Updated: Feb 19, 2021
Ana Valdes-Lim is the first Filipina graduate of New York’s prestigious Julliard School. She was cited as one of their 100 Most Outstanding Alumni in 100 years. After a successful career in the U.S., she returned to the Philippines, where she is passionate about theater as a vessel for transformation. Ana shares her vision and talents with a diverse population - from third graders, to inmates in the prison system. Additionally, she is an author of several books on theatre.
Richard Whittaker: Our interview begins with Ana reflecting on her studies at Julliard….
Ana Valdes Lim: Juilliard felt like home. I took to the exercises readily and had such a happy time there. The teachers were very fierce sometimes in their criticism, but never to the point that I found the school difficult. I was meant to be there and I just bloomed.
There were people who became famous later on. Kevin Kline was already in Pirates of Penzance on Broadway. Robin Williams was doing Mork and Mindy….
We had two teachers for voice and speaking—diction and accents—then singing, movement, a Shakespeare class, a poetry class, and improvisation—three hours, twice a week—which used to scare me. We were given so much improvisation!
Judy Liebowitz, one of our teachers, encouraged us to recognize the unknown and to let it be unknown. It’s a spiritual, yet counter-intuitive message. You go to Juilliard and think you’re going to learn techniques. I didn’t feel like I knew any techniques when I graduated. But I felt fully formed, like I’d been exorcised.
RW: Recently, I got a little insight into what it must be like to be in a group of actors working together. Three of us were preparing a performance of The Conference of The Birds, a Sufi tale. A feeling of connection developed. I thought this must often happen in a group of actors.
AVL: Yes. In “the ensemble” you get to know each other very well, because you spend hours together every day. You deep dive with everybody. With some of the exercises, you have all the emotions out and people are there to witness the journey.
RW: Most of us have no education around our emotions.
AVL: I have access to a range of emotions, and I was taught to control them. They said, “Ana, if Shakespeare meant for you to cry, he would have written, ‘Oh, woe, woe, woe, woe.’ You have to get the lines out.” So, I play the notes; but I'm riding on the emotion.
Because of expressing emotions so many times, I learned to be an alchemist and conjure emotions. In the beginning I conjured from memory; later on I conjured from imagination; then it was my body’s memory that conjured with other actors. This process taught me to not be attached to emotion. We’re not our feelings. I learned to access the observer.
RW: Do you feel yourself as fortunate in getting this unusual education?
AVL: Absolutely. I feel like I've been to a monastery where I had this deep training that I can transfer now. That’s the work we do. We need to stand on stage and have something authentic so that those watching go through it with us.
RW: How many years of experience do you have since you got out of Juilliard?
AVL: I graduated ’84—so close to 35 years.
RW: And give me a little history of your work in the theater before going back to the Philippines.
AVL: I worked with Joe Papp and Shakespeare in the Park with Estelle Parsons. Then I worked with Berkeley Rep and the La Jolla Playhouse. I was auditioning, getting jobs, acting, and temping. I did a couple of commercials and some film. I didn’t like film or TV.
I wasn’t brave enough to say, “I don’t like it.” I had a feeling that the industry was too cold. They shoot out of sequence; you don’t really have a relationship with the people. I also didn’t like the lottery of auditioning. It was a numbers game. If you auditioned often, then you’d get something. As an Asian actress—in my eyes, and in my agent’s eyes—I was successful. But too much of my energy was being depleted. I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t know what to do yet.
RW: What did you take from your experience of Juilliard and going into the acting world? Was there a carryover that was useful to you in terms of how you relate to people?
AVL: Well, you can see that I'm very friendly and have this kind of open energy. I learned playfulness, to act with courage, and to offer and accept what others were giving me. I learned to believe in the imaginary circumstances of a story.
RW: So, after New York you went to the West Coast—to LA and then down to San Diego and then up to Berkeley?
AVL: Yes. Then, after ten or eleven years in New York and some time on the West Coast, I went to Hawaii. I was burnt out. I didn’t like getting up in the morning, having to temp, or sign-up for unemployment until the next job, then going for auditions. I wanted a place to go every day. So when I was in Hawaii, I got a degree to become a teacher of elementary education.
RW: Did you work in Hawaii as a teacher?
AVL: For a while. Then I met my husband, Ricky, who was already in Manila. He’d been educated in the States and he said, “If we all leave the Philippines, what will happen to our country?” So I said, “Okay, and we returned to Manila. The Philippines was a “calling.”
RW: So you went back to the Philippines and then?
AVL: I just started applying, I mean cold-calling. I'm kind of fearless. I’d knock on a door and I’d have my portfolio. I’d say, “Do you need a teacher? Do you need an actress?”
But I also thought, why would I compete with Filipino actresses? When I auditioned, I felt like I was robbing them. So, what was the next job? Teaching. But there was a calling, a yearning, a desire to do something through theater for others.
