On the Cartography Apr 24, 2017
by Kristen Kosmas
I met Leon Finley at a Sarah Schulman reading at the Seattle Public Library in January. He was sitting in front of me, and I noticed that we were nodding emphatically— like, with our whole bodies— at all the same lines from the book (Conflict is Not Abuse), and at all the same points in the conversation between Schulman and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore that followed the reading. Naturally I wanted to meet this person who agreed whole-heartedly, and whole-bodily, with everything I agreed with, so I introduced myself to him after the event and we exchanged contact information. Then we actually contacted each other! And we met for coffee. And while we were having coffee, Leon showed me some pictures of his artwork, and I loved it immediately.
For a long time I had the idea that this production would spill out into the city. That it wouldn't be able to be contained by the physical building. I had fantasies about inviting multiple artists, like Ezra Dickinson, to construct "paths" to the theater from different neighborhoods and locations throughout the city– paths that the artists would make in their own visual vocabulary in response to the text, and that the audience would see while they were driving or walking or on the bus on their way to the performance. I had a fantasy once that we would wrap the entire On the Boards building in tin foil, that we would transform the stairs that go up to the lobby into an altar, that people would be singing & playing basketball on the roof or down the block or across the street as the audience gathered, that there would be hundreds of contradictory portraits of the Valerie hanging in the communal spaces in the theater— the bathrooms, the hallways, the elevator. All of this is beyond my capacity to realize, and it's also all unnecessary I think— but this visual art/installation component of the production stayed with me for a long time.
I couldn't stop looking at Leon's website after I met him. I just loved his artwork so much. So I told him that, and he was like, "Thanks! I'm really excited to see what you make!" I happened to have a recording of myself saying the entire text of The People's Republic of Valerie, so I offered to share that with him because I thought it might be easier than actually reading the script. (Plus, I thought, he could just listen to it while he was sculpting, or drawing, or riding his bike or whatever. So it wouldn't take up too much of his time.) He said, "Great!" And then he actually did listen to it, and then we went out for coffee again, and he said all kinds of wonderful and insightful things about the text. And so then I was like, "Oh! The visual artist has arrived!" Not that Peter Ksander is not a visual artist. He is. An exceptional one. But I just had this feeling there was something else to be expressed by someone else in a medium not precisely Peter's and my own.
On the medium of theater, Peter Ksander says, "We work with this crazy set of materials: Humans, Space, Time, All the Objects, All the Words, All the Emotions of Human Experience, the Audience. Theater is a collective art that is incomplete without all those elements in place. Visual artists can be in control of the whole image, and thus the whole idea being expressed, and thus can make work that is in dialog with another piece of art. Theater artists have to always be in dialog with the other artists on the project." I say, "Get to be. Get to be in dialog with the other artists on the project." Peter agrees.
So I told Leon that I had once imagined there being an installation in the lobby of the theater in conjunction with the show. And I asked him if he maybe wanted to make some drawings for it in response to the text, and I said that maybe we could put them all in and around the theater, and he said, "Yes!" And then he drew while he continued to listen to the recording.
Now there are 30 drawings that make up the Cartography of The People's Republic of Valerie. And they will not be scattered all around the building. They will be on view in the voms as the audience comes and goes from the performance space. Peter says, "The maps just are and are a part of the PRV. That's how you get there."
Kristen Kosmas’s plays and performances have been produced nationwide. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Whitman College and a member of New Dramatists in NYC. Leon Finley is an interdisciplinary artist based in Seattle. Peter Ksander is a scenographer who has designed stage environments both nationally and internationally.
See their work in the upcoming performance The People’s Republic of Valerie, at On the Boards, May 4-7.