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The High School Fall Play: An Ancient Crossover Reimagined

antigone/CAESAR set

This year’s High School Fall Play, antigone/CAESAR, will premiere in the Palmer Center at 19:30 on Friday, November 16, and will also be performed Saturday at 19:30 and Sunday at 14:30. Bryan Soh ’18 spoke with High School Theater Director Valerie Bijur Carlson and several members of the cast and crew to learn more about this unique “double tragedy” production.

By Bryan Soh ’18

As Lugano’s uncharacteristically chilly and rainy November weather eases us into the season of glühwein and roasted chestnuts, it is also the time of the year that Ms. Valerie Bijur Carlson and her theater production crew officially present the annual High School Fall Play. Each November, Ms. Carlson and her team have delivered exquisite performances that transform the Palmer Center into a place teeming with theatrical magic.

This year is no different. Ms. Carlson & Co. have put together a masterpiece of a production, a crossover that would make Marvel’s Infinity War proud. If you are looking forward to witnessing your friends and faculty breathe life into not one but two ancient plays situated no less than 2000 years ago, be sure to dig your noses into this preview of the production.

And if you need a reason to head to the Palmer Center this coming weekend to witness this year’s two-in-one play, allow the architect behind the whole production, Ms. Carlson, to tell you why this year’s play is like none she has ever done.

High School Theater Director Valerie Bijur Carlson

The one pulling the strings: High School Theater Director Valerie Bijur Carlson

“Actually, it is in fact two plays and not one,” said Ms. Carlson. “We are taking the tragedy of Antigone, written by Sophocles, and the tragedy of Julius Caesar, written by Shakespeare (two of the greatest tragedians in the history of the world) and putting them together. Even though they were written thousands of years apart, somehow the plays seem to echo each other and we find similar themes going back and forth. We are also doing tragedy for the first time in several years, so that’s going to be a new experience for our audience, as well as for our actors.”

A paradigm shift indeed from 2017’s comical A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this year’s play presents new challenges to the actors. “This is a new style of acting for all of the actors,” said Ms. Carlson. “The challenge is to figure out how to be theatrical, and yet make it serious and not laughable. How do you do a death that’s not like the death in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where everyone is cracking up laughing? How do we make it seem really serious?” (Yes, we are moving on from Dr. Chris Love’s side-splitting death scene.)

So what does Ms. Carlson have to say about the crew she is working with this fall? “They have really shown themselves to be dedicated and creative, so that’s exciting,” she said. “For them, the tough part is translating that vision into reality, like after coming up with all these ideas, settling them and making them happen. Our 9th-grade lighting people and our 12th-grade sound designer, for example, are all talking about similar approaches to the show—even in different meetings. They are really getting it when I talk about my director’s concept of the piece, and how the two stories overlap and resonate with modern as well as ancient times—how I want to use metaphor out there and not just something strictly literal.”

7th-grader Arya Kelley is making her TASIS theater debut in her first year at the School. Being the youngest speaking role in the cast and the only middle schooler, Arya was expectedly nervous, confessing that she was “scared to mess up in front of the high schoolers.” But things changed once the work began in earnest. “Now I am completely comfortable around them, and I not only see them as my fellow actors but as friends,” Arya said, crediting fellow cast members Ella Abisi, Francis Accilien, Larissa Mendes, and Anna Collingwood and faculty members Ms. Carlson and Mr. Matthew Frazier-Smith for their support and kindness.

Collingwood and Kelley going through script

Hard at work: Anna Collingwood (left) and Arya Kelley (right) running through the script

Arya is not, however, the only one taking a first step in this fall’s play. Iris Kaymak, a junior this year, has jumped ship from the spotlight to backstage (though she will also retain a small acting role). When asked why, she said, “I went from being mainly an actor to being stage designer partially because I love the world of design, and ever since I heard the announcement of the play, I had a very specific vision of how the sets should look, so I took the ‘responsibility’ and joined the design team. I was extremely excited to recreate the worlds of Caesar and Antigone.”

Stage-ready: Iris Kaymak getting her stage makeup done

Stage-ready: Iris Kaymak getting her stage makeup done

Despite the many changes in her company from one year to the next, Ms. Carlson has full faith in her promising crew. “The company has a very similar vision for the show,” she said. “They’re on the same wavelength. I’ve got people who are working really hard, like the set crew. They always show up. The lighting team is new to lighting, but they get it and they’ve been tracking it all for the script. And this is what my Sound Designer plans to do in college, so you know she’s dedicated.”

High School Theater Julius Caeesar

Cloak-and-dagger: Ella Abisi in a full dress rehearsal

The company’s Academic Travel trip to the Eternal City of Rome in early November also greatly helped them prepare for this play. Ella Abisi, a sophomore playing Ismene in Antigone and Casca in Julius Caesar, said, “The trip gave us time to just focus on theater without any tests, quizzes, homework, etc. It’s the entire cast bonding and getting to focus on memorizing lines.”

