Embracing Empathy with Krystal Millie Valdes

If you’ve ever seen Krystal Millie Valdes onstage in one of her many acclaimed South Florida star turns, you might be surprised to learn that she was once so intimidated by the cliquey kids in her middle school drama program that it took her until high school to work up the courage to try her hand at acting at all.  

But once she took the leap, there was no going back.

“I, of course, fell in love, because I already loved acting and playing pretend and then finally when I started theatre I really found the community in it,” she reflects. 

“All of the sudden all of my friends were like, I don’t know what I’m gonna do for my degree… and I already knew… I just wanna act.”

To that end, Valdes went on to earn her BFA at New World School of the Arts, an experience that she found deeply rewarding but emotionally taxing.

“I grew a lot of insecurities in college that I had to beat down outside of it, but when it comes to technique, they pushed me into trying things, characters, that I never would’ve attempted otherwise,” she explains. 

“I think I wear my heart on my sleeve, and it helps me navigate a character’s intentions and motivations… I have a sensitivity to it, I’ve had that my whole life, which is nice. It’s nice to have empathy. But I think in a conservatory program it was at first a bit of a challenge. I’m still growing and learning how to get past that, but it is something that I think I’m way better at now… now, at least professionally, I feel good about being vulnerable… I’m learning how to not keep myself small,” she says. 

Though Valdes initially assumed that she would only stay in South Florida for a couple of years after graduation before moving to a bigger city where acting opportunities would be more ample, she instead found herself heartened by the amount of fulfilling theatre work she could find in the area and setting down roots as one of the founding members of fledgling company New City Players (NCP). 

“I’m really grateful, because I didn’t think I’d be supported here, and I somehow was. It was one of the nicest surprises of my whole life… I kept feeling like I had the opportunity for growth, like the community as a whole had opportunity for growth… like with NCP as a company, we had opportunity not only for us to grow but to help our community grow, so I kind of just got wrapped up into staying,” she says.

She now serves as NCP’s company manager and has appeared in many of their productions, including as the famously fragile wallflower Laura Wingfield in their 2016 iteration of The Glass Menagerie.

“Laura is me, in many ways, and Laura is my mom, and that’s what I’m like, learning to live with and also grow from, grow with… playing her was really special,” she reflects.

Valdes was also lucky enough to find an unusually rewarding day job on her home turf as a member of the Miami Children’s Museum’s award-winning theatre troupe. 

“It’s such a cool safe creative space to be like, OK, let me try my hand at playwriting, let me try my hand at writing music, let me try my hand at improvising on the spot and saving someone on stage. And I feel like it’s made me so much of a stronger actor, because I’ve now gained these skill sets, in a safe environment where people are just there wanting you to win… It makes me a better artist,” she reflects.

Valdes also enjoyed the chance her museum work offered her to adapt her theatrical techniques to the needs of children with disabilities.

“OK, how do I build stories and create community, how do I make theatre that is fulfilling to everyone?… And the coolest lesson is so powerful, you don’t really have to change much about it, you just have to be sensitive and empathetic. I’m not going to make loud sounds if it’s going to make someone uncomfortable, so I am going to describe my environment a little more if they are not able to have a certain sense… That’s it, it’s just a little more empathy, but the same exact medium, which is amazing.”

The experience helped solidify her intentions of making the effort to connect with diverse groups through theatre one of her priorities in the future.

“I want to do more theatre with as many different communities as I can… I’m trying to figure out how I can do that more, how can I be more involved in a professional setting, how can I bridge that gap… Definitely continuing to educate through theatre is something I’m really passionate about,” she says.

Other career highlights for Valdes include a role as Molly Aster in Slow Burn Theatre’s Peter and the Starcatcher“it was just so fun to play pretend,” she reflects and the chance to create with many of her South Florida “dream companies.” 

In fact, Valdes was celebrating her run as Nora in Brighton Beach Memoirs at the prestigious Maltz Jupiter Theater before her career and the world as we know it came to a crashing halt in March of 2020. 

The months-long pandemic that followed was an admittedly tough time for Valdes, which hasn’t stopped her from staying artistically active throughout. Though her love of music had previously taken a backseat to her acting career, her search for a creative outlet she could safely access during quarantine helped her to reconnect to that childhood passion through songwriting.

When I feel sad I’d write more and when I’d feel happy I’d write more… My main goal and my love is theatre, obviously, and acting, but it is really nice to have some kind of creative outlet that I call the shots and get to feel proud of. I made that, I made that wholeheartedly, every single part of that was me. Instead of waiting around for an opportunity, I kind of have been able to create my own pockets of joy,” she says.

