For Ana Valdes-Lim, theater is a form of healing

Alexa Villano
The Juilliard-trained actress and artistic director of METTA talks about the joy of teaching theater to a new batch of budding thespians

Ana Valdes-Lim is a name that’s familiar to many, if not all, theater students. As artistic director of the Marie Eugenie Theater of Assumption (METTA), she has been in charge of the school’s productions for 15 years.

But before she became a teacher, she was Ana the theater actress – the first Filipino to graduate from the prestigious Juilliard School’s drama division.

On a Friday afternoon, we followed Valdes-Lim as she prepared to direct a modern version of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It in Assumption San Lorenzo, Makati. 

FEEDBACK. Anna Valdes-Lim gathers her cast after the rehearsals for 'As You Like It.' All photos by Dion Besa/Rappler

Julliard is home

Valdes-Lim spent elementary years in Manila before moving to Europe, where she finished her high school. “When I auditioned for Juilliard, I was in Texas. Before that, I was in Europe because my father was an ambassador assigned to Rome. I was in Rome and did my high school there,” she said.

PASSING THE LEARNING. Ana Valdes-Lim gives instructions during the rehearsal.

In a recent interview with Richard Whitaker, Valdes-Lim described Juilliard as home.

“Before Juilliard, I did not do a lot of theater. I just did one or two plays from high and college and I was already living abroad. Pagdating ko doon (When I got there), they had these exercises…improvisation, ganyan. Actually, it wasn’t hard for me, parang my body and my personality just took to it very well. So parang feeling ko para akong isda – finally nakahanap ng tubig. (I felt like I was a fish and I had finally found water),” she told Rappler. 

“I felt [like] I’m finally at home. You know, when you felt you found where you’re supposed to be, everything flows. I felt like many people who are artists who finally made it through the process of elimination, and found the talent.”

After graduating in Juilliard, Valdes-Lim auditioned and appeared in productions such as Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She was in the US when she met her husband Ricky. He proposed marriage, but there was one catch – they would have to settle in the Philippines.

“When I was abroad, he asked me to marry him with the statement ‘but it’s going to be… life in the Philippines.’ So I was kind of surprised. And then he was telling me if we all left the Philippines, what would happen to our country. I really feel we should come back. If we had the means, we should stay here. So I would really like to live here,” she said of her husband’s decision.

From acting to teaching

Valdes-Lim continued to act on stage and had roles in film and television, including stints in Prince of Darkness and As the World Turns, as she and her family settled in Manila. But as she continued to pursue acting, she was beginning to feel that she needed to do something else.

It was at this point when she decided to start teaching.

ASSEMBLE. Ana Valdes-Lim talks to the cast before they start their run through for the play.

“It also came at the shift of my life when I started to not really get satisfaction about focusing on myself because as an actress, you have to make your hair, your skin… the emphasis is on you. And even when you come to practice, it’s your roles – it was a very me-centered life,” she said. 

“And then I started to shift parang nakukulangan ako ng joy. Parang ito na lang ba (I felt the joy was not enought. Was this is?)… applause, recognition, another achievement. I also had written a book and later, I had written several books about acting exercises because I felt when I come to class, I had to xerox exercises, know the exercise. Parang nakukulangan ako ng (I felt I lacked the) resources. At that time wala pang (there was no) online. So I started to feel to change the focus and give more than just what’s my next thing to do.”

After earning her teaching credentials from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Valdes-Lim was able to work on her first book, Workshop: A Manual on Acting, through a grant by the William and Eva Fox Foundation and Juilliard.

She also started teaching in the US and the Philippines, conducting workshops with various theater groups. Aside from her background in Shakespearean classics, Valdes-Lim is known for her techniques in improvisation and mask acting.

Although she’s now busy as an acting teacher, Valdes-Lim says she misses acting. Is there a particular role that would make her return to the stage?

“I think I would have to really want to do the role and really want to do the production. And I would have to shift kasi dito, tignan mo [referring to Assumption where she currently teaches], madami ako students. Diba kung aact ako parang magshishift ako and titignan ko yung parte ko and yung production. So parang mag-nanarrow focus ako, pero minsan I really miss it a lot. Parang mga invitations ko are mostly to teach.”