Theater group in Rome, Italy

In the Eternal City: the company on Academic Travel in Rome, Italy

Though we know for sure that the production team is hard at work less than a week out from Opening Night, Ms. Carlson made time to tell me about her original vision for the play before it all started to materialize. How did her idea of merging Julius Caesar and Antigone come about in the first place? “Well, I’ve been thinking about Antigone for a while,” she said. “We’ve done comedy for a few years, and I knew I wanted to move back into tragedy or drama to give the students a different experience, to give the audience a different experience, and to give myself a different experience. So when I started thinking about likely prospects, I was thinking not just Shakespeare but also the Greeks. And I thought, Antigone is a great story—a story that resonates in our time about people trying to stand up to tyranny. Thinking about that rolled me into also thinking about Julius Caesar. There have been a lot of productions of Julius Caesar recently (actually Antigone, too, this past year), but a lot about Caesar looking at the political situation in America—taking aim at politicians who seem to be so ambitious that they are just taking the government for themselves, with a cadre of supporters, and are making all the rules and not doing necessarily what the citizens thought they were voting for. And then how do you resist that? Even if you have a group of people who are interested in resisting, how do you do it?”

“In Julius Caesar, it’s a very different kind of resistance than in Antigone,” continued Ms. Carlson. “They both have a tyrant, or somebody who seems to be moving toward becoming a tyrant, who says basically, ‘I am law.’ In Antigone, the resistance comes from an individual—a girl with no power in society and a really low status just because she is female. She says, ‘I am not necessarily going to change all of society. I will tell what I believe, but I just need to do something for myself, for my family, and for my personal belief system, no matter what the consequences.’ In Julius Caesar, what we see is a group of men, all these politicos, and they say, ‘We don’t like that leadership, but instead of making a stand inward, we are going to go outward and kill him. Once we kill him, Rome can go back to its former glory, and everything is going to be fine.’ But that’s not really how it works. And we end up with that violence causing more violence and the splintering into factions and so forth. So what we’re really doing is looking at a similar situation and seeing how people could have reacted differently to it. What’s the fallout and what kind of lesson can we take from that? How do we prevent someone from getting to the position of being a tyrant, and if it does happen, how can we react in a way that is beneficial moving forward rather than destructive moving forward?”


Evidently, this year’s play is not merely a creative masterpiece, but also one with modern relevance and socio-political implications. When asked why she decided to focus on this message in the play, Ms. Carlson replied, “Well, I really believe theater can change the world. It has changed people’s minds and opened their eyes and their hearts.”

“There are many plays throughout history that demonstrate that,” she continued. “You can look back, for example, and see The Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, a play about a woman who doesn’t want to be treated as a doll anymore but wants to be treated as a person, and how that caused actual riots in the theater. We can look through the lens of theater at the real world and see how it can open up people's minds and hearts. For us here, it’s similar. There is the creative piece—the chance to do theater, to build your skills as an artist and as a designer and as an actor. But for us in the cast and for the audience, it’s also getting them to really think about the governments they live under and the societies that they want to form. Our audiences will be largely comprised of young people (like you, Bryan), and you guys are the ones who are going to go out and vote. You are the ones who are going to be leading, whether in business or government or just by making a vote.”

Ms. Carlson wants students, as members of the audience, to think deeply about the consequences of their actions and think about who they’d want to be like on the stage. “What can we learn from these giants of western civilization?” she asked. “Sophocles and Shakespeare are really wrestling and grappling with these questions and not taking the easy way out by saying, ‘Here is your black and white hero, your black and white heroine, and your black and white villain.’ Shakespeare doesn’t do it; Sophocles doesn’t do it. They make it more fuzzy. We have to look more closely and draw our own conclusions. I really want the audience to go out talking and wondering—to not give them an easy answer and say, ‘Oh well, such and such was right and such and such was wrong,’ but to instead question, ‘What did you think when this happened?’ and ‘What would you do if this happened?’”

In the process of realizing her big dream for this weekend’s play, Ms. Carlson continued to applaud her energetic team for its meticulous work. “I think that in particular the production team deserves a lot of praise because we’ve done a lot of very detailed historical research and had lots of creative discussions about all of this,” she said. “We are looking at small things, and I think the team is very much thinking in those ways.”

The final dress rehearsal before the premiere of antigone/CAESAR

The final dress rehearsal before the premiere of antigone/CAESAR

As you can imagine, it is going to be one heck of a show. Be sure to reserve a seat in the Palmer Center for any one of the three performances this weekend to witness the annual TASIS High School Fall Play and give your peers your fullest support for their hard work over the past few months. You really do not want to miss out on this one.

antigone/CAESAR Photo Galleries

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