In Hawaii, there was a play with a famous director, Behn Cervantes. I sent him my resumé while I was there and he didn’t respond. So, I went to him and said, “I sent you my resume!” He said, “I can’t take you. You’ll cause an imbalance in my cast because you’re too well trained.” I said, “Okay. Well, can I teach? I can warm-up your cast and give them acting workshops.” He said, “When can you start?” “Right now!” I said. I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. I desired so much to help and to be in the theater.
RW: So let’s fast-forward, because now you’re in charge of a theater.
AVL: Yes, I’m in my 15th year as Artistic Director to a theater connected to a Roman Catholic school, Assumption College. It’s a college community theater that seats a thousand people.
RW: How did your position with them evolve?
AVL: In Manila, I rented a studio and worked in various theatres. At one point I said, “God, you gave me talent. I need a home. I need someplace to settle. Please send me a home.” Within three months of that silent prayer, I received a call to visit Assumption College. I met the president who showed me a theater under renovation. There was no roof; it was rubble. She said, “We’re rebuilding this theater.” I asked, “Who’s going to run it?”
I knew they didn’t have the skills to run a theater. So, I presented to the president’s council and told them all the things they needed. They asked me to stay and run it. I said, “No,” because I didn’t think I belonged in a Catholic school. Then this woman said, “Where do you think you’re going?” She said, “Don’t you see that you’re a teacher?” I said, “No, no, no. Teaching is my day job. I'm an actress, I'm a director. I'm…”
She said, “You should look at the faces of the children when you’re talking. Take a moment.” And I saw the faces and I saw there was something transformative that could happen, beyond just the techniques of teaching theater. So, I stayed and theater became a conduit.
Coming to the Philippines—teaching, working at the prisons, outreach projects and advocacies, and meeting you—is all part of a divine dance. As an actor, at Juilliard, I learned skills to make “me” better. When I started teaching, the shift from “me” to “we” happened. Then the whole inner and outer universe began to shift.
RW: Wow. Would you say more about the range of ages and students and how the theater is connected to the college and to the public?.
AVL: Okay. We get them at third year, juniors in college or even younger. For the very small ones we have ballet after school and programs for street dancing and voice classes.
RW: And your role again in all this?
AVL: Artistic Director. I take care of hiring, fees, and making sure the program works. That has to happen in order for us to have a place for students to take their classes. We get elementary and high school students, and adults. We do one musical a year with a cast of three hundred that includes third grade to college, with some adult guest artists. We rehearse eight months of the year. Then for high school, we do the Shakespeare Festival with about 120 participants.
It’s a unique challenge to participate and support young talent. The old paradigm I learned at Juilliard was that the show quality must be excellent. What I learned here, was not to set show quality as the top priority, but to hold the students’ process, and their learning, and transformative experience, as the reward itself. We also do advocacy shows.
RW: What’s an advocacy show?
AVL: We have the entire show gifted for a specific audience. We invite public schools, or less privileged schools, to the show as a gift. We find a donor who will pay for the show. Sometimes our advocacy show is performed off-site, as in the case of the prisons, where we performed, All’s Well That Ends Well. We also have other advocacy shows, where the participants are the actors—for example in the prisons. We visit them weekly. They perform the scenes from Shakespeare, and we include songs and dances. We also have another advocacy where we support the acting students in high school on Sundays by helping them stage their show. This is our way of reaching beyond our campus to less privileged communities and bringing culture to them. Again, the reward is in the process.
We call that metta. Our Department is also called Metta—Marie Eugenie is the foundress. She was a saint. It’s the Marie Eugenie Theater of The Assumption, so Metta. However, when we selected the name of the theater, the first name was Meta, which is the Greek for going beyond. But we changed it to metta, meaning loving kindness.
We didn’t want theater to be a vehicle for making you the “best.” We wanted it to be a hub for a new way of relating to each other and having an embrace of loving kindness to help you feel whole and loved. You will be affirmed onstage, but it’s not so that you can outshine another.
RW: That’s beautiful. How did you come to this?
AVL: When I had suffering in life I learned that one has to keep forgiving and letting go; letting go of self-adulation and accumulation of achievements. Love is all that remains in the end.
I've always been drawn to India and drawn to meditation, silence, and prayer. When I’ve had defeats and difficult times in my life, I knew the answers were somewhere in the perennial wisdoms, which are love and truth. At work I share these values with the students and parents.
RW: That’s lovely. Now there’s this other person, Anjo. Is he part of the theater?
AVL: Yes. Anjo works with me. Anjo is a teacher, director, and stage manager. That’s his skill set, but like all of us, he’s learning something deeper: it’s love and kindness, which is really rooted in this subtle oneness—the way of awareness.
