A Year In: Theatre artist Jesús Valles

For the Austin writer and theatre artist, the pandemic has meant a year without stages and scene partners. And missing the much-loved small worlds of gay bars, the classroom and family


The series ‘A Year In’ catches up with artists now that the coronavirus pandemic has reached its one-year mark.

Actor, theatremaker and poet, Austin-based Jesús Valles is a queer Mexican immigrant, educator and storyteller originally from Ciudad Juárez, México.

After its 2018 premiere, Valles’ powerful solo show “(Un)Documents” was also nominated for five Austin Critics Table Awards, including the David Mark Cohen Award for Best New Play. Valles has been a fellow of the 2018 Poetry Incubator, a Undocupoets Fellow, a Lambda Literary fellow and had work has been published in The Shade Journal, The Texas Review, The New Republic, Palabritas, The Acentos Review, Quarterly West, and The Mississippi Review.

Prior to the pandemic, Valles was a busy part of Austin’s independent theatre scene, a member of The VORTEX Repertory Company, Shrewd Productions, and an executive board member for Teatro Vivo.

Sightlines: What were you working on when the lockdown began in mid-March 2020? What was the first of your work you saw cancelled?
Jesús Valles: In March 2020, I was preparing to open “Mexico (Expropriated)!” at UT Austin and getting ready to begin what would be a three month tour of my solo show “(Un)Documents” throughout the U.S. I distinctly remember arriving at rehearsal for “Mexico “and being told that there was a strong possibility that the show would be delayed for at least the next three weeks. Within the first hour of the rehearsal, I received phone calls cancelling my own appearances at Tufts, Arizona State University, University of Arizona, Hofstra, and UC-Santa Barbara.

The next day, the cancellations continued. I became extremely distrustful of what awaited us on the other side of the “three week” postponement. Sure enough, the small worlds I loved most in Austin — the theatres, the gay bars, the classroom — began to close one by one.

S: What part of the pandemic were you surprised to find being a creative benefit?
JV: I have been extremely inspired and grateful for all of the tenacious ways that theatre companies and artists rose to the challenge of this moment. The digital reach made it so that I was able to work in an incredible comedy called “Pinching Pennies with Penny Marshall: Death Rituals for Penny Marshall” by the brilliant Victor I. Cazaraes, produced by New York Theatre Workshop. I also had the pleasure of re-mounting a digital rendition of “(Un)Documents” through Teatro Audaz in San Antonio.

Related: “Theater review: Jesús Valles takes ‘(Un)documents’ online”

However, I would say much of the pandemic has felt like a violent pause in the creative process. I was slated to premiere a new solo show with The Vortex this summer, but as news of community COVID spread began to dominate my news cycle, I was held hostage by the possibility that I may never see my family. Given their high-risk occupations, I was terrified by the probability of loss in my family. I have been so tremendously grateful for the opportunities that I was so graciously gifted during our first year of lockdown. All the same, I would trade all of it for the opportunity to have more time with the family members and friends I’ve lost over the past year.

S: What changes do you want to see in theatre, how it’s practiced and how it’s presented to an audience? What could or should the so-called ‘new normal’ of theatre look like?
JV: The pandemic and its subsequent reshaping of the theatrical landscape has reiterated what scholars, artists, and audiences living with disabilities have always told us: theatre needs to be more accessible and there are ways to do it.

As theater companies began to adapt to our new reality, many friends and collaborators noted that organizations that have for long ignored accessibility issues for the sake of a sacrosanct “liveness,” now pivoted toward strategies to make digital or asynchronous theatre opportunities. I hope we remain vigilant of how we might labor to make a theatre that feels more accessible for all audiences.

Beyond this, the convergence of the pandemic with the uprisings and reckonings sparked by the deaths of of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Oluwatoyin Salau, and many others created the opportunity for many theatre companies and theatre artists to have an earnest confrontation with the White supremacists systems that organize so much of our work and world. I hope that we do not stop at simply “having difficult conversations,” but that we continue to push for material changes to dismantle the anti-Black, settler-colonialist/conquistador structures that guide so much of our world.

The “new normal” requires a re-imaging for theatre companies to orient themselves toward an ethic of liberation before anything else. Think of the ease with which so many companies were able to open the doors of their theaters to protestors this summer. I hope we remain attentive of the possibility that a theatre can be more than a house of spectacle, but a place for earnest, action-driven community engagement.

What’s next that you look forward to, and are excited by?
JV: Artistically, I’m looking forward to sitting with my body and re-orienting my writing and performance practice in light of the year without stages; the year without scene partners. I am currently developing “bala.fruta./bullet.fruit.,” a solo show about bullets and the ghosts they leave behind long after their kill, with the help of the OUTsider Festival as its first artist-in-residence as well as a residency from the Millay Colony for the Arts.

I have also just finished my first full-length play with multiple characters titled “a river, its mouths.” I hope to workshop this play sometime this year. Finally, I want to begin work on finishing a full-length poetry manuscript tentatively titled “Mexican Standards.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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