EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS: Harvey Fierstein’s acclaimed Casa Valentina at Erickson Theatre Oct 19-28

by MK Scott

You may have seen the ads and video on Facebook or ads in Seattle Gay News or director Derek Villanueva on the cover of the current Unite Seattle Magazine. What is even more intriguing is the Seattle Premiere of Casa Valentina from Harvey Fierstein (the award-winning playwright who brought us Kinky Boots and Newsies, as well as Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles and more) comes a powerhouse gut wrenching play that stormed Broadway in 2014. Now, the Lesser-Known Players, presents the Seattle premiere of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina. This production appears at Capitol Hill’s Erickson Theatre Off Broadway (1524 Broadway) for eight performances only Oct. 19 through Oct. 28. Tickets at $15-$35 in advance at casavalentina.brownpapertickets.com and at the door, if available.

Following is a brief description about the play written by the Manhattan Theatre Club where the play premiered on Broadway:

‘Back in 1962, most men went to the Catskill Mountains to escape the summer heat, but others took the two-hour drive to escape something else entirely: being men. Nestled in the land of dirty dancing and borscht belt comedy sat an inconspicuous bungalow colony that catered to a very special clientele: heterosexual men whose favorite pastime was dressing and acting as women. It was paradise for these men – white-collar professionals with families – to spend their weekends discreetly and safely inhabiting their chosen female alter egos. But when they got the opportunity to share their secret lives with the world, these ‘self-made’ women had to decide whether the freedom they would gain by emerging from hiding was worth the risk of personal ruin.

‘Infused with Fierstein’s trademark wit, this moving, insightful and delightfully entertaining work offers a glimpse into the lives of a group of unforgettable characters as they search for acceptance and happiness in their very own Garden of Eden.’

I had a chance to chat with Derek Villanueva earlier this week.

Photo by Nate Gowdy

MK Scott: What attracted you to the play?

Derek Villanueva: I’ve always been a big fan of Harvey Fierstein’s work, and over the last 18 months I’ve been reading a large number plays. While I’ve directed films before this will be my theater directorial debut, so I was searching for that perfect work that really spoke to me. When I read Casa Valentina I fell in love with the work and knew it was something special. I was shocked to learn that it hadn’t already been performed in the Seattle area, so I jumped at the chance to license it for its Seattle premiere. On the surface it’s not a play that has the broadest appeal – a play about cross-dressing mostly heterosexual men at a Catskills resort in the 60’s. But like all of Harvey’s work, the characters are so rich and the play so layered and human that it’s truly universal in what it has to say about identity, acceptance and finding your tribe. As I researched the play and the underlying historical facts about the resort and its historical namesake, the Chevalier d’Eon, the rich detail was truly icing on the layer cake. Valentina has seven characters.

MK: How different is each character?

Derek: Each of the characters in this play are fully formed humans, with incredibly unique life circumstances, origin stories, and internalized conflicts – so they are all wonderfully original. In fact, if it weren’t for this secret commonality of cross-dressing they would probably not be friends or have any reason to spend time together. But because of the commonality of their rejection and shame, they seek this safe space where they can live out, if only for brief moments of time, an important core part of who they are without judgment or the threat of physical violence. They have found their safe, accepting tribe.

MK: I know that you were in Bainbridge Performing Arts’ musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert last year, and now your company Lesser Known Player’s is putting on Casa Valentina. What’s going on over on Bainbridge?

Derek: It’s the water! Actually, I think it’s great that all sorts of communities and theater companies are staging plays that have representations that are even just a bit out of the mainstream. Today we see so much division and polarization, which I believe is fueled by lack of experience, understanding and empathy. So, while Casa Valentina’s characters aren’t explicitly LGB, they are definitely queer. And the fight over whether a newly forming non-profit organization for cross-dressing men explicitly forbid homosexuals from joining forms one of the main conflicts, along with the requirement to be publicly out as transvestites, which in the 1960’s could land you in jail or worse.

MK: I have heard and seen that your marketing campaign has been sensational with still identifying each character and even a video. Where did the idea come from?

Derek: The video idea came because I’m a filmmaker, so I brought that eye (and equipment) to the table. The power of theater is the intimate, real-time connection when the character takes over the actor and forms a relationship with the audience. The more we see each character as a wonderful, beautiful human being, and not just painted with a broad brush and dismissed as scary or ‘other,’ the more power a work like Casa Valentina can have. So, I wanted to create that same kind of connection in the marketing material and video on digital platforms was the perfect way to do that.

MK: You are also on the cover of Unite Seattle Magazine’s October issue and you had written an article focusing on Diversity in the Theater. Give us a preview.

