A heart-to-heart with Ansley Valentine|
When I spoke to him, he was beginning production for a series of home-improvement videos, in which he plays a do-it-yourself electrician (a stretch, he admits—laughing—in spite of his versatile gifts). He was also between performances of his MFA thesis project in directing, Once on This Island, a musical fable based on the novel My Love, My Love by West Indian-American writer Rosa Guy. Valentine’s staging was colorful and highly theatrical, using masks, puppets, and stylized dancing.
How did you come to choose Once on This Island for your thesis project?
I actually wrote up proposals for 20 possible shows to submit to my committee. Nine of them were musicals; I really like directing musicals the most. A musical, if you’re sensitive to the music, tells you how it should be done. I also wanted to do a show with African-American actors. Plays get done because a director wants to do them—there’s not some overarching social conscience driving the selection—and I really felt that there was a void that needed to be filled, that they don’t really do African-American plays, or, for that matter, Asian-American plays or Hispanic-American plays. There’s not a lot of diversity. Unless someone says, ‘These are the things I want to champion,’ that doesn’t happen. But in fact, my first choice out of the 20 was a different show, The Hot Mikado, which is the Gilbert and Sullivan show but done with a swing band.
Once on This Island is quite stylized. How did you decide on that approach?
The framing device—of people telling a story—lends itself to being presentational. And I thought the puppets would be a good fit, make it just a little larger than life. Much of it developed in rehearsal with the actors. That’s not how plays usually get done, especially musicals. You don’t have the luxury. But we rehearsed for a very long time, which allowed it all to gel and digest. The guys who did the Papa Ges [demons of death] were really collaborative. Some people in my cast were not up for working together like that—they didn’t have the confidence. So for them I was like, "Do this, believe me, just do it this way." I try to find a balance between what I see as a director and what I’m getting from the actors. I can go from both sides, as an actor myself.
I started doing puppets by accident. Life for me has been full of random auditions that have turned into long-term things. In 1992 I auditioned for the Indianapolis Orchestra Yuletide Celebration, where we used puppets that were from nine to 35 feet tall. The first year I was an apprentice. There’s a core of folks there who are real puppet enthusiasts, and I just got absolutely fascinated, and worked my way to being puppet master. It was really random.
What draws you to puppets?
They’re highly theatrical. Our theater has become so realistic, so driven by film, that we’ve kind of lost that sense of make-believe. I’m just fascinated by the way a puppet can take on such human qualities in the hands of a skilled manipulator. This static face can somehow take on the whole range of emotion. It’s just amazing, that what’s essentially a doll becomes human. It’s really an amplification of the human experience—there’s nothing getting in the way, like "Oh, she’s a bad actress."
Now that you are about to finish your degree, what’s next for you?
I have thought some about television. I don’t think I’m cut out for film; I don’t visualize things that way. Television is more like the stage. So much of what I do is in response to what I’m getting from people, what’s happening in the moment when we’re all together. Film is too discontinuous.
I’m also thinking about a break from theater. I might work for Sigma Chi fraternity. My second year here I was selected as a Balfour Fellow for Sigma Chi, and it’s been an incredible experience. I got to be part of a leadership workshop, I served on the education sub-committee, went to meetings. There were some real movers and shakers I got to rub elbows with. I think I’ve learned a lot about motivating people and about business. And in the state of the arts now, you can’t just be an artist. Arts organizations need artists who can interact with the business community, since so much of what happens is funded by the private sector. I’ve had to learn to say, in one sentence, what my idea of my art is.
OK, so what is your idea of your art, in one sentence?
I work to create something that’s not just an academic or intellectual exercise but that really touches some part of the soul.
Last Updated: December 15, 2000
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