Lifoti Interview | Chris Browne Valenzuela, putting the “Music” in “Musical Theater”

The ever so talented Chris Browne Valenzuela is not just an artist. He is a person with a unique background story and someone who has been passionate about theater. Chris is a Chilean actor and singer based in New York City. After leaving his homeland he has found a considerable amount of success doing what he loves: combining music and theater. “There is not really a school of musical theater in Chile, so I thought why not come to the mecca of the art form”, he says. The Pandemic has been a terrible time for live performers, especially an art form that doesn’t translate well into the virtual world, such as musical theater. Yet, Chris found himself in projects nevertheless. For example, “The Quarantrology” by Janice Lagata (Scandusical Off-Broadway), where Chris lent his voice to originate the role of Bryan in the concept album of the would-be musical (now available on soundcloud), and perhaps more importantly “Safe & Sound.” “Safe & Sound”, the new musical by Holly Block and Elizabeth Jerjian, had a virtual premiere at the Front-Row Fringe Festival in March, where Chris originated the critical role of Cooper. All parts were filmed individually and then digitally combined. The shows wept the awards at the Fringe Festival winning ten accolades including “Best Musical”, “Best Music”, and “Best of Fringe.” It has also been nominated for several Broadway World Awards (winners for these are still to be announced.) The show clearly has a bright future in the New York theater scene and has scheduled live workshops in the city, and thus, virtual performances birth live ones.

Interestingly, another of the projects Chris found himself in is based in Chile, precisely the place he left to advance his career. “Codelina” is an animated musical series where Chris voices “Alan”, an uppity blue cat in both the Spanish and English versions of the show. In a way, the pandemic allowed this to happen, since everyone was working remotely, it wasn’t an issue that Chris would record his part from his home studio in New York, to be later mixed with the other parts in Chile. 

So far, “Codelina” has featured covers of musical theater songs, such as “A Cover is not the Book” and “Sincerely me”, but the upcoming season will bring original music by Coni Codelia to the mix. So, what’s next? Chris says that he is mostly working with artists he met during quarantine. “It shows resilience and passion that isolated in those terrible conditions you still try to make theater and music.” One of such projects is Bésame Mucho, a multidisciplinary artistic investigation on migration led by also Chilean Carla Redlich. It has brought together a dozen artists in New York, Berlin and Santiago, all who live far from their country of origin. Chris attempts to bring physical acting through mask work into the piece. There is genuinely no constraint to the creativity and vision of this fantastic artist, and he is on a roll, consistently building his growing fan-base.

In this exclusive interview with Maria Nicolas, Mr. Chris Browne Valenzuela open ups about his musical theater journey.

➧Interview By Maria Nicolas

• The multifaceted Chris Browne Valenzuela, is a Theater Artist, Musician, Actor, and a person with a great heart. We are interested to know more about you, Would you please share a brief synopsis of your theater journey? If you could walk us through your music-acting related journey from the start to present, what are some of the most notable facets of your life as an artist?
» My theater journey began when I was 15, I was cast in the school musical, a stage adaptation of Roland Joffe’s “The Mission”, and I...fell in love, I fell in love with the process, within habiting another human, with the stage, and with using music to tell a story. There is nothing like falling in love when you’re a teenage, and I am still in love with the theater. We fight sometimes, but it’s mostly a happy relationship. If I had to highlight moments of my journey as an artist, they would be: first, signing boleros with my dad when I was 7, doing my first musical at 15, starring in Jesus Christ Superstar in college, moving to New York City to do musical theater, and finally, writing and starring in my own show: “Believe in Stupid Sh*t.” But there are so many others, the tour of “Tomás and the Library Lady” was such a beautiful experience, or originating Cooper on “Safe &Sound”, or even having the chance to teach at theater schools alongside the legendary Shelley Wyant. I have been very blessed with many wonderful opportunities

• Is it easier or harder to be a theater artist in 2022??
» So much harder, haha. Wait, it depends, though, harder than when? Because it is definitely harder than in 2019, but easier than most of 2020. I'm mostly a live performer, so being in a pandemic has really affected me. It hasn't stopped me, I worked more on film and TV, and I did a lot of remote theater projects. Live performances are starting to come back, but there is still so much uncertainty, it is nowhere nearly as massive as it was pre-pandemic.

• What is the ONE thing you are NOT willing or prepared to do EVER, in your quest to achieve a successful theater or acting career? 
» Hurt someone else. I wouldn't do a fight scene without proper fight choreography, I wouldn't do an intimate scene without full and clear consent and every safety precaution taken. I know this question was geared more towards something like "would you do nudity?" or something like that. And I think I would? If it was justified in the story. I feel like I would do most things, even to my detriment (for a film I had to run barefoot in the snow for a number of takes, and I did it), but I stop at even the possibility of harming someone else.