Valdes has already recorded three original singles which can be found on Spotify, and hopes to release a full album later this year. If that weren’t accomplishment enough, she’s also been running the virtual iteration of NCP Lab (New City Players’ biweekly script-sharing gathering), appearing in multitudes of online play readings, and exploring voiceover work and audio theatre. 

For instance, she recently lent her voice to Theatre Lab’s radio play Ich Bin Ein Berliner, which examined the end of one corrupt communist regime with the fall of the Berlin wall in connection to the one that controls Cuba to this day.

The material was exceptionally meaningful to Valdes, whose entire family is part of the Diaspora who fled Castro’s corrupt rule.

“I’ve heard so so much about Cuba my entire life that I feel almost an ownership towards it… through the pain that my family, that my father has explained to me, cause on my father’s side I’m the first person born in this country,” she reflects.

“There’s always violence, but right now because people are protesting, it’s just an even more heightened level of violence… I can’t imagine the pain that people are feeling, but I feel a sense of hope because there’s finally some level of movement. Last week was the first time I’ve ever had a conversation with my grandmother about the possibility of there being a free Cuba… I’m really passionate about being an advocate, and having my friends be advocates, having my community be advocates, so that the movement can continue… It’d be really nice to have artists over here stand in solidarity, and a couple of theatre companies have already done it… It would be awesome if that continued, and if maybe we used our medium to give more voices to that specific problem, to that specific movement.” 

Her family’s traumatic backstory is also at least partially responsible for her notable interest in vintage style. 

“Because everything was taken from my entire family I have no things that are really passed down to me… Because we have so few things that are family heirlooms, I’ve become obsessed with collecting vintage,” she says.

Valdes also finds that embracing the iconography of the past helps her to process and to learn from it, much the way that her chosen art form does.

“Let’s try to understand relics of the past and honor them and that’s just so beautiful. That’s what we do with theatre… We’re constantly looking back through history and pinpointing moments and reminding ourselves why they’re pivotal and why we can’t repeat them or can repeat them, same thing with these vintage pieces. It’s just as fulfilling,” she says.

Looks inspired by bygone eras are thus one of the staples of her Instagram page, as are those inspired by her favorite movies and pop culture heroes. 

“I love being creative, I love playing characters, so I’ll dress up like Audrey Hepburn, because she’s my absolute favorite… I’ll make music about some of my favorite plays and I’ll make music about my feelings that day, and it’s all interconnected. Instead of just being like, look at my mimosa, I’m like, oh, look at this little thing I created today,” she says. 

But, as enjoyable as some of her whimsical cosplays can be, Valdes’s social media presence is about more than just on-point photoshoots and pin-up vibes. She has also used the platform to share strikingly vulnerable reflections on her continual struggles with her mental health. 

“I’ve had clinical anxiety and depression since I was diagnosed when I was a teenager, and you know, it’s a real thing, and it doesn’t mean that it stops me from growing as a person. It’s something I’ve learned to not only live with but kind of enjoy about myself… I felt so alone about it for so long.” 

But now, she has found her openness to be a gateway to connection and understanding as others have responded with stories of their own difficulties.

“They’re letting me know, thank god, I also felt this this week when this crazy thing happened in the world because everything’s falling apart. You know, that’s really cool, and that’s building a sense of community, at a time when everyone was so alone.”

And though the worst of the COVID crisis seems finally to have passed, Valdes is still embracing her virtual presence as a way to foster interpersonal empathy during times that, at least for her, still feel a little uncertain. 

“You know, the world’s like quote on quote back together but am I on a stage? Am I doing what I love again? Not quite yet, and I’m so excited to do that, but for now I’m like, how else can I feel less lonely, how can I make others feel like they’re not alone, and actually I think speaking up is the way to go. I think that’s part of the whole, like, finally allowing myself to own my sensitivity and vulnerability instead of keeping myself so small.”

As it turns out, the same aptitude for empathy that makes Valdes such an excellent actress, dedicated activist, and inclusive educator has also given her something of an instinct for the kinds of candid confessions that can have a real impact on an audience of her peers while she eagerly awaits the chance to get back on stage.

“I just can’t wait to act again… I am itching for it and I feel like I’ve really been, like I said, trying to grow so that when I’m out there I’m better. I just want to do it already,” she says.

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