Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Artist Profile: Valerie Waters, Actress

I first met today's artist when we were both students in the University of Iowa Theatre Department. Though she considers herself an actress first and foremost, she is well versed in every area of theatre production, working in such venues as The Public Theatre in NYC. It is an honor to call Val one of my closest friends, she is truly an inspiring and prolific artist. Enjoy!

1. Where are you from originally?

I consider my hometown to be St. Louis, MO, though I was born in Florida and spent about a third of my childhood in the suburbs outside Tampa. But St. Louis is where I learned long division, where I performed in my first play, where I had my first kiss, and where much of my family still lives, so this city will always be "home" to me.

2. Where do you get your creative inspiration?

An easier question to answer would be "where DON'T I get creative inspiration?" As an actor my art is based in the human experience, so there is no part of my life that cannot be tapped for artistic stimulus. That said, though, theatre is typically centered around the most important moments of a person's life, so the inspiration for a role usually has to come from something other than my most recent trip to the grocery store. Like most actors I draw on powerful moments from my own life, but something else I find extremely helpful is the art of others. Since art is so often the distillation of an experience into its most visceral parts, I find a wealth of creative energy in music, poetry, paintings, photography, novels, and other works of art. I can infuse my own emotional history with the power of a heart-wrenching song and the transcendent imagery of an epic poem and have an arsenal of inspiration to draw from onstage.

3. How long have you been acting?

My very first performance took place when i was in fourth grade and I played "Mrs. Brown" in my class's production of Paddington Bear. But I was an actor long before I ever took the stage. My mother is a brilliant performer and she was constantly acting when I was little, so I was virtually raised in the theatre. In fact, it was also in fourth grade that my teacher called home to report that I was using foul language in the classroom, but in a most unusual manner: I was singing it. My mother was in rehearsals for Best Little Whorehouse In Texas at the time, and I had picked up the lyrics from hearing her practice. I wasn't punished for my transgression, but I was asked not to sing any more songs from my mother's shows - at least not until she was in something more wholesome.

4. Do you have a favorite type of theatre you enjoy doing?

I adore musical theatre, and it would be accurate to call it my "first love" in the theatrical realm. However, my tastes have matured since I first discovered the stage, and now I am never more happy than when performing Shakespeare. As any actor will tell you, there is something unique about Shakespeare: the language is liquid and hypnotic, and so pervasive that it seeps into your everyday life until you find yourself thinking in verse. Recently, while in rehearsal for a Shakespearean production, I was plagued by a stressful project at my day-job, and at one point I actually caught myself uttering curses such as "ancient damnation" and vowing to let "fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!" Shakespeare's ability to bring beauty and lyric to even the most mundane aspects of my life is a large part of why the Bard's plays are my favorite to perform.

5. Who are your creative mentors?

I had a professor in college who changed the way I see theatre, the way I see acting, even the way I see myself. Carol MacVey introduced me to so many different theories of acting, and gave me so many practical tools that I could never list them all. But more important than the methods she taught was the method in which she taught: she encouraged all forms of discovery, celebrated the most meager triumphs, and most importantly she gave herself fully and passionately to every moment, and by doing so not only made each of her students feel nurtured and valued, but also taught us an invaluable lesson in how to live, both on and off stage.

In addition to Carol there is Jonna, my counselor. I am a great advocate for therapy for all people, but especially for actors, whose job requires tremendous self-awareness. Jonna has helped me work through so many artistic blocks, to develop a sense of self-worth and an enduring confidence in my abilities and my goals. At the same time she has shared with me the trials and triumphs of her own artistic journey as a musician. She has helped me to trust in the creative process, and to trust myself.

Of course, I cannot discuss creative mentors without mentioning you, Annie. Your creative drive, determination, and strength are an inspiration to me. Your ability to move so easily among mediums - from light to fabric to paint to dance and beyond - gives me hope that I might increase the spread of my own artistic endeavors. And you have been a rock for me: a voice of reason, of encouragement, of love, and a source of unwavering faith. You have been both a model of the artist's process and a partner to share it with, and without you I would not be an artist worthy of the name.