RW: : I saw his name in that piece on the theater I read in ServiceSpace.
AVL: Yes. He went to Gandhi 3.0 with me [a ServiceSpace retreat].
RW: Was your experience at Gandhi 3.0 a new chapter?
AVL: : I was always searching for something deeper, because I didn’t feel that excellence, or being “the best,” was it. Then I met Nimo online [Nimesh Patel—Empty Hands Music]. One of his songs popped up, maybe in a Google search. It was beautiful. So I wrote and asked, “Are your songs really free?” He said, “Yes.” So I took his songs, and Anjo and I taught them to the prisoners, and to the many children.
RW: Would you say something more about the prison connection?
AVL: Somebody said to me one day, “Ana, you have to come to the prison and see the youth in the prison.” When I got there, I sat and listened to them sing. They sang the lyrics from experience. I thought, “I need to come back here and support them.” Now we teach inmates every week—theater scenes and exercises.
I knew I was given this skill set as a gift from God, and I had to share it. It takes a whole afternoon to go to the prison. Some days I’m tired. But I just stop my mind from thinking. I explain the exercise to them and sit back. I’m not teaching, but they bloom like flowers!
The inmates are our brothers and sisters. And they are so talented, so full of hope, and generosity. It is a blessing to be with them. I receive way more than I give. The Theater Arts classes, and College Guild are the bright spots of hope and beauty in our prison system.
You can see in a human being’s face—you can even see it in a dog—when the face changes, and joy begins to appear. I was watching them, thinking, “This is what I'm supposed to do. I'm supposed to show up and then this grace is going to pass through them.” At that moment, I thought, “I'm like the sun. Does the sun say, ‘Oh, shine, shine, shine?’” The sun doesn’t say that. So, I thought, “This is it! I don’t need to think about it. It’s what I have to do.” I’ve learned that in the deepest suffering, joy and beauty can emerge.
RW: Thank you for sharing that. I can see how Nimo would fit right in here. So say more about your connection with him.
AVL: I’d started to use his music and saw the transformation, so I emailed him asking, “What does it take to get you here? Can you teach a workshop?” And you know how Nimo is; he came. Some people are like sunflowers, you know; they just face the sun. Nimo and his music are transformative. His music brings joy. We share his songs with so many people.
Then, Nimo said, “Ana, you and Anjo should go to this retreat in India.” I knew nothing of Nipun [Mehta]. I just said, “Okay.” And when I went there, like the first day, I thought it was a cult. Everybody was so nice. I told Bonnie [Rose]—she was my roommate—I said, “Is this a cult? Do we get a bill afterwards? How does this work?” Bonnie said, “I have a cynical roommate. Yay!” [laughs]
I didn’t believe that something would be given for free, just like that—and that changed me. So back to Manilla after Gandhi 3.0… I teach a comedy class, so I said, “Let’s call it ‘Kindness Comedy’ and offer it on a pay-it-forward basis.” Ten had signed up, but then twenty-two came.
Then I started retreats this year. I wanted to do a Karma Kitchen at a retreat. On one day we brought 267 meals to the homeless. I tell the retreat participants, “Bring anything you want to give away. Put a ribbon around it.” We started packaging baby clothes, shoes, adult shorts. We each would take two bags. The security guards said, “Do you have a permit?” I said, “We’re on our way out. Thank you for doing your job.” The truth is, in 15 minutes the meals are gone.
We did six retreats where we’d go out to the streets. In one of them I said, “I think we should sing..” We brought drums and maracas and did a drum circle and dancing movement with them. We started to do that as well in public spaces.
RW: How is going out and initiating things with strangers for you?
AVL: I was scared the first day when I saw thirty policemen under a cluster of trees. The first feeling was fear. But I remembered how Gandhi did it. He just went through the salt fields. So Anjo and I said, “Let’s stay together.” We had these meals, so I went up to a policeman and said, “Kuya” (big brother), this is our offering to you.” He said, “What’s this for?” I said, “Just love. Just love, kuya. We’re on retreat and we have a kindness offering.” We started giving food to the policemen. After we started to give them this wholeness, they couldn’t say no.
And we say “Thank you” when they tell us we can’t do something. They ask, “Do you have a permit?” I know the permit is just a symbol of control, so I just say, “We’re leaving, sir—Big Brother. We just wanted to offer kindness.” Then I ask, “Can we be on the sidewalk?” “Of course, you can be on the sidewalk.” So, we go to the sidewalk.
RW: This conversation is full of so many wonderful things. Is there anything you want to add?
AVL: Yes. What I learned through ServiceSpace I cannot describe in words. Something shifted inside, and it’s irreversible. No more “I.” No more “me.” The shift is to we, to us, you—one. And silence, a deep silence. And then gratitude, humility, and sacredness.I know there will be a ripple effect.