A Conversation with Valerie David
Academy graduate Valerie David has done a lot. From writing her own material to working in the New York theatre scene and to beating cancer (more than once!), her life and work continue to work in tandem as they fuel one another. The Pink Hulk, a story about beating cancer and "finding the superhero within," has given cancer survivors and their families solace and comfort, all while taking David all over the world. Most recently, her knack for storytelling has brought her all the way to Sweden, performing another one-woman show, Baggage from BaghDAD, for an audience of eager Norse folk. Her accolades include an Audience Choice Award and the Swedish WOW Award for The Pink Hulk. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you tell me a bit about what things were like for you post-graduation?
Sure, I think post-graduation, there's that excitement to go out into the world and apply your craft. I was so excited to do it and start auditioning. And the other thing is to keep up your skills—you must keep up your skills. I took improv classes and so it was just it was a wonderful experience, and The Academy really prepared me to go out into the real world.
But my trajectory changed a little bit because about a year and a half after I graduated from The Academy, I had been diagnosed with cancer. So that kind of put me a little bit on a hiatus. But then, as soon as that was over, I went back to acting, until I had gotten cancer again 15 years later…I was in the original reading for the musical Urinetown, which ended up being on Broadway. But I kicked cancer to the curb, and then there was the birth of Pink Hulk, my one-woman show. So I know in a strange way that cancer had opened up a world for me. I’ve since taken Pink Hulk all over the world, and I had no idea how much it could affect audiences and help cancer survivors, cancer patients, their loved ones, and caregivers.
What was the process like for creating a one-woman show?
I think for me, it almost became like an obsession to write. I started writing, and in less than five months, it was a full-on production. I think having had cancer…well, that will really light a fire underneath you. I was just like, “I’m getting this done now.” And now, having it done, I can do it anywhere. I've done it in an art gallery, I’ve done it in the basement of my sister's home for a bunch of her friends, I've done it in a 700-seat house and a 2,000-seat house. So I think that the process is to write badly...like just write, and you never know what things will stick. Surround yourself with really supportive people and a really great team...then there's nothing you can’t do. You can’t be an island, and I’m so grateful for all the support I’ve received.
The motivating factor with Baggage from BaghDAD was to honor my father and his legacy of having to flee Iraq in 1941 from religious persecution. It's an important story, not only because it honors my father but because it's a universal story and one that should not be repeated. And it's a reminder of that.
Do you have a mantra that fuels you to keep doing this work?
Never, ever give up hope. And that’s the last line of Pink Hulk. You must appreciate what you have. And I think that’s something that often gets lost, gratitude. This whole journey of being an actor has taught me grace and gratitude, and humility. I've been blessed with so many awards and accolades, and even my most recent show, Baggage from BaghDAD…August, I went to Sweden to do that show! I was rehearsing the show, and I was having a really difficult time with it because I couldn't get through it without crying. And I contacted one of my actor friends, and I was like, I don't know how I'm gonna get through this, and he said to me, “You've got a pact with the audience; this is what you are to do. The most vulnerable you'll ever be is onstage, and I know how hard it can be. However, you have to keep going. Go on this journey with them; take them with you.”
I honestly was so close to bailing out because of my fear. But if you have faith in yourself and you surround yourself with people who believe in you and help you along the way, you’re set…because it takes a village. And I have a pretty awesome village. I'm so excited that I now have more performances for this and the Pink Hulk. And I now have two solo shows that I'm so proud of. You must keep going, no matter what, no matter how hard it gets. You must keep going.
That’s a great lesson and one that I really resonate with. Being well-rounded and living your life fully is so important.
Do you know about the tortoise and the hare? I am definitely the tortoise, and I am so glad I am! I think life is more meaningful when you're the tortoise and when you have obstacles and challenges to overcome. That's a better way for me to live. If I just jump into something and don’t have the blood, sweat, and tears that are required in life, it won’t be as rich. We're all going to have bumps along the way. It's not just the acting career that's going to have disappointments; life has disappointments, too, and without those disappointments, how can we move forward and learn? I think the tortoise gets the harder path, but it also gets the better path.
It’s the obstacles that make your inner life rich.
Exactly, exactly. You hit the nail on the head. So much of what I draw on is from my experience, right? So much of it is about listening and being attuned. You have to be in the moment in life and in your acting work. When I see a show, did I believe it? Did I buy it? If not, why?
It takes me three hours to prepare for a show. And I learned from The Academy the importance of building a show, and a character, from the ground up, starting at my feet. That's our medium, our bodies. So we have to work that way. I think that's one of the implied things in drama school, but they don't really come out and say it to you.
Well said. Now, what’s next for you?
I'm doing Baggage from BaghDAD in December in Vermont and then bringing it out to LA before taking it overseas again. And then I'm gonna bring the show to New York. I like to take it out and then bring it when it's completely ready. I will also have an artist residency in Minnesota at some point…but we’re working out the kinks for that.
Thank you for taking the time to be so open and vulnerable with me today.
Oh my god. You know, you're my first crying interview. I was like, “Oh, shoot, here it comes!” But yeah, let it go and allow it to come, right? And that's, that's what I was dealing with in Sweden. And, you know, my angel was like, go with it. If you start crying on stage, don’t apologize for it; keep going!
Take care, Valerie. And be well!
You too, August. Thank you.