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Van Valen named head of Riverside Children’s Theatre


When veteran actor Jim Van Valen returns to Riverside Theatre in September, he’ll be learning his lines for a role that is still being scripted: as director, teacher and administrator of a revitalized and reshaped Riverside Children’s Theatre with much closer ties to the main stage and its adult audience.

Van Valen played to that adult audience here in January, in the one-man play “Underneath the Lintel.”

An associate professor of theater at Iowa’s Cornell College, Van Valen has been named as the new head of Riverside Children’s Theatre, taking over for Linda Downey, the longtime administrator who retired this spring. She had worked with the children’s theater both professionally and as a volunteer since it was first proposed that Riverside Theatre create a separate division for children. It grew to one of the largest in the state, serving 15,000 children annually.

“We’re trying to find more opportunities to connect the two buildings together,” says Van Valen, who beyond starring in “Underneath the Lintel,” performed in four other Riverside plays over the years.

Ideas being floated include theater training for adults as well as theater appreciation classes in advance of shows.

That’s in addition to the new thrust that starts in September: Riverside’s professionals are producing original musicals for young audiences, starting with “Poodleful” Sept. 18 through 20.

Van Valen says new coursework for adults could include acting, music and dance.

Other courses could focus on specific plays as works of literature as well as studying, while still others would examine the different genres of theater. In sum, the expanded curriculum would involve “looking at things from the page to the performance.” 

“I’m interested in exploring the shows that we’re doing on the main stage and having classes to learn more about the production process. Bringing in guest artists – designers, directors, choreographers, actors – and bringing students backstage so they see this process.”

Bridging the coursework for children to that of Vero’s adult audiences would be the expanded intern program, where recent college graduates come to Riverside to train as performance apprentices, a title put in use this season with the premier of “Poodleful.”

“We’re exploring making it a professional training ground, from kids who are just discovering it, to students as they’re preparing for college and as a place where college kids can come back and become part of the performing apprentices here,” says Van Valen. “I’m excited about encouraging lifelong education and training in theater as an art form.”

Van Valen himself has been the beneficiary of a similar opportunity where he teaches now. His college has encouraged staff to take on roles at either of two equity theaters nearby. “I’ve been lucky to be at a place where part of our job description is that we continue to work in the areas that we teach in. As a teacher, I then have to be aware that I’m really working alongside my students. We’re all in this process together.”

As department chair at Cornell College, a small liberal arts school in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, Van Valen heads the acting program and directs one show a year. 

Van Valen first performed at Riverside in an original musical written by Allen Cornell, “Midnight Clear,” the cast of which also included Brenda Mesley, who would later become Van Valen’s wife. Gene and Kathy Mesley, Brenda’s parents, live in Vero. The Van Valens have a six-year-old daughter, Maysie.

Van Valen grew up on Long Island; his father was a New York City police officer. He first became interested in acting after he was cast in “Oliver!” at 15. “Ever since then I just felt a connection with this way of telling a story and doing it live in front of an audience.”

Majoring in English in college, he worked in regional theater for a decade before landing the job at Cornell College nine years ago.

He still thinks back to his own insecurities, wanting to be liked as an adolescent, and finally letting that go on stage. “The characters we play and the plays we see are not pristine stories and pristine people but with flaws and foibles and blemishes.

“So much of our time we spend trying to cover up our flaws but here’s a place that’s asking you to release those things. The theater is saying now the risk is to be revealed and be seen.

“I spent a lot of years hoping people would like me and then I realized theater is about letting that go. When it happens in front of an audience, they lean in because they’re seeing something about truth.”