Elaine Del Valle is a true renaissance woman. The award-winning writer, actor, director, casting director, producer and philanthropist has done a little bit of everything and spoke to us about staying creative during challenging times and what it took to get where she is.
Elaine realized early in the game that if she wanted to see real Latino stories out there, ones she could connect with, she would have to tell them herself. This realization has since led her down a prolific path where, it seems, she’s determined to create as much as she can.
Her one-woman-show “Brownsville Bred” received several awards even before an incredibly successful off-Broadway run in the summer of 2011. The stage play was later on adapted into a young adult novel called “Brownsville Bred: Dreaming Out Loud,” released in early 2020 and available most places where books are sold.
Del Valle’s work can be found all over the place, though. You can watch her movie “Me 3.769” on HBO, and some of her earlier work, like “Final Decision” and “Reasons Y I’m Single” are available through Amazon Prime. Elaine has allowed her personal beliefs to inspire and inform projects the world can connect with and has found her voice in a simple but powerful concept: Stay True to Yourself.
We had a chat with the multitalented Latina and talked about her creative journey, the things she’s been reading, watching and listening to these days, and some tips and thoughts on staying creative during these challenging times.
From Actress to Renaissance Woman
Aline Cerdán – It seems like you’ve done a little bit of everything, can you tell us about how you got started on your creative journey?
Elaine Del Valle – I began my career as an actress. I studied acting for many years but found myself pigeon-holed as a commercial actress. While I was having some great success in the commercial and voice over markets, I felt like my craft was not being fully exercised outside of my professional scene study classes. I began writing material to present to class and ended up writing what would soon become an awarded, off-Broadway stage play.
“Brownsville Bred” was my true coming of age story and depicted my life as a Latina growing up in the crime capital of NY, Brownsville, Brooklyn. The play really changed my life and made me realize that if I want to see real Latino stories reflected in art, then I really had to be a part of creating them. The play also increased my visibility and allowed people to understand the real me – it also got me job offers in front of and behind the camera.
AC – Do you feel at home dabbling with it all professionally, or is there something that feels closer to your heart?
EDV – I love every aspect of creation, whether that be creating a character or weaving a cast of characters together for a project. That said, the most fulfilling role I have taken on is as a director. I love informing the story by way of camera angles and working with actors to achieve their best performances. I am able to speak to them in actor lingo and really get the performances I want.
Rosemary Rodriguez is another one of the few female directors in Hollywood!
To-Do Lists and Turning Hardship into Art
AC – What do you feel have been some of the hardest aspects of staying creative during challenging times?
EDV – When the quarantine first came, it didn’t really pose a big change in my life… for the most part. I am always at my computer writing, casting or producing. Knowing that the quarantine would be long I decided to make a very long “to do” list of things that I’d been putting off. I have long been using a “list” method to accomplish tasks. There’s something about crossing things off that list that makes me feel like I have achieved something.
My father died when I was a teenager and so I have never taken time for granted. I always want to make the most of my time…and that doesn’t have to mean being creative. Sometimes I work on just the business side of things. I work best when I am multi-tasking and plowing through a tough workload. I am a “by the seat of my pants” creative and so when I get creative, I dive deep and don’t come up for air until I am done. I wrote my play in three months, and I adapted my book in about the same time. I finished my first procedural drama in three days and wrote my first film in an airplane ride.
I don’t put pressure on myself to stay creative because I find inspiration everywhere. Also, I pride myself on having put in the work to develop my various crafts, which allows me to turn to craft when I am feeling outside of my creative zone.
Want to unleash your creativity? Say yes to change!
Staying Creative During Challenging Times
AC – You’ve turned a tough childhood into a novel and a play, can you tell us about the creative process when the material you are using is autobiographical?
EDV – It’s wonderful to lean into the facts and honest examination of the people you know and love. It has been my ultimate joy to represent my loved ones in a way that makes others come to love them, regardless of their flaws. I began my writing by depicting my milestones. Every individual has milestones and those are the things that truly shape us. I have found that people from all backgrounds can somehow all relate to milestones universally.
My process for writing the play came easily because at the time that I wrote it, I was immersed in professional scene study classes at Carnegie Hall under the tutelage of the legendary Wynn Handman. I understood scenes and what made them powerful. I had fertile ground at Wynn Handman Studios and a safety net of trusted and respected actors that made me feel safe. I owe lots to my class and my teacher.
