Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Spotlight On...Anna Van Valin

Name: Anna Van Valin

Hometown: Buffalo, NY

Education: BFA from NYU, MFA from Brown U./Trinity Rep

Select Credits: The Degradation Play (Rising Phoenix Rep), Throat (Primary Stages), Created Equal (Red Fern Theater), Bloody Mary, Little Miracles, and Agamemnon (New York Madness), The Dickening (MITF), Blithe Spirit (Trinity Rep Co.), Henry V (Rites and Reasons).

Why theater?: Oh, honey I could write a book. I could write ten. It all boils down to empathy. Theater creates empathy, which is the key to any kind of progress or understanding on this planet.  It's easy to hate or dismiss people if you have no experience with them. You can see the lack of empathy from everyday discrimination to politicians passing devastating laws because THOSE people just SHOULDN'T be like that. Theater, more than any other art form, allows us to be part of stories and lives we never would be otherwise. Even in movies or TV there's a distance, a separation; but a piece of theater is a live event, and the audience is its witness. Watching human beings go through something real in the same space with you, in the same moment, even if the circumstances are imaginary, changes you. As Atticus Finch said: "You can't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes." Actors walk those miles and miles, and we bring the audience with us.

Tell us about Othello: This is a beautiful, badass production. Obviously it's an exquisite play to start with, but Shakes Exchange and Cristina Lundy have created a show that's so in tune with what we are going through as a country and a city that it's downright chilling. In our world Othello is a police captain; we wanted to explore how race and power play out in our most immediate form of protection.  With things like "Stop and Frisk" and the Trayvon Martin murder so fresh in our collective unconscious, this context shows the kind of inner conflict that can come from a man running an organization that reinforces the prejudices he has to fight every day. On top of that, it's a world of crushing sexism: women are dismissed as "whores" throughout, and it ends with two women being brutally murdered by their husbands for stepping out of line. Since the play is very old and familiar, it's way too easy for us to say "That was then" - but think of how often we call women "sluts" to shut them down, how often we read about women murdered by their partners and think nothing of it. Iago is the villain in this play, but Othello isn't blameless: even if Desdemona had cheated on him it still wouldn't have been ok to kill her. What I love about this production is that it puts into focus the fact that if you are a woman or a black man your body is public property.  A cop can shoot a black man and face no consequences. A group of men can rape a woman and never see the inside of a jail cell. And even if they do, the damage is done. Every little derogatory comment or experience of personal prejudice may not seem like a big deal individually, but they are a constant reminder that we are not physically safe. The cumulative effect of these little wounds takes its toll, and as Othello and Desdemona find out, leaves us vulnerable to all kinds of paranoia.

What is it like being a part of Othello?: It's wonderfully intense. I've been mostly doing new plays and on-camera work for the last couple of years, so getting to work on this complex, luscious language feels so luxurious - and is amazingly challenging. Shakespeare did not mess around. This show is about everything that gets us riled up: racism, infidelity, slut-shaming, violence against women, etc. Emotions run high and we all know we have a responsibility to give these topics the respect and weight they deserve. Now that we're about to open and we've hit our groove, we're beginning to relax, have fun, trust the work we've done and, above all, take care of each other. In the end, every piece is an ensemble piece.

What kind of theater speaks to you? What or who inspires you as an artist?:
Anything that reminds me that I don't know everything. I want to be challenged, shown something in a new way, asked a question I don't know the answer to, put in a situation that has no easy way out. I loved Alan Cumming's Macbeth because it took a play I know very well and showed it to me in a way that was totally unfamiliar. I love modern TV characters like Dexter Morgan, Carrie Mattheson, and Walter White (may he rest in peace!) that are too complex to put in any one box. I'm also so so so inspired by other actors. I would watch Mark Rylance or Cherry Jones move furniture. Seriously.

Any roles you’re dying to play?: Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten. It's the one role I know I'll be devastated if I never get to play. In grad school I worked on monologues and scenes from it, and did a big chunk of Josie for my 3rd year recital. So even if I never get to play her all at once, I'll at least get to play her cumulatively!

What’s your favorite showtune?: "Cool" from West Side Story. Come on, that's perfection.

If you could work with anyone you’ve yet to work with, who would it be?: Judith Light. She's one of my actor heroes. I met her once and cried all over her. She was nice about it.

Who would play you in a movie about yourself and what would it be called?:
Chloe Sevigny, since people mistake me for her all the time. It would definitely have "blonde" in the title.

What show have you recommended to your friends?: Besides Othello? Book of Mormon. I know that's old news, but it's just the best thing ever.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?:
Binging on TV and terrible food that I'll only eat alone. I seriously don't understand why there is any food other than deep dish pizza and brownies. The writing and acting on TV is so much better than in movies these days, and Netflix and Hulu are wonderful fodder for my obsessive personality. So now you all know what I'll be doing the week after Othello closes!

What’s up next?: I'm the Head of the New York Madness Acting Company and our fourth season's just getting started. I've also started teaching a workshop for actors called "Keep Going" that reconciles the barriers that keep us from self-promotion with the tools we need to do it effectively.

For more on Othello, visit and