The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Faculty Feature: Ms. Valerie Bijur Carlson

High School Theater Director Valerie Carlson

Diana Kuznetsova ’18 sat down with High School Theater Director Ms. Valerie Bijur Carlson, who ran the IB Theater program and was responsible for directing and producing a classic play each fall and a musical each spring from 2012–2020.

When did you start at TASIS, what classes do you teach, and what else are you involved with at TASIS?
I started at TASIS in the fall of 2012. I teach Drama 1, which is a full-year introductory course to all aspects of theater, and I also teach the IB Theater program, which is a two-year program that looks at theater from all angles. Then I direct and production manage the two mainstage shows every year. I have my drama students create a show for the Spring Arts Festival, so I stand back and try to help supervise or guide when they need it, but it is actually their show. I also try to get into other teachers’ classrooms and help with whatever they are doing that’s drama-related. So far this year I’ve visited 8th Grade English, English 1, English 2, British Literature, IB English 1, and IB English 2, and Italian Section History.

Valerie Carlson in the classroom

Can you please describe your educational background and your career in education prior to TASIS?
I have always been interested in a lot of different things, and my bent was reading and literature. I was a bookworm growing up and also loved watching old movies on TV. Then I discovered my parents’ old record collection of musicals, and so I got into musicals in a major way. I started doing drama as early as sixth grade, directing a neighborhood show and inviting all the parents to see it.

I did not do any theater in high school at all. I was reading and taking classes in Shakespeare and drama, but I thought I was going to be a biologist. I was really interested in the author Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote a book called The Arm of the Starfish that was all about regeneration. I did a regeneration project in AP Biology and was so into it. Then I went to visit colleges and discovered that I would have to take physics, and I thought, “Okay, maybe not.”

I went to college and did an interdisciplinary double major in Drama and English while minoring in Secondary Education. When I went to grad school, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do English, theater, or education, as I liked them all. I found Emerson College in Boston, a communications school that basically let me write my own master’s degree, which was fantastic. I entered the College of Performing Arts and did my coursework mostly in dramatic literature and history. Then I was a teaching assistant, and later I did my practical work in stage management. That was kind of new to me, but I ended up being everybody’s stage manager and actually got to go to Moscow for a student theater festival. Then in the summers I was working as a theater educator in Emerson’s youth theater program. That kind of speaks to my whole life—it’s always been literature, education and theater.

Just before I finished at Emerson, I got my Equity card, which is the professional union of actors and stage managers. I started working professionally while still finishing my thesis, and then I got married and delayed everything for a little while.

Our ultimate goal as a team is to affect the audience—to see that we created something real that has provoked a response from them.

I later got a full-time stage managing job but continued with the summer camp because I really liked working with kids. After several years, I left professional theater to take a full-time job teaching English and theater. So in the summers I stage managed, and I was also hired during the school year to do all these stage managing events with a fantastic woman. She hired me to be her assistant, and I would be backstage for speeches from people like Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Morgan Freeman. These were really cool experiences. They were all one-day events—get in there, set up the theater, have quick rehearsals, and deal with all the security.

I got another job teaching English and theater in a different school, and then I was offered the job to do exclusively theater at TASIS. But of course I can’t just do theater, so that’s why I’ve found ways to help out in other people’s classes!

Can you briefly describe your teaching philosophy?
The heart of my pedagogical belief boils down to deeply felt ideas, true at every level of teaching and learning. One: an adventurous mindset. Education is a journey and adventure that is most vital and fulfilling when it crosses borders, seeking and exploring connections between disciplines and departments, academics and life. In other words, everything is connected. You can’t have a discipline that sits on its own, and one of the reasons why I love theater, in particular, is because it has fingers everywhere. We do history, math, art, psychology, measurements, and physics, and we also have to deal with electricity. Everything is in theater, and theater is in everything. Crossing these disciplines and having everybody help each other is great.

A second thing: no traveling companion, student, or faculty member is an island. We learn and teach best when we seek out partners with whom to collaborate as we seek knowledge, experience, and wisdom. I really see it as part of my job to try to forge connections with my colleagues and people in different departments so that I’m not just sitting here in the Drama Room all day. In the same way, I encourage students to consider going to a liberal arts college rather than a conservatory for acting because those tend to be so narrow and focused that you don’t learn about the world. I think it’s very important to learn about the world for whatever job you want to do and to both rely on and help the people around you. I think we go on a road trip in education, and educators need to be able to model practical skills and intellectual curiosity. Then we can inspire our students to want to have the same things even if they take a different path. We give them tools and let them run with them. We put them in the driver’s seat so that they can take off and do it—like my IB students who just did a show on their own, a whole show from scratch, and now they know they can do that.

What do you like most about working at TASIS?
I especially like a couple of things. It’s very beautiful, and aesthetics are important to me. I was offered a job back in 2011 at a big public school. The pay was great, all my insurance was covered, and there were other benefits. But it was in a brick box on a parking lot, and I would’ve been down in a basement with no light all day long, and I just knew I couldn’t hack it. So the beauty of this campus is one of the things I like the best.

I also really like the international flavor of TASIS. I love being able to have discussions with students from different countries, all in one class, about what’s going on in the world or about their approach to a certain play. Everybody has a different mindset and different cultural values coming in. I think it’s great to hear that and not be in a bubble of one nation.

What would you say has been your greatest success at TASIS?
I think building the theater program in terms of production. Before I arrived here, there were hardly any students working in design and management. For my very first show here in the fall, there were three students. I had one who was interested in stage managing, one who wanted to paint, and one who wanted to help a little with costumes. But that was it—three people. And now we tend to have as many people backstage as we have onstage. I think it’s really helped people understand that there is more to theater than just acting. It’s a hugely creative process that involves a ton of people.

Theater jackets

Ms. Carlson has introduced letter jackets and varsity pins to the theater program.
Our interviewer received hers for her work as a stage manager for The Servant of Two Masters.

What has been your favorite play or musical performed at TASIS?
This is a super difficult question for me, and I don’t think I can answer it well. I can tell you that staging the Merchant of Venice was very meaningful for me because I’ve loved the play for a long time and actually stage managed a professional production of it early in my career. Getting to do it with students here—working through the complexity of the story, the characters, and the moral issues—was very satisfying.

But every play I work on is a favorite in some way or another because I get so much out of them. Every single time there is great excitement and growth—doing The Servant of Two Masters and seeing the students pull off the timing of commedia dell'arte, working on shows with difficult technical sections and seeing those sections come together so beautifully, and the constant surprises of students excelling in scenes that I just wasn’t sure would work.

What do you hope to achieve by producing the plays?
I want people to find value and meaning in theater. I want to enhance people’s lives through theater—to have the people onstage and backstage realize, “Wow, I can take individual initiative and achieve something. But I can only do that if I’m working as part of a team.”

Our ultimate goal as a team is to affect the audience—to see that we created something real that has provoked a response from them. Maybe we’ve made them feel really good in the middle of a dark winter, or we’ve made them think about a serious problem and brought something to light in a way they hadn’t thought about before.

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