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A conversation with Mark Valdez, Mixed Blood’s new artistic director

We have to transform our institutions. We have to think about what the work is, who it’s for. How is it advancing justice? What does justice-centered theater look like?

Mark Valdez
Mark Valdez: “Because I’ve acted over the years in various roles, I’ve participated in the last three strategic plans that the organization completed. On some level, that has been an invitation to think about and dream about … the future of the organization.”
Courtesy of Mixed Blood Theater

Last week, Mixed Blood Theater’s board of directors announced that after a 20-month search, they’d chosen Mark Valdez as the organization’s second artistic director, replacing founding artistic director Jack Reuler.

Valdez is no stranger to Mixed Blood, having directed nine shows with the company previously, and serving as resident artist twice. He’s been part of the theater’s strategic planning process more than once, so he’s intimately familiar with the underworking of its vision and direction.

Born in Texas and based in Los Angeles for many years, Valdez is a playwright, director, activist and organizer. Here’s a conversation with Mark, edited for length and clarity.

Sheila Regan: You’ve done a lot of work with Mixed Blood over the years. Have you ever actually lived in the Twin Cities before?

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Mark Valdez: Not really. I’ve been there for long stretches of time, but never lived there as a full time resident.

SR: Are you mentally preparing for the cold?

MV: You know, I was just there, and I was trying to get there, and it turned into essentially a 30 hour ordeal getting from Los Angeles to Twin Cities. Some of it was mechanical, some it was weather, and then I get there, and it’s snowing, and it’s cold. Woo-hoo! This is it! But I will say it’s beautiful. But I’ve been working with Mixed Blood for so many years on and off. Inevitably, it happens in winter, so it’s not a foreign thing to me. I kind of remind myself, you get used to it. It’s just the shock of leaving (a) 70 degree sunny day and arrive at a three degree snowy day.

SR: What do you feel is your connection with Mixed Blood and the community here in the Twin Cities?

MV: Because I’ve acted over the years in various roles, I’ve participated in the last three strategic plans that the organization completed. On some level, that has been an invitation to think about and dream about, with the company, and with Jack and the board and the other stewards to the organization, the future of the organization. To think about the work that it wants to do and the role that it wants plays in the Twin Cities and the country. On some level this feels like a natural extension of the work that’s happened. I feel very plugged into that institutional organizational composition.

Regarding the Twin Cities, just because I’ve been going for so many years, you make friends every time. At this point, I’ve started to build a community of friends there in the theater community. There’s still a lot more to do and people to meet and things to learn. I’m definitely coming in as an outsider, but I’m coming with some familiarity and a nice little base of community to help ease that transition.

SR: Do you have a favorite play you’ve directed or projects you’ve been involved with at Mixed Blood?

MV: I have several. One of them is is a show that we did recently: “The Most Beautiful Home … Maybe.” I did it with my collaborator (ashley sparks) and Mixed Blood. I’m really proud of it – it’s about affordable housing.

A scene from “The Most Beautiful Home … Maybe.”
Photo by Rich Ryan
Karla Mosely in a scene from “The Most Beautiful Home … Maybe.”
Many years ago, I was curious about the state of form and dramaturgy and events and how we do plays. We created a play that was a dance party. I was thinking about the dramaturgy of dance clubs and dance parties and how you choreograph an audience to move throughout the space and to dance. There have been many beautiful plays working with amazingly talented playwrights over the years.

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SR: How does social justice fit into your theater practice?

MV: It’s something that I think about a tremendous amount, and it really guides so much of what I been doing and kind of want to do. Art itself is a social justice issue. It is a manifestation of social justice. It has to do with equity and visibility, access, and if we can’t see that, we’re in trouble.

I think a lot of people, instinctively get that. Much of my work is about how do we start to just say words out loud, and start to practice getting them out of our mouths, and getting those shapes and those sounds so that we can say them again. So that we can repeat them so that we can engage in conversations, and be able to talk about them and think about them.

Art lets us practice. We practice world building. Let’s do all of that, but the process is so important to what we do. It’s in how we make the work that says a lot about what the work is ultimately going to be, and what it’s was impact in the world can achieve.

SR: Where do you feel the journey Mixed Blood is at right now? How has it changed, and where do you see it going?

MV: I remember when the company first instituted Radical Hospitality, which initially started off as just a ticket program – making tickets free. At the heart of it was a real desire to level the playing field, level access and make sure that everybody who wanted to come see a play could come see a play by removing the financial barriers. It’s art as social justice. It’s saying art is something that we all should have access to.

And in doing so, who started to show up at Mixed Blood was changing. Mixed Blood has always enjoyed a very diverse audience and yet they would be the first ones to say that there’s so much more work to be done.

When Radical Hospitality started, there was a noticeable shift in age and race of audience members. Then the company started to build on that. Radical Hospitality is way of operating an ethos. Next thing you know, they’re remodeling the theater to make it accessible. They made the upstairs dressing rooms accessible to people with different disabilities and mobility issues, and all gender bathrooms that were in place before. Once you take a step, you realize that there’s all the other steps that have to follow.

The size of Mixed Blood is malleable. It can change. You can steer it, you can manage it. It can change, it can adapt, it’s much more nimble. Now, building on all of these successes, the company is really starting to think about what is our role in the broader community.

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We’re kind of asking similar questions – me personally as an artist and the institution – is it enough just to do a play that makes you think about an issue? What’s the follow-up that happens that we can start thinking about action? If we’re really interested in change, how do how do we provide entrance to make change possible? Raising awareness is one step, but it’s a small one. The urgency of our time is asking us to do more. How we influence policies? Laws and policies are the things that govern how we behave, how we move, and who benefits.

Our laws are deeply rooted in racism and capitalism – the bad parts of capitalism. How do we start to think about undoing those policies that cause harm? And how do we use the tools of imagination and creativity – what we do – towards that? We’re a theater company, and there is a limit to what we can do. But when we partner and build coalition, then we start to build capacities.

SR: What are some of the things you are thinking about as we “come back” to in-person shows, in the wake of all that has happened, including the racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd, as well as conversations in the Twin Cities about safety and how theaters can be better for the people that work in them?

MV: I value talking, just listening; talking with community members, talking with colleagues in the field, and listening to what are those questions are. Like, do audiences want to come back? I don’t know. It’s a genuine question.

The racial reckoning can’t stop. It was just the beginning. We have to transform our institutions. We have to think about what the work is, who it’s for. How is it advancing justice? What does justice-centered theater look like? It’s a beautiful idea. But what is the actual practice? Also questions of, what is humane in our field?

In my dark days, I feel as if there’s the poverty of ideas in our field. How do we make this space for the big, audacious ideas, the place for discourse – not just for discourse by like a civic  action. We can’t be passive anymore. We can’t just say, like, I’m going to put on the play and, trust that seeing it, you’re gonna change. People don’t work that way. We’re infinitely more complicated. How do you translate that into programming? If you have any smart insights, please, let me know. Everybody, please. We’re only going to figure this out together. I truly believe that.