The book was something I had to learn to write. I immersed myself in YA (Young Adult) novels and would circle moments that made me laugh and cry and wonder. I devoured books and it got me into a mode that I was also able to dive into. I adapt easily and pivot to use all of my talents and crafts in whatever I am working on. I also studied through Sundance Collab where I practiced ways of free writing to bring the material beyond where I’d first imagined, and to trust my instincts.
AC – Do you think that the challenging times we’re currently going through could actually become a source of creativity?
EDV – Necessity is the mother of invention and I think we are currently witnessing many creatives working together, and apart, outside of their comfort zones to continue to deliver entertainment. Artists must create. It is a deep need inside of them. An art teacher once asked, “Why do we paint?” the answer was “to prove we exist!” That is a deep need behind the work, and nothing can stifle that desire.
My advice to anyone who is not feeling creative is to go out and learn something new. Read a book. Read many books, take on-line classes. Participate in the webinars and creative livestreams that are keeping raw art and learning still available to anyone who wants it.
AC – What do you think is the role of the arts and the importance of staying creative during challenging times?
EDV – Art always reflects life and the role of art will emerge from the artists creating it and the audiences taking it in. It always has and it always will. We reflect and we create, then we reflect on what we have created, and we evolve. People ask me how I choose what I work on next. Is there a foolproof recipe to getting a film sold or hot on the festival circuit? I always answer that the only person who has to really and truly like it is the artists themselves, because it is surely their passion that will bring it to the finish line and nothing else should matter than being true to yourself. The more specific a story, the more universal its reach.
I always create based on my core beliefs. In “Brownsville Bred”, both the play and the novel, my belief was that if you knew them, then you too would have loved my father and mother and even found value in living in a place like Brownsville. That hope and how you can’t judge a person’s worth based on economics exists everywhere.
“Final Decision” (Amazon Prime) is based on my belief that when our loved ones die, they are still with us, guiding us. “Me 3.769” (HBO) on my belief that females will and are overcoming their fears for the sake of helping the future generation and that there is deep power in “telling secrets” that you never wanted to. In “Princess Cut”, my latest project, my belief is that we all can find common ground. And how many can and do get away with their indiscretions because of money.
Work from your core belief and the work will hit home to many, even those you never imagined you’d have things in common with.
Immerse yourself completely— One great way of staying creative in challenging times
AC – Do you have any tips for people who would like to express themselves creatively to get started during isolation?
EDV – A tip is to find a random photo and write a story about that photo as it relates to your childhood. Everyone can do it and every story will be interesting and different and yet they will all derive from the same source of inspiration.
Another thing I practice is to not put a deadline on the quarantine. Know that you will endure it, no matter how long it takes, and be ready to face the truth of it. A deadline is a sure way to lose hope.
I also recommend that whatever you want to create, you should immerse yourself in. If you want to write a memoir then you should read memoirs. If you want to write a screenplay then read books on writing screenplays and then read screenplays. If you want to write poetry, then immerse yourself in poetry. If you immerse yourself in art, then you will become it. My teacher, Wynn Handman, used to say, “Marinate in it”. If you marinate long enough then the you can’t help but be flavored and juiced by it.
Also, if you feel stuck then stop the creative and move to the other necessary parts of how you will get your creation out once it is complete. You can learn so much about anything by just going online. If you want to perform a play, then you will also have to sell tickets to that play or submit it into festivals. That’s how one can stay active in the growth of your vision rather than allowing it to wilt during creative dry spells.
AC – What are some of the books, movies, albums and TV shows that have inspired you to stay creative in times of isolation?
EDV – Features: I love to watch documentaries on any subject. Anything on HBO is usually phenomenal. As for movies I really love to examine story and cinematography when I am watching films, so I use them as a learning tool every time.
TV shows: I love “Ozark” and “This Is Us”, which always makes me cry. There are few shows that I can get lost in but those two always make me forget about my craft and just involve me in the story.
Music: My Pandora stations go from Marc Anthony to Garth Brooks to Adele, passing through Ed Sheeran, Elton John and 70’s & 80’s stations. I also love 80’s and 90s rap.
I listen to music when I am writing; music makes me feel and I think those feelings end up in my writing. I practically wrote the entire “Brownsville Bred” play while listening to salsa music.
Books: I have to say I enjoy YA more than any other genre. I love Gayle Forman and Gary Soto.
You can connect with Elaine Del Valle via LinkedIn