(And I would have to shift because if you look here, I have so many students. Because when you act, I have to shift and look at my role and the the production. So my focus will be a bit narrow, but sometimes I really miss it a lot. But most of the invitations I get are really to teach now.)

Theater as form of healing and future of Philippine theater

Valdes-Lim said she’s happy that there are more women in theater – both on stage and behind-the-scenes as artistic directors.

NOTE TAKING. The Julliard trained actress watches the rehearsal and makes some notes.

I’m happy to see more women. I welcome the different topics and the different needs that theater is addressing. I don’t see a lot of theater. I used to, and that was my work and then it became less and less interested in theater as a piece. Less interested na parang different form where maybe you know, like audience participation or a new type of theatrical form.”

ONE-ON-ONE. Ana listens to two cast members during a break about some problems of the rehearsal.

It’s not just young students who Valdes-Lim teaches. She also takes time to teach the fundamentals of acting to men and women inside prison. 

“I think it can be healing. Because the actor, I’ll speak from the actor’s point of view, he works with his inner landscape. What is inner landscape? It is emotion and thought of emotion one makes. If he has a lot of feeling, a lot of emotions especially from trauma or abuse it has this huge wealth. If she is unacknowledged at home… she has no way to let this huge shadow out. So that kind of darkness inside gets heavier and heavier. Nararamdaman natin kung may heavy feelings tayo, ang bigat tapos pabigat pa. (We feel if we have heavy feelings, it gets even heavier.)”

She says it’s the same whatever that emotion is – happy or sad – once you’re on stage, those emotions are released

“When I come to rehearsal, I set those thoughts aside and take on a character. For 3 or 4 hours, I relieve the burden of my personal prison that weighs heavily on me. Now after rehearsal, I can choose – do I wanna put that back on or do I want to say I’m done with that thought process”

HAPPY ENDING? A scene from the modern re-telling of 'As You Like It,' which Ana Valdes-Lim directs for Assumption's theater group METTA.

There isn’t any stopping Valdes-Lim, at least when it comes to teaching. 

“I just want to make myself available for teaching. I think more frequently – the prisons, the public. I think I want to keep myself available when I’m invited to a class or when I open a class to just come in teach.”

For her, seeing her students’ smiles and progress is already fulfilling.

DREAM FOR PHILIPPINE THEATER. Ana Valdes-Lim says she hopes theater will be a platform for audience to develop interaction and contribute in making the world a good place.

Valdes-Lim said she would love to see theater as more of an experience for the audience.

“I would like to maybe see or wish is that theater as an experience. That’s why we go to theater – because we want to experience, that the experience contributes to making this world better, that there is responsibility in our output. So that the quality of the experience is responsible and evolves us to a higher consciousness to more one.

“For example – I can mount a play that brings a lot of anger. It’s not that a difficult emotion. Sometimes I would think, why would I do that, what will it serve? It will be real, it will be authentic, but it would trigger the audience’s anger and the actor’s anger and then what?

“So I kind of look for experiences… what is the general essence of the experience and what will the audience leave with? Because in life there’s a lot of slices and I’m no longer interested in making slices of life. I feel I need to bring something more to the quality of energy so that the space is better and not harmful.”

The interview ended just in time for Valdes-Lim to resume the rehearsal with the cast members. She enters the auditorium and resumes oversight of the rehearsal.

Ana Valdes-Lim is not just a teacher and actress. She is a woman filled with hope and positivity, who looks forward to share the gift she’s been blessed with to those who want and need it the most. 

Julliard was once home. But today, it’s in the Philippines, particularly Assumption Makati, where she grounds and celebrates her love for acting. Her students – and Philippine theater as a whole – are only but grateful for that. –

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Alexa Villano

Alexa is one of Rappler's Lifestyle and Entertainment reporters, covering local entertainment news to a wide range of topics from beauty pageants to reality shows.