt and encouraged to find her creative voice. When Hunt moved to the UW to teach in the School of Drama, Curtis-Newton followed her and entered the master’s program in directing.
“I thought I’d go back east after I finished the MFA, start my career there,” Curtis-Newton said.
But then she fell in love, both personally and professionally. “When I first joined the faculty there was an energy that I was drawn to and possibilities represented by the work being done here that were very exciting to me,” she said.
That, together with the personal life she shares with her partner, has kept her in Seattle, where she heads the UW directing program and frequently directs at local professional theaters. She uses those outside directing gigs as stepping stones for her UW students and colleagues.
“Every time I do any work at all, there’s always at least one UW graduate or undergraduate student or alum in the project,” she said. “When I do readings I try to use that as an opportunity to introduce people from our programs to the theaters. I always have either actors or assistant directors from the UW.”
In the past few years, Curtis-Newton has been heading up an effort called the Hansberry Project through which works by African American playwrights have been brought to local stages. As an African American herself, it’s work she feels passionate about. And yet, she doesn’t want to be known as the director who does black plays.
“It’s a bit of a box,” she said. “I want to tell good stories — all kinds of good stories.”
In fact, Curtis-Newton wants to do more than tell stories. She wants to bring people together.
“I’m really, really interested in how art intersects with community — how it builds it, how it stretches it,” she said. “And as director I get to pick the projects that I think can bring a disparate group of people together to watch and then set them loose to have conversations with each other. And that’s very exciting to me.”
Take her recent foray directing All My Sons at Intiman. The play is considered an American classic, written by white playwright Arthur Miller. Curtis-Newton chose to cast black actors in the central roles.
“It was a way to make the play feel more urgent, more relevant to a contemporary audience,” she said. “We didn’t change anything of substance. We didn’t try to ‘make it black.’ My interest as a director is in how I land the play’s intention in the heart and soul of an audience. And I felt this was a way I could do that.”
It’s a goal Curtis-Newton hopes her students take to heart.
She said, “In their exit interviews I ask students, ‘Are you a better artist than you were when you got here?’ And when they say yes, I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction.”