Peter Ksander Directs The People’s Republic of Valerie
The theater department’s fall main stage production is The People’s Republic of Valerie. Written by Seattle-based playwright Kristen Kosmas in 2014, Valerie presents a bizarre and dream-like narrative about creating positive action in an increasingly tumultuous world. An experimental theater piece to its core, little description can adequately prepare one for this futuristic and abstract fusion of political commentary, emotional testimony, and captivating verbal imagery.
The play follows the central character, the Novice, and a six-person cohort of similarly “well-meaning but completely ineffectual” people as they are transported to the People’s Republic of Valerie, an interstellar boot-camp meant to prepare them for the Bright Future, a near-utopian ideal that they will enact back on Earth.
“It’s a meditation on trying to figure out how to be in the world,” Professor of Theater and director Peter Ksander says. “It’s about being effectual, having an effect, but first being able to see what effect you need to have… It’s about how to see what’s happening so you can know what to do about it. That’s the core thesis of the play.”
Ksander notes that right off the bat, the fragmented and nebulous style of the text provided a lot of leeway in terms of storytelling. The script, which was originally performed as a solo piece by Kosmas, was able to be split amongst eight separate roles, each played by a student. “It allowed us a lot of flexibility in the mode of presentation.”
Ksander recalls proposing a plan for a production of Valerie to the department back in May: “We didn’t know how we were going to be able to present it. [We had] no idea what the summer held, or what the conditions were going to be this fall.”
Within the past year, Reed’s theater department has become all too accustomed to having to making innovative changes to its productions, from socially distanced rehearsals to pre-recorded or live streamed opening nights. While COVID-19 health and safety guidelines have allowed for more in-person activity this school year, the faculty and students working behind Valerie are still faced with the question of what’s possible within the collaborative and live nature of the stage.
With constantly evolving social distancing requirements, the production had to be ready to adapt to changes in room capacity restrictions at the drop of a hat. With this in mind, Ksander and Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre and designer Caitlin Cisneck have hatched a plan for getting Valerie to the people.
Rather than performing on one stage, the cast of Valerie will be spread out across different rooms of the Performing Arts Building, each one set up with a camera livestreaming the actor’s performance into a larger joint video call, which will then be broadcast on the theater department’s website. This physical separation amongst the company of the play was a key decision in allowing actors to perform safely without masks.
“Being distanced and together simultaneously has been the biggest challenge,” Ksander admits. “Keeping our focus and our energy together at the same time is really hard, and requires a lot of technology to be involved in every rehearsal.”
While standard rehearsals would usually retain their span to the studio theater, Valerie’s unique staging calls for a Zoom call to be set up on large screens, with Ksander and production team members directing the show from microphones. Large black curtains separate sections of the room, housing prop tables and scenery pieces that are interspersed with cords running to computers. As Ksander announces a break during rehearsal, a chorus of “Thank you, five!” can be heard echoing through the video call’s feedback.
Stage manager Will Stevens ‘23 agrees about the challenge of coordinating rehearsals while actors are spread out throughout the theater: “Everything takes a lot longer than it would if we were all sitting in the same room. [The question is] how do we then make sure that we’re using all of the time in a way that’s productive, and in a way that’s helpful.
“It’s been an experiment,” Ksander adds, “we’ve had to try things and see what worked and troubleshoot on the fly.”
Despite its challenges, Ksander and Stevens highlight the relevance of performing a piece which asks questions about action in the face of uncertainty. “The play speaks to some of that unknowing how to be, so that felt thematically connected, although the play was written long before the pandemic,” said Ksander.
Ksander describes the culmination of Kosmas’ introspective space-travel memoir: “It suggests a way the future might be, and that maybe we can propose new ways forward. We’re gonna take care of each other, that’s ultimately what it says… The cast loves saying those words out loud and I love hearing them out loud.”
With a communal effort including a cast and crew of twenty-nine students, the theater department is excited to welcome an audience to its doors, albeit virtually, once more. “Even while we’re separated and alone, the building just hums when there’s more people in it,” Ksander says.
The People’s Republic of Valerie will be available live online 7:30 p.m. November 12-13, and 18-20.