• How important is music, acting and theater in your life? Were your family and friends supportive of this? If you weren’t a theater actor today, could you see yourself doing anything else?  
» Incredibly important. I upended my life for the arts. I had a relatively stable life working as an engineer (I'm also an engineer, surprise!) but I was unhappy. Not only was I unhappy, I was literally ill. My body asked me for a change. And now my life isn't exactly stable. But I'm not ill.

My friends have always been supportive of me, my family not so much. They are now! I have to say, but it took them a while. My dad is a brilliant musician who couldn't make a living out of it, so he was naturally fearful of me taking the same path. So was my mother. They wanted to protect me from a world and an industry that can be very cruel, and I understand that, but I had to do it, there was no way around it. And even though I have been hurt I have never regretted it for a second.

I do see myself doing something else, teaching! Teaching theater, and maybe directing. It's cheating a little, because I consider teaching theater also a form of doing theater, but I love teaching. It's such a wonderful feeling to help someone else birth art, and I think I'm rather good at it, I've had some experience teaching already.

• How are you keeping busy these days during the pandemic? Are you finding that social media is even more useful now? As a live performer, how difficult is it to perform at theaters these days? Are you planning to perform virtual for your audience? 
» Well, I've been doing a lot of remote projects. Zoom readings, concept albums, online theater festivals, voice-overs, webseries, you name it. There is nothing like a live audience, but there are also lots of things to do from your living room, and it gives you the chance to work with artists anywhere in the world! I did virtual productions with companies in California (Selma Arts Center), Oklahoma (telatúlsa), Chicago (Rover Readings), and others all from my New York apartment. I did a festival and several readings with Scawwy Howwow Theatre, all remotely. Also, TV and Film hasn't stopped, so I did a couple of commercials, filmed "Lark & Spur" (a TV series that will soon be available through Amazon Prime), and other small things here and there.

Live theater is coming back slowly. It is difficult for sure, and New York theaters have done an amazing job at testing everyone involved and keeping people safe. Over the summer I did a tour and one of the conditions was that we'd only perform outdoors to make it as safe as possible, so it is difficult but not impossible. Hopefully it will get easier sooner rather than later.

• What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you perform on stage? What is the one thing every script must have for it to be solid?
» Oh, gee, uhm. My method is ever-changing haha. Lately, because of my work with Mask (the theater technique, not the N95s), I have been very focused on the physicality of the character. Where do they live physically? Are they a head or a heart person? How do they walk? How do they stand? How do they look at someone else? I have found that when you start from the body, the rest comes more or less naturally.

My opinion is that for a script to be solid it needs two things: It has to be honest and it can't be boring. By "honest" I don't mean realistic, I'm a big fan of farce and surrealism, but even in these styles it has to reflect humanity, it has to come from the heart of the author and their intrinsically human experience. And it can't be boring, because you can be terrifically honest but terrifyingly boring. That's where the brain comes in. How do we make the honest, human story interesting and worth-telling? So, I suppose a script has to come from the heart but be written by the brain. I think that makes sense. Also, research! Research is so important! Ok, I'm done.

• What does the word “discrimination” means to you? As a gay artist, have you faced any discrimination in Chile or NY? And also as an immigrant in NY?
» Specifically as a "gay artist" I can only think of one time in which I was discriminated against, back in Chile. I was applying for a producing position in a musical and I was clearly the most qualified candidate. I wasn't chosen and the person picked in my place was much less qualified. It was a Catholic institution and they knew I was gay, you do the math. That is the only time that I am fairly certain I was discriminated against. It is a tricky game, because discrimination is covert 99% of the time. Sometimes the person isn't even aware of their bias. I'm sure it has happened many other times, but I don't have the receipts. There IS obvious discrimination even in the acting world that is crawling with gays. How often does an out-and-proud actor get to play straight characters? Not very.

As an immigrant there are many practical ways in which I have been discriminated against. Without this or that visa it is almost impossible to get signed by an agent. Until recently, Actors Equity didn't admit foreign actors even with a proper work visa. It has also happened that some people don't like my accent haha, but also the opposite. I have got several jobs precisely because I am Latino and speak two languages. There is a lot of great Latino and bilingual theater in the United States, it's truly a blessing to be a part of it. There is also immigrant theater. The festival we did with Scawwy Howwow Theatre was called "Tales From the Visa Line'', and it was precisely about immigrant stories by migrant playwrights played by migrant actors, it was such a beautiful experience. It felt like home. 