6. What do you enjoy doing when you're not creating?

Sleeping. I love sleeping. It may not seem so but acting can be exhausting, especially when those four hours of rehearsal come immediately after eight hours of work. So I have a slightly over-developed affinity for my bed. Oh, and I also like eating. And I enjoy cooking but I despise doing the dishes, and so since the first almost always necessitates the second, I often abstain from culinary pursuits. In all seriousness, though, usually when I'm not acting or singing I can be found reading, listening to music, going to the theatre, watching movies, and watching tv series on DVD. So, essentially, when I'm not creating I like to spend my time enjoying other people's creations.

7. Would you say your environment (where you live, work, play) influences your creative
process? If so, how?

Absolutely. I feel that in order to function properly, both as a human being and an artist, I have to have balance in my life. The most difficult balance for me to find is one between work and rest, and an environment can dictate how much of each I get in a day. I am a person who needs a lot of rest - lots of peaceful quiet time to myself for reflection and relaxation - or else I become frazzled and frustrated and unable to accomplish anything. So it almost goes without saying that when I lived in New York I had a very difficult time getting anything done: there is nothing restful about New York City, and at the time I had not yet learned how to create peaceful space for myself at home, or how to find rest on a crowded train. Here, in St. Louis, the problem still exists, though to a lesser degree. I have my quiet time in my car during my commute every day while I listen to NPR or opera and relax my mind while focusing my thoughts. At home I am careful to keep my bedroom in a semblance of order because I know that I don't sleep well when lying amidst chaos. My current day-job is a perfect fit for my lifestyle, as it requires just enough energy and commitment to be psychologically satisfying, but not so much that I leave exhausted at the end of the day. I am always adjusting my life to fit my environment - either adding projects and commitments when things are too slow, or finding new methods and times for meditation and relaxation when life becomes too frenetic - and it is only when I achieve a careful balance between the energy surrounding me and the energy within me that I feel most creatively enabled.

8. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years I see myself as a successful actor. And by successful I mean doing theatrical work that is meaningful to me and paying the bills with it. I also see myself branching out into directing, and possibly attending graduate school to further that goal. Another dream of mine is to obtain a degree in psychology and expand the field of drama therapy. Of course, in ten years I might also have children, in which case I see myself pursuing my career goals in a city with a good balance between cultural opportunity and domestic comfort, such as Seattle or Minneapolis. There are any number of scenarios I can dream up for a future ten years down the road which are equally plausible and exciting, and I don't presume to know, or even want to know, which path my life will take. I have long-term goals and long-held desires towards which I will work, but I am most happy to simply enjoy the journey.

9. What does your creative process entail?

My creative process as a whole would be difficult to outline since I am trying to make it more a way of life than prescribed procedure. However, if I limit the question to how I approach any one particular role there is a certain method to which I tend to adhere. First I read the play several times, trying mightily not to pay too much attention to my character at the expense of discovering the others. Then I like to research the play's period and environment and circumstances. I study any relevant historical events or movements of the era, as well as the more mundane details of clothing and food and housing and weather. For example, a play I did last June was set in St. Louis in 1917, so I visited the Missouri Historical Society and spent hours wandering among displays of dresses and fans and purses, taking an audio tour which detailed racial relations of the time, and studying the women's suffrage movement. After I feel comfortable with the circumstances of the play as a whole I dive into my own character's background, researching topics specific to her history, which for the above play included turn of the [20th] century childbirth practices, the New York modeling industry in the early teens, and the etiquette and societal customs of New England socialites of that era. After I have a strong historical and environmental background then I get to my favorite part of the process, which is the dissection of the scenes. I examine every word I say, every word someone else says to or about me, I try to determine what my relationship is to each of the other characters in the play, not only the ones who appear onstage but also those merely mentioned in the script. Sometimes I use a free-form style of writing to explore a scene, writing in first person about the events and my [character's] reactions to them. Sometimes I like to try to transpose a scene to fit my own life and circumstances to get a more honest perspective. By far the most useful tool, though, is rehearsal. No amount of writing or research can substitute the energy and life received from another actor. This is where the background becomes just that, background, and the human interactions of the play and the needs and desires and loves become the focus of the work. Every rehearsal reveals a new aspect of a relationship, a new way to fight for my goal in a scene, a new obstacle to battle through. And the process of discovery continues, all throughout rehearsals and through all performances, which is truly one of the most marvelous things about theatre: it is a living art form. You may see a play in June and go back to see it again in November - the same play with the same cast - and have a totally different experience. The creative process never ends, there is never a finished product, and I am always trying something new (often failing), exploring different tactics, and making surprising discoveries. And so the work continues, and I could not be more grateful for that work.

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