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.
Psychologists have known for a long time that serious trauma, such as that imprinted through violence and in wartime, can create mental and physical illness that can be passed down genetically through generations. But how this happens is still being understood. Just this week new research was released that shows that certain molecules, altered by traumatic stress and in turn causing depression and other effects, are transferred via sperm.
I became interested in inherited trauma while researching and writing my own memoir, which explores a legacy of being interrogated and my Jewish ancestors’ experience being hunted. How much is remembered in the cells? I have wondered, feeling many times as though I am wandering a kind of wilderness of loneliness, where that came from?
Lars Jan, with his Early Morning Opera lab and the versatile and emotionally sharp performances of Andrew Schneider and Sonny Valicenti, is hunting this ambiguous inheritance of trauma, too. In his multimedia memoir-on-stage, The Institute of Memory (TIMe), Lars is hot on the trail of an epigenetic mystery that centers around the mythology of his father.
Lars’ father, a Polish immigrant named (maybe) Henryk Ryniewicz, is an enigma: a survivor of the Nazis, a Cold War operative, a body of secrets, a paranoid shadow of a man. To access the heart of his father, and therefore the heart of his own identity, Lars must rely on archives—those found in filing cabinets and computers and those in his own mind.
And so we enter a moving, at times jarring, exploration of what is memory. How is it altered by our now limitless digital archives? How is it limited by our own brains’ soft tissues and ultimate ambivalence?
“Whatever the truth is, this telling of it is inadequate.”
There lies the pain of any memoirist.
Lars, oh Lars. (Exposing his search for belonging, his yearning to interrogate his own mythologies, made Lars so attractive to me that while I watched his story unfold five rows from the stage I felt a disturbing physical and emotional desire for him, an artist I have never met nor laid eyes on.)
To a backdrop of typewriter keys slicing, Communist wiretaps humming, and cells gliding, Lars tries to piece together a family portrait. What came before me—don’t we all want to know?
He tries to recall his childhood home and instantly, magically, horribly, we are in the basement apartment near Harvard with him, with the random objects we remember, which push through the fog of memory in relief, the puncta of our childhood photographs: red wool blanket over twin bed, wheeled metal office chair, map of USSR, used paperback by Gore Vidal.
Yet all this remembering, or striving to remember, might be in vain. “There is a picture of a thing, and then there is living it,” Lars says.
We are reminded: what seems picture-perfect one moment can erupt into an unimaginable hell in another. One moment you are living, the next, you are hunted.
Throughout the performance Lars pushes down the neon white walls that recreate the boundaries of his father’s life and his own, metaphorically, cathartically perhaps, knocking his family’s house down. Toppling mythologies—the relentless hustle of an unsatisfied son.
He probes his father’s “darkness,” trying to break the code.
“Perhaps, here I am, as Pandora, opening what I shouldn’t,” Lars confesses. (Oh, Lars.)
And in the end, where is Lars’ father? He is in files, in folders, in between sheets of paper and blankets of dust. He is in the soft tissues of a son’s body. The son cannot locate the father, but he rifles through the cabinets and gigabytes and tissues; he looks and he looks and he looks.
Hope. Is that as important as breath to a child? Is Hope an elastic concept? Is Hope, qualified by reality, just hopeless? How does a child cope with life, when his/her father possesses a 'realistic amount of hope?'
In The Institute of Memory (TIMe), Lars Jan, recalls his father and remakes him. He invites us to a discovery and then to his invention. Lars Jan seems to say that that recalling parents, our parents who lived with caution, who lived, marked by dread, we memorize them, only to erase and rewrite them. Maybe we want to imbue them with a hope they never professed. Maybe we want to gift them with a different life, in death, a life they never knew when they were alive. Yes, children too can resurrect their dead parents, make them saints, sinners or wave the magic wand of deep generosity and endow them with an infinite grace that they may not have known in life.
It’s an infinitely touching and generous piece of work, that explores love between generations, love across times, love across space, a love that is archaeological in nature and restorative in spirit. Lars Jan brings his father to life, the man who is obscured himself, and ultimately vanished from his life. He gives himself his father, and to us.
Lars Jan reconstructs his father, painstakingly, steadily, bit by bit, tissue by tissue, bone by bone, sadness by sadness, terror by terror, hope by hope, till the realistic amount of hope breaks all perimeters of realism, stretches all realities, past and present, and unleashes hope catapulting his father to a space where he glows like a star.
Lars Jan, with the help of a superb and sparse set, a dense, staccato script, a superb companion on stage, who never leaves him, and the drum of a typewriter, has performed a rescue operation that casts a lie on Samuel Beckett’s “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new,” thus releasing his father, Henryk Ryniewicz from all boundaries of realism, all walls of confinement, to the glory of boundless possibility and infinite hope, peeling away all layers of obscurity into the incandescent density of essence and newness.
Go join him on this journey, and see what you want to recover and make new.