I am also very aware of the fact that despite being fully Latino, born and raised in Chile, because of the way I look I am white-passing, and I get a lot less discrimination than people who aren't. I have seen it. I can also mask my accent behind a British curtain (I do a very good British Received Pronunciation) and you'd never know I was Latino until I wanted you to know or you read my full name. Not everyone has that choice.

• Do you have any LGBTQ+ role models or artists that you really look up to? What, or who serves as your biggest inspirations, both musically, and personally?
» Oh, so many. The first one that comes to mind is Gabriela Mistral. She was a Chilean poet and teacher. She wrote some of the most beautiful poetry you'll ever read, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first hispanic woman to do so) and she was a HUGE Lesbian (literally, she was very tall.) I have had the idea to write a musical based on her life musicalizing her poems for years. Maybe now that I am saying it on the record I'll have to do it. Haha.

There's also the classic gay actors: Ian McKellen, Ben Whishaw. I feel like I could play any character that Ben Whishaw has played haha. My biggest artistic inspirations are not necessarily LGBTQ+, but definitely related to our world: Liza Minnelli and Eartha Kitt. Liza's storytelling in song is unmatched. Every one of her performances is a masterclass in honesty. And Eartha was so brave and raw! Neither of them are LGBTQ+ themselves, but they were both early fighters for our causes with nothing to win. Liza famously fought for HIV and AIDS relief, even speaking at the UN, Eartha sang at so many LGBTQ+ charity events. They both defended us when it wasn't popular to do so.

• Every artist is talented in their art, AND they have extraordinary visions about their lives. According to you (as an artist), what is the purpose of life?
» Haha! I don't know!? As an artist? Hmmm... To remind us of our humanity. Yeah, I'll stick with that, that sounds smart and profound.

• What does the next page in your career trajectory look like? What does the rest of this year look like for you? Do you have any plans for an upcoming live show? Are you currently working on some new projects?
» Who knows? Haha. No, I do have some things on the backburner. "Safe & Sound", the musical we have workshopped twice already, will probably have another go at some point this year, I'm excited about that. I'm also voicing a character for a new animated series by Coni Codelia, a cat! Maybe a little based on Eartha Kitt's Catwoman haha. You can check it out on Instagram @coni_codelia. "Believe in Stupid Sh*t", my original show may also have a run in Chicago in April, there is also an Off-Broadway show called "Salem - Retold" by Nishi Rajan that I got cast in, it's supposed to start performances by the end of the year. There are some wonderful things coming both in the world of film and theater with First Fire Studios,  a wonderful media company with which we're developing how to tell lesser known Queer and Latine stories. Rover Readings is also planning to delve into in-person theater soon. I recently got cast in a new musical called "Oh No! My Leg!" to open in February downtown. And also auditioning for the next big thing! There is so much uncertainty, some of it because of Covid, but artistic paths are unpredictable by nature.

• Now it's time for Rapid Fire Round, you have to answer in one line. So get ready for it...!
» The first song I remember hearing? - The "ABC" song. Sung by my dad and my grandma while he played the guitar. Their own version, which was different for some reason.
» Favorite theater? - It has to be "Circle in the Square." It's my home
» The first gig I went to? - As the first one I got hired for money? A small musical called "No es Gratis el Amor" back in Chile. Made very little money, had a wonderful time.
» Best Year in life? - Probably 2018. It started as the worst, but I had never grown as much as a human.
» The song that makes me want to dance? - "You Don't Own Me", the "The First Wives Club" version.
» Role I wish I’d perform? - "Leo Frank" on "Parade"
» what you'd never buy with money? - A car? I can't drive haha.
» Favorite Fashion item ? - I love a good hat. But does anyone still wear a hat?
» An Unpopular person you think is a hero? - Rupaul. I'd need more space to elaborate haha.
» The song I want to play at my upcoming B'day? - "Nomads" by John Craigie
» Describe Chris Browne Valenzuela in one word? - Odd
» Describe “Musical Theater” in one word? - Theater
» Describe LGBTQ+ in one word? - Brave

• Are there any recommendations for Lifoti and its readers to check out? Any message for young theater artists?
» A recommendation for Lifoti readers specifically? I'd say they'd really enjoy Sting's musical "The Last Ship." It didn't really take off, but it is such a beautiful piece, especially the live concert version he did where he talks about the creative process as well.

My main message for young theater artists is just keep doing theater while you enjoy it. Never let it steal your joy. And watch, read, and listen to more theater. There are so many genius shows, don't get stuck on Les Mis and Hamilton (great shows to be sure, but far from the only ones.)

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