Derek: I’m very appreciative of that opportunity and visibility. I had to make decisions about how to cast Casa Valentina, and I consciously chose to cast the best actor rather than ‘safer’ stereotypical choices. For example, Jonathon would typically be played by a nebbish waspy ~30-year-old. I had the opportunity to cast an amazing young actor, Tony Magaña, Jr , who I know our audiences will love. I believe that anyone who can give visibility to artists needs to really think hard about pushing the boundaries, and not just ‘casting to type.’ The world is so rich in its diversity, and we must find ways to expose and benefit from that richness.

MK: What is coming up next?

Derek: Right now, I’m 100% focused on doing justice to Harvey’s work and putting on a memorable and touching series of performances of Casa Valentina. I know it has the power to move people, and I know that my talented group of actors, musicians and set designers will be doing that during our run. I continue to look for other works that speak to me and that I think need to be seen. I’m also keeping my toe in the Los Angeles and Seattle film scenes. The great thing is that the experiences acting in plays and musicals and now directing a play bring a new tonality to how I approach films, in the same way that you can see a little of my film background in how this play is staged as well as in its marketing. I love the process of trying out new creative challenges. It’s what keeps me fresh, engaged, and helps me find my voice and purpose.

MK: Burning Question: After I had met you at the cover shoot, I realized that I had seen you in a feature film and Queer cinema favorite, Longhorns, that played the Gay Film Fest in 2011. What was it like working on that film?

Derek: I had an amazing time on that shoot. First, the director, David Lewis, is an amazing director and all around great person. I was so in love with the process of making films that I deputized myself as an unofficial gaffer, because I really wanted to understand every part of the process of film production. The rest of the cast was great fun, too. We shot the exterior shots in Grass Valley, CA (outside San Francisco), and got to know the local gay community there, which was a hoot. The inside shots were done in a studio in Oakland, and the cinematographer and crew were so creative in getting amazing shots in a small space. I had the opportunity to be in Longhorns because I had co-written with my partner and starred in a short called Little Love about a year earlier that was directed by Quentin Lee and had been on the gay film circuit as a companion short to his feature The People I’ve Slept With. That was really my introduction to film, and it’s now become the focus of my creative expression. I still love Longhorns and everyone who helped that get made. It’s funny, I’ve been approached on the dance floor in Spain by people who recognize me from Longhorns, so things have a funny way of traveling out to all parts of the world and making a difference. So that’s my hope for me and for everyone, really, that we are all doing things that we are passionate about, that we are putting ourselves out there, and letting that travel wherever it may go, and hopefully it touches people and makes the world just a little bit better.

Seattle actor Tom Stewart loosens up in challenging drag role

I have personally known Seattle actor Tom Stewart since 2015 Arouet’s production of The Children’s Hour as Joseph through last year’s SMT production of My Fair Lady as Henry Higgins. Stewart also plays with so much energy and passion in his roles that I had to ask him about his performance of the cross-dressing title role as Valentina. I also chatted with Stewart over Facebook.

MK Scott: What attracted you to the role of George/Valentina?

Tom Stewart: Harvey Fierstein first. I didn’t know the play, but I’ve enjoyed his work. I read the script and liked the roles of Charlotte and George/Valentina. I’m always looking for something that might challenge me. That sounds like a total actor cliché (and it is), but the challenge is more than just wearing a dress and heels. George is a man scared of completely losing himself to this other persona that’s he’s built, Valentina. He fears he’s disappearing. Valentina is jealous of the fact that George is seen as a real person and she is not. She wants the world to know that she’s ‘a person, not an aberration.’ So the conflict is between Charlotte and the community George has built, but it’s really between George and Valentina.

MK: What are the differences of George and his drag persona, Valentina?

Tom: George is fading and Valentina is growing. George looks to Val for advice and guidance, while Val doesn’t seek George’s opinion. George, at this point in his life, has geared everything to underpin Valentina; he has the resort, writes for a transvestite magazine, has gathered a group of like-minded friends who can understand and support him, has a wife who aides him as Valentina while maybe not fully understanding either. With Valentina, she sees George as someone one to be jealous of, but to also pity. They both come up with rules to make boundaries to reinforce and strengthen their world.

MK: What have been the challenges to this role?

Tom: Opening myself. I can be a fairly closed off person in everyday life and stepping on a stage in a different persona is freeing but involves stripping all the crap you had to build up for your protection away. It can be a painful and revealing process. First, we had to build enough trust with Derek and then among the cast to do that. Never easy. I think we’ve succeeded.

MK: What is next for you?

Tom: I’m doing The Veteran’s Day Project in November in Tacoma, and then Death of a Salesman in February at The Slate, and working on staging Bobby in ’68 my show about Robert Kennedy’s run for the presidency in June. And probably a few other things during that time as well. Stay tuned!

Lesser-Known Players presents the Seattle premiere of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway (1524 Harvard Ave) from Oct 19 to 28, for eight performances only. Tickets at $15-$35 in advance at casavalentina.brownpapertickets.com and at the door, if available.

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