Essential Theatre director shines on stage, classroom

As the assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and the director of Florida A&M University’s Essential Theatre, Valencia Matthews, is the definitive characterization of the word multitasking. A self-proclaimed lover of the stage, Matthews, 50, certainly has her hands full when it comes to the university’s theater department, and she doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.

“I have always been involved in theater,” said Matthews, a native of Lane, SC. “Growing up, I always participated in the church programs. We had programs for every kind of holiday, so the idea was that all of the children received the opportunity to participate in whatever program we wanted. I always had an Easter speech and I enjoyed that kind of thing. It was a natural fit.”

Matthews’ interest in theater began to materialize in her middle school years, when she participated in small plays and productions. Her love of theater stayed with her throughout high school and eventually led to her majoring in the field at South Carolina State. Matthews said that attending the college was a no-brainer.

“When I was in high school, I would go to the plays there,” she said. “I was absolutely thrilled by it.”

Matthews studied the subject throughout her undergraduate years as well as for her graduate studies and doctorate occupancy. In due course, Matthews relocated to Tallahassee to work for the university. It was a decision she said she has come to love.

“I started working with FAMU as an adjunct,” said Matthews, who moved to Florida in the fall of 1986. “I was getting my PhD at FSU. From 1999 to 1993, I worked at FAMU and I had the opportunity to teach classes and direct shows. In 1993, Dr. Ronald Davis, who was the director of theater at that time, brought me on and I’ve been with the university ever since.”

Since the day she started, Matthews developed the reputation of being a director who handles dramatic pieces. With a considerable number of drama productions under her belt, Matthews said she prefers heavier plays as opposed to lighter ones.

“Dramatic pieces tend to speak to me probably more than comedies. I like pieces that deal with issues of substance such as women’s issues,” Matthews explained. “My students always say, ‘why do you always do plays that are female centered,’ and I always tell them, ‘well what’s wrong with that?’ Whatever speaks to me, if it has something to say, then those are the kinds of plays that I tend to direct.”

Naturally as a city with two large universities and one college – each having prestigious theatre departments – competition can prove to be a bit of a challenge when selecting just the right production to showcase in Tallahassee. However, for Matthews, it’s a piece of cake.

“I think one of the things we do is that we are true to our mission of presenting plays from the classic to the contemporary,” she said. “We have plays that primarily focus on the African-American dramatic canon. As a theater program, we certainly want to make sure that the pieces that we do are [related] to us and that they are universally appealing. In determining what we are going to do, we make sure that our students have a variety of opportunities to act in different kinds of plays.”

Known for it’s diversity, FAMU’s Essential Theatre offers a multitude of genres ranging from broad comedies to dark tragedies. The theater produces a classic every two years and is also known for it’s musicals. The range of material the Essential Theatre offers is something that Matthews said she is proud of.

“We try to make sure the students get a varied experience in the theater. We know that our plays are going to focus on the African-American canon. That doesn’t mean that we won’t do other plays, but we know that’s what we are going to do.”

Students and faculty alike are pleased with Matthews and her work. Among those individuals is Antwuan Roper, 23, a theater student from Avon Park, Fla. who has starred in several shows. Roper regards the director as a hardworking individual.

“Mrs. Matthews is a very understanding professor,” Roper said. “She really pushes her students to think outside the box, whether she is directing a show or teaching in the classroom. She only accepts the best. There is no slacking in her class or on the stage, which pushes her students to perform better.”

Roper isn’t the only one who thinks Matthews is a go-getter. Ciara Butler, a senior technical theater student from Brandon, Fla., agrees. Matthews is an amiable individual who is very goal oriented Butler said.

“What makes Mrs. Matthews special is that she really is a hard worker,” said Butler, 23. “She is a passionate and self-driven professor who carries herself with the most upright class. She holds her own in any situation and is also a personable and polite person who students can approach about any situation. She is never afraid to give a great hug.”

In addition to her affiliation with the university’s Essential Theatre, Matthews is a part of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., as well as COCA, the Council on Culture & Arts. She is also involved with the city’s new project, the upcoming Florida Center for Performing Arts and Education. Needless to say, Matthews is a busy woman.

“If I join something then I like to participate,” Matthew said. “Aside from theater, I do other things too. One of the things I’ve been doing this year is that I’ve committed myself to walking with the Breast Cancer 3 Day, which is a three-day 60 mile walk to raise money for awareness. I always supported breast cancer awareness, so in November I’m going to Arizona with a friend and we’re going to participate.”

When she is not dividing her time between the stage and raising awareness, Matthews is focusing on the complete transformation of the Charles Winterwood Theatre. Matthews said she is looking forward to the long overdue renovation.

“It’s way past time,” she said. “We now get the opportunity to renovate the theatre and bring it up to state of the art equipment and that is something I am looking forward to. We’re going to be displaced for a couple of years, but we are willing to suffer the inconvenience. Hopefully by 2011 we’re back in. Our students deserve a place to perform in that is up to standard.”

Matthews said the faculty plans to move out of the theater at the start of summer 2009. However, until that day arrives, the seasoned director is sure to be found on a stage directing a dramatic college production or orchestrating a musical number for the children’s theater.

“There is absolutely nothing like being in a theater and the unexpected happens,” Matthews said. “You can’t get that from film. With theater, you don’t know what’s going to happen from one night to the next. I think the power of the arts is wonderful. I think it’s magic. It’s just one of those things